STEM: What’s in a Name?

I get why STEM is especially important now, when technology is invading every part of our work lives and home lives. I get why we want today’s students to be well educated in science, engineering, and math so that they can fill good jobs in these arenas in the world of work, so that they as individuals and we as a country can compete internationally, and so that progress can continue to be made on so many fronts. The public high school that I helped to co-found was an Early College career and technical education school focused on engineering, architecture, and technology (two out of three isn’t bad). So, I get it.

STEM: What's in a Name? by Regina Paul at Policy Studies in Education.

But, being a fine arts enthusiast, I have enjoyed commentaries over the past couple of years from educators wanting to add an “A” to STEM—to make it, of course, STEAM (actually a bit old-fashioned sounding, but their hearts are in the right place). I imagined that the proposed “A” was for “arts” (that is, “the arts” plural—visual art, music, dance, and theater), and I was happy about that. Recently, I read the following intriguing explanation in the 2014 Annual Report I received from my graduate school alma mater, Teachers College (TC), Columbia University:

…we stand apart in preparing teachers in the arts and other fields to interweave digital tools and materials into teaching that is playful, collaborative, entrepreneurial and multi- and cross-disciplinary. Professors Burton and Richard Jochum, together with doctoral candidate and Instructor Sean Justice, are fashioning a new concentration in Creative Technologies within our Art & Art Education master’s and doctoral programs. Their vision is that art is about agency and that artists are creative entrepreneurs who fashion practical approaches to realize opportunities—valuable skills in every profession and every area of life. In broadening the nation’s teaching focus from STEM to STEAM—that is, by adding ‘art’ to ‘science, technology, engineering and math’—they seek to inspire teachers and students alike to apply a very wide range of imaginative approaches to the solution of everyday questions and problems. (page 5)

While that reasoning is not entirely clear to me, it certainly sounds promising. So, I am going to continue to assume that the “A” includes all of the arts, because I like to think that those of us who are dancers (and I did take a great dance course when I was at TC) can “apply a wide range of imaginative approaches to the solution of everyday questions and problems” as well as visual artists can.

But what about my colleagues in the social sciences and in history? I truly believe that they can “fashion practical approaches to realize opportunities” and that they can use technology in cross-disciplinary research and teaching and real-life problem solving. So, could we add, say, “SSH” for social sciences and history? It works pretty well at the end of the word—STEAMSSH. Or, if you prefer “HSS,” you could have STEAMHSS, which is almost onomatopoetic, like the hiss of escaping steam.

Who’s still missing? Well, the English language and literature crowd. If we could make them settle for an “R” for reading, you can easily see how STEAMSSH could become STREAMSSH. And you can still pronounce it.

While I haven’t solved the inclusion of some other academic fields in my new acronym—especially all other languages, which I feel bad about—I believe that we have just about everybody else in the boat. Just as we should. Because having all the attention on STEM misses a lot of what makes an education great. Maybe that’s what I learned at TC after all.

How Arts Advocates Keep Getting It Wrong

No one loves the arts more than I do. No one is a stronger advocate for K–12 required arts classes in the public schools than I am. I have three children with recent college degrees in the arts: one music; one art, design, and media; and one dance. I edited and co-authored a whole curriculum series called ArtWorks, designed to integrate the arts into the core academic subjects for students in grades K–5. So don’t tell me that I think the arts are any less important than anything else in school.

But the arts advocates who keep fighting a public school system that marginalizes the arts—especially when budget cuts come—do not know how to talk to the opposition. So let me try to help.

How Arts Advocates Keep Getting It Wrong, by Regina Paul, President, Policy Studies in EducationRecently, I read a thoughtful article by Dr. Matthew Lynch (“Happier Students, Higher Scores: The Role of Arts Integration”), which was posted in The Edvocate. Here are a couple of paragraphs:

The arts have always had a secondary place in K-12 learning. If you doubt that statement, think of the first programs to go whenever budget cuts are implemented – music, fine arts and even physical fitness which includes dance. I’ve yet to hear of a school board or administrators discussing the way cutting math programs could help the school’s bottom line. There is a hierarchy of academics in America, and arts education tends to fall pretty low on the totem pole.

That’s why some districts are implementing arts integration in their curriculum. Instead of treating the arts like a separate, distant relative to other classroom endeavors, these programs integrate musical instruments, painting, dancing, drawing, singing and more into traditional subjects like science, math and language. When implemented correctly, these programs are enthusiastically received by students who learn comprehensively.

Yes, I too like the idea of arts integration. But what are we integrating? It should not be “musical instruments, painting, dancing, drawing, singing,” but instead something in the arts that Americans think is important. What is that?

For many years, my nonprofit organization conducted the Educational Goals Survey, in cooperation with the National School Boards Association, in school districts across the U.S. We surveyed tens of thousands of citizens, teachers, high school students, and recent high school graduates. First, we asked them to rate a wide variety of educational goals, covering all school subjects, on their importance for students to learn and, separately, on their importance for schools to teach.

Then, we said: “Here is a list of 11 school subjects. You are a taxpayer with just $1,000 to spend. How would you divide up the money? Consider how important each subject is, but not the actual costs of teaching it. You may spend your $1,000 on as few or as many subjects as you wish. Just spend the money to show where your educational priorities are.”

Just as Mr. Lynch noted in his article, art and music usually fell at or near the bottom of the list of school subjects when participants played the money game. It made me sad, because it is absolutely true that, for some students, music is the only reason to come to school. When I helped to co-found an Early College architecture and engineering high school in Brooklyn, I insisted on an after-school music program and on two music courses (one required of all students)—because, for Wilmer, music was the only reason to come to school. I never regretted it for a minute.

But the real news for arts advocates is what happened when participants rated the individual art and music goals in the first part of the questionnaire. As it turned out, there were some things in art and music that participants felt were much more important than others—some things that actually might be worth paying for, some things that might survive budget cuts. Those things were spectator art and music, not varsity art and music. Not bowing and blowing, for example, but listening to and appreciating music and its place in our culture and indeed in other cultures, past and present.

I have worked with many art and music teachers over the years to create curricula for their school districts. They are an accomplished and passionate group. I always learn a lot when I work with them. But somewhere along the line, “appreciation” got a bad reputation. It is as if “appreciating” art or music is a lesser thing than doing art or music. That is a shame, because 100 percent of American schoolchildren can learn to be great appreciators of art and music and dance in a way that will improve their understanding of culture and history and that will be a pleasure to them for the rest of their lives, but relatively few of them can actually do art and music and dance nearly so well. And everyone who pays taxes knows it.

If art and music and dance classes in school were more about appreciating and understanding the history and looking at what artists are trying to communicate and seeing the value in multicultural contexts and were less about producing and performing, they would be more important to most taxpayers and less likely to be cut when budgets tighten. Take an analogy from literature. Taxpayers will pay for schoolchildren to read the great short stories and novels of authors from across the globe and across the centuries without expecting those children to write great works of fiction themselves. They are reading for a different reason.

Arts advocates, sometimes you are your own worst enemy. When it comes to integrating, you don’t have to integrate the actual performance of the arts—that is, the varsity version. You can integrate—or, if you can make the arts important enough, you can even keep separate—the spectator version. Because, when you are talking about that, there is nothing more important.