Blog 115. Is STEM best for education?

Is a STEM program the best guide for improving our schools?  STEM—the teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—is advertised as “innovative learning,” and “the future of the economy.”  That’s what you see when you type <STEM education> into a Google search.

The U.S. Department of Education says our youth need to be equipped with the “knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information.”  That’s right.  Those skills, the department says, are learned by studying the subjects collectively known as STEM.  That might not be right—it depends on how the STEM taught.

There’s political pressure for public schools to be “accountable.”  That means you must count something that can be measured.  Measure students’ achievement?  Test, of course.  And then grade the teachers based on the students’ scores on standard tests.  That evaluates test-taking, not evaluation of evidence or making sense of information.

In my former state, the term, “accountable,” was interpreted to mean the supervisor checks to assure that the teacher is teaching what the lesson plan requires for that particular hour.  Never mind that different people learn by different methods at different rates.  Drill with military precision produces obedient soldiers, not persons who question information.

It could be tempting to make STEM accountable rather than instructive.  Standard problems in math and science have standard answers.

Testing has its place.  Occasional tests can be teaching tools, showing a student what he or she  has or has not learned.  Occasional tests can stimulate practice, otherwise known as studying.  Continuous evaluation by testing is likely to produce memorized answers rather than ability for problem-solving

Rigid training in STEM, or any other fully accountable system, won’t work.  A public school is not a business, with raw materials coming in and packaged products pushed out with standard procedures in between.  “Skills to solve tough problems” includes the ability to define the problem and the ability to communicate ideas or solutions.  Those abilities are the difference between education and training.

Rote memorization and repeated standard tests stimulate only rote performance—both the teacher and the students perform to the tests.  Perhaps that’s great for ballet.  Not great for making sense of information.

It’s true, in our technological society much of the population is scientifically illiterate, and our schools are producing too few technicians to satisfy industry.  If that satisfaction means “the future of the economy,” what should we do?

Well, for an economy—or for a society that can unite rather than divide—what should we do?  Hire good teachers, pay them well, and set them free.  Sure, supervision is needed.  Supervision by other experienced senior teachers.  Get off the business model for schools, a model good for financial accounting but poor for “innovative learning.”