Education Opinion


By Nancy Flanagan — October 31, 2013 5 min read
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I’m in the middle of facilitating a five-week online course--STEM & STEAM--for Powerful Learning Practice, and as often is the case in education, I’m sure I’m learning way more than the course participants. Partly this is because my teaching partner is the amazing Anne Jolly, a genuine expert in STEM learning, an incredible master teacher--and a thoughtful, patient person who has tolerated my endless questions and doubts with good cheer.

When Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, Powerful Learning Practice’s guru-in-chief, asked Anne and I to teach the class, I responded in my usual poke-at-prevailing-wisdom way with data about the questionable federal push for increasing STEM education.

While there may be crying national need for a more creative, technically capable workforce, we’re not going to get it by making kids take more traditional math/science courses, increasing the number of PhDs in math and science or graduating more engineers whose entry-level work can be cheaply outsourced to Asia. Buying them iPads is not a solution, either.

I agreed to develop and teach the course, however--for the chance to work with Anne, and for the opportunity to explore what I see as a well-meant but potentially deceptive curricular cheat: including an A (for arts) in STEM, making it STEAM.

Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez, in their wonderful book Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom say this about the STEM-to-STEAM transformation.

The desire to add the A to STEAM may be rooted in a fear of math and science, or a devaluing of the visual and performing arts. It would be a tragedy if the arts were to become even further marginalized by schools that can now point to STEAM as the reason why art and music teachers vanished.

Indeed, several talking ed-heads have proposed incorporating social studies topics into the STEM juggernaut--STEMSS!--or adding reading, an essential skill in absorbing all this rich content: STREAMSS.

Catchy. But at some point, you have to wonder why we feel the need to create jazzed-up 21st century acronyms for an old (but good) idea: interdisciplinary learning. One possible reason: when marginalized-subject teachers see their beloved fields of expertise included in some official policy-driven initiative (even--and this is hard to believe--standardized testing), they’re reassured; it’s a signal someone values their passion enough that they may be able to go on teaching it in an increasingly technocratic world.

Current thinking positions the integration of subjects as an idea whose time has come and gone, beaten down by the insatiable quest for testable, “rigorous” single-discipline knowledge and the comparative data those tests generate. Does combining disciplines to solve problems weaken or threaten important core content? Depends.

Recent media flutter over STEAM has made me worry about arts lite. What usually happens when teachers decide to integrate the arts? They plan a unit on, say, transportation and then ask the music specialist to teach the children some train songs. The arts are supposed to put a delicious frosting of “fun” on learning important core facts or benchmarked skills. You know, the real subjects. Unless the music is linked to solid learning goals, however, all you have is train songs.

Now, I like a snappy multiplication-facts rap as much as the next guy, but the fact is--it’s not easy to integrate rich arts practice or content into science and math instruction. Especially when the assumption is that good curriculum begins with “core subjects,” the arts acting as a kind of color commentary.

Plus--traditional classroom practice is not designed to encourage multi-disciplinary mash-ups, no matter how many posters of Einstein playing the violin we strew around our classrooms. Disciplinary silos, built to protect teachers and their subject-matter passions, are commonplace in secondary schools. And looming over everything: the next round of testing. We’re talking about a major shift in practice, and that won’t go down easy, no matter how many times Arne Duncan natters on about the power of the arts to “improve college graduation.” (?)

The E in STEM--engineering--suggests that authentic STEM and STEAM lessons include an engineered prototype solution to a real-world problem, something to test and refine. Anne and I wrestled with this: Can a real-world STEAM problem be one of communication, social organization or expression, rather than a problem requiring a technical fix? Can the product be a dance--or an infographic? Why do people assume that “innovation” results in technological solutions?

If all five STEAM aspects--science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the arts--must be involved in substantive ways, building and teaching elegant STEAM lessons becomes very complex indeed.

Interdisciplinary curriculum--whether or not it meets the definition of STEM--is worth the effort, however.

In my own classroom, I spent considerable time tinkering with multi-discipline lessons, reassuring kids (Are we supposed to be doing this in band class?) and approaching integrated content with a lot of playfulness. I’m aware that I could only get away with some of the learning goals and activities I designed because I was teaching a marginalized subject. Although my students were performing regularly for parents and peers, and mastering core musical skills, I never had to cope with standardized tests or quantified “accountability.”

I was able to craft lessons around the physics of intonation, or data-analysis investigation centered on the question of whether Mozart makes you smarter. In the days of Napster, we did a four-day unit about the ethics and technical aspects of downloading “free” music, that pushed my students to think about intellectual property and the relationship between artistic creation and compensation, how new technologies challenge old ideas.

Were they true STEAM lessons? I do know they were memorable and based on real-world concepts and skills.

That’s what’s missing in much of the STEAM hype--an understanding that the best instruction and most effective learning happens when students pursue questions and ideas that have meaning to them. You can buy a package of nifty STEAM lessons and--voila!--ride the latest hot-ticket wave. If you want to teach kids how to apply core knowledge, however, you have to do the hard work of fitting the concepts to problems that genuinely engage kids.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.