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Don’t run out of STEAM when teaching the whole child

By Talia Soglin

The hottest buzzword in education right now is STEM: Science, technology, engineering, and math. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, you’ve probably heard about American students’ depressingly low math and science test scores, and how science and engineering are the key to helping women and girls break through the glass ceiling, and how teaching technological literacy is of utmost importance in this day and age.

These things are, for the most part, very true. STEM is important. Viewing it as the end all be all of education, though, is more an indicator of what our society values at this particular place and time rather than an indicator of any particular objective truth.

Technologically, our world is exciting and rapidly changing, meaning educators are concerned about making sure students are able to operate in that world. Politicians push for STEM emphasis because economically, tech jobs are in demand and lucrative. But part of the reason STEM has emerged as such a prominent force is cultural: There has been, in recent years, a pushback against liberal education. Technical skills and “hard” subjects like math and science are just valued more highly in our society than the “soft” social sciences and humanities.

It hasn’t always been like this, though. Educational trends go in and out of style like fashion, depending on the political and social climate of the time. For most of our history, the United States was unique in its broad-based approach to education. While most European countries were focusing on technical skills, the U.S. was giving its students a well-rounded education.

From that point forward sprang a tradition of a fairly rapid pendulum swing of educational values. Today, Common Core governs education, especially elementary education. But when my peers and I were in elementary school, it was No Child Left Behind that defined our experience. And there’s an endless litany of smaller educational trends that cycle in and out of fashion, like flipped classrooms, co-teaching, project-based learning, technology use in the classroom, student-led learning and more.

These trends come from a place of wanting to do the very best for students. And they arguably do a lot of good: We should be experimenting with what works in the classroom.

But in many ways these trends are just that — trends. There is no holy grail. No flipped classroom or nationalized curriculum or focus on project-based learning is going to replace the basics: Teachers who can reach students where they are, who understand their students emotionally and intellectually, and who can undogmatically do the grueling work of educating our youth. Administrations that support and value these teachers. And educational systems and officials who treat children with respect.

The best teachers in my life have been the ones who encouraged intellectual curiosity with discussion and pointed questions. They know the subject matter well, and more importantly, they really want to share it. They treat us with respect, even when we are very young. Anything else — any new seating configuration or push to read more nonfiction, is secondary. These things may enhance a learning experience, but they do not define it.

Again, this is not to discourage experimentation and innovation in the classroom. But the intensity of focus on buzzwords and trendy new strategies often draws energy and money away from making sure students’ basic needs in the classroom are met.

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