Auld Lang Syne

Friday, October 5, 2012

STEM: and I don't mean science, math, engineering, & technology

There is a good deal of flap these days about how children learn, what they ought to be offered in school, and the resultant "results" we might see in the areas of test scores on the short term and quality of life (employment-driven in large part).

As a school board member, I deal with these ideas and willingly engage in the pursuit of better school environment, culture, experience for our students. It has been said, put forth, that we must concentrate our students' school curriculum on STEM subjects. Allegedly, we must do this to increase their post-educational chances in a competitive work world. What will be the "jobs" they might find with or without a focus on STEM? Are we preparing these students for the future where jobs they might land are not at all the jobs of this era, and perhaps jobs that do not even exist right now? For the record, this is an old saw. My parents chattered on about this when I was in school. My grandparents too. Take typing, take cooking, take public speaking. Take chemistry or mathematics. Take psychology because there are more unbalanced people in the world and that number is growing because of the evils of rock and roll.

I heard it all, argued endlessly with my father over the idea that learning to learn and being curious were more important than algebra. (Seriously it IS more important) We went back and forth constantly over how grades came about and fought about whether or not they were important markers for progress and success. It was a battle in which neither of us could declare solid victory. But what I learned from all of it was this:

Be a learner and be interested (curious); apply what you think, what you take to be valid for you based on observation and experience; make a difference for yourself and others with your ideas; be open to the world and all the things in it; be self-assured in the areas of your own accomplishment but don't be arrogant about anything.

I can happily report that these "learnings" have stood me in good stead so far. But here I am, done with child-raising and fussing over my own children's educational lives, and involved yet again with the whole, never-ending questions and attitudes. Nothing much has changed other than the current sagging state of economics (not a change exactly but a resurgence of an old problem) and burgeoning world population. Subject matter discussions still rage on with the same divide in place. What students ought to learn/study vs HOW students might learn/study. We are clearly still in the ditch here. Add to that a trend toward privatization of education in the looming and oh so real incarnation of charter schools, for-profit charter schools. It is all so confusing for people. What to do that will do the best for children, for the future of our country in a competitive world culture.

I propose the same, but refined argument I posed to my father over fifty years ago. STEM: Search, Think, Evaluate, Merge (merging method with subject matter so that a student can command and expand). I am saying that we need to focus our attention and efforts on improving, not demolishing. Why put vast cash into making new what simply needs to be reconstructed with different (more reasonable) goals in mind? We are still using the 1893 model. Want to drive around in THAT vehicle? I think not. But we are doing just that: teaching (attempting to teach) using the model that one ought to teach all students the same material in the same way. No wonder a visual learner cannot "see" the material being spoken "to" (read: AT) him or her? No wonder the hands-on, kinesthetic, learner can't get a "feel" for the material appearing on the power point in the front of the room. In 2002 I took a basic computer class (required by my university) in which we never touched a computer. Really? you ask. REALLY. Imagine taking a film class with no film viewing whatsoever. Or how about a machine tooling class with nary machine or a tool in the room. No wonder the audio learner cannot function in a class where everyone is totally quiet and no discussions ensue. No wonder we are failing our students.

I believe we need to look at not just subject matter (yes, we can still have algebra and physics) but at how students learn and how to put in place an empowerment of the learners, all of the learners, not just the "brightest" or the "struggling." We need to reevaluate how we teach and how we evaluate. We need to stop "talking about" and start doing. We need STEM (see above re-defining of the term).

[ giving you some time to let this sink into your mind..... tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.... ]

OK, you have your position on this topic clear now? Let's discuss. Oh, and I'm waiting for someone to bring up the hidden topic here:  Is our learning so utilitarian that we only care about the jobs it will bring? How can that work when the jobs on the horizon may be jobs that don't exist now?

I ask you: what about learning to KNOW? Is knowledge a luxury we just cannot afford?


  1. Learning to know is necessary to achieve our highest potential as children and adults. How do we, as a society discern lies from truth, without knowledge? To know is to understand and perceive something as fact and truth. Without knowledge, we only have belief. Belief and knowledge are not synonyms. Belief is the acceptance of something as fact or truth without proof. This is a danger to our present society-this acceptance of "belief as truth". Is knowledge a luxury we just cannot afford? Rather, I would say we cannot afford to be wtihout knowledge. Plato wrote,"Socrates, what is the food of the soul? Surely, knowledge is the food of the soul." America is starving and poverty of the soul and mind is what we just cannot afford. Francis Bacon said, "Knowledge is power." A society without knowledge is an unarmed society. Easy prey for superstition and beliefs to be sold as truth to the impoverished people. America is in poverty of the soul and in need of knowledge.This is a call for America to arm themselves with knowledge, to win the war on all forms of poverty. To arms, America! To arms!

  2. Dickens said it in the mouth of Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times:

    Chapter I — The One Thing Needful

    “NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

    The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, — nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, — all helped the emphasis.

    “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!”

    The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

  3. Jenny, This is a great reminder of how we must not stick to centuries old ways of "imparting" facts. It is encouraging when we speak of unleashing the thinking minds in front of us!