The string of stale smelling portables unfurled in a lazy line trailing away from the north side of Quilchena Elementary School in West Richmond. The third of these tin-roofed, formaldehyde cubes was my Grade 5 classroom.
I still recall one particular lesson on a clear-skied afternoon when Ms. Kaser, our teacher at the time and now the co-leader of the Centre for Innovative Educational Leadership at Vancouver Island University, engaged us in a debate. Citing the brain science of the day — prehistoric in comparison to today's world of fMRIs — Ms. Kaser intentionally set up a false dichotomy to prompt our participation. If we could use only one side of our brains, would it be the left (responsible for logic, science, and math) or the right (where emotion, the arts, and physical activity were activated)?
The debate came to a facetious conclusion when no one wished to utilise only the left side of their brain, for fear of becoming a 500-pound couch potato solving math problems. We were 10 and summer was fast approaching. The false dichotomy of left brain versus right brain reminds me a great deal of another false contrast being framed in education today — STEM versus liberal arts.
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programmes are currently receiving attention in the media. This is not surprising given the historical track record of American education. In response to the Soviets launching Sputnik in 1957, critics reacted by calling for increased STEM to close the obvious technology gap between the superpowers.
The technology gap reared its head again in 1982 when Ronald Reagan famously commissioned an education paper entitled, A Nation at Risk, a paper warning of the imminent danger to American hegemony if the US failed to increase science and technology outcomes in schools. It turns out that STEM is not a new concept; it has been around for 60 years by one name or another.
Proponents of STEM programmes today advocate for increasing these subjects in the curriculum, couching their rhetoric in terms of raising job prospects and increasing economic outputs. Their calculus in divvying up the curriculum for increased time on STEM subjects, however, would entail a decrease in time for arts and humanities. This framing of STEM initiatives by the media and STEM advocates, or by what author Hugh MacLennan might have termed, "the high priests of the Dialectic," is a false dichotomy. It's Ms. Kaser asking us to choose left brain versus right brain.
The reality in schools is that a liberal arts education and STEM are not mutually exclusive. One does not preclude the other. Schools don't have to rob Peter to pay Paul. Schools with liberal arts programmes often have strong STEM components because they are, by definition and constitution, broad and well-rounded. This includes a focus on science, math, and technology. The IB programme is a prime example of this with its holistic approach.
Liberal art programmes remain the most viable and critical preparation for the workplace and citizenship. As contributing author Willard Dix wrote in Forbes magazine, "A liberal arts degree is more important than ever." The president of Oregon State University, Edward Ray, recently echoed this when he cited a survey of national employers in the United States:
- More than 9 in 10 want those they hire to demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and the capacity for continued new learning.
- More than three-fourths of employers want more emphasis on: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.
- Nearly three-fourths would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today's global economy. (www.aacu.org)
Ray went on to write that "...in today's world of changing demographics, 24/7 news cycles, and a global marketplace, the liberal arts are critical to success in every economic sector. There can be no doubt that they play an essential part in providing a foundation for learning in every professional field."
It is true that STEM programmes, just like liberal arts programmes, foster the development of critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. These are indeed worthy outcomes. It is more questionable, however, whether they provide much in the way of intercultural skills, general ethics, and citizenship, equally important outcomes in an increasingly globalized world.
As Ray astutely points out, "Our society desperately needs the grounding in ethical thinking and questioning that the liberal arts provide. Improving engineering fundamentals will accomplish little if our ethical foundations keep eroding." It's a cliché, but schools that become too parochial in promulgating STEM at the expense of the arts and humanities risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
A more critical view of narrow-based STEM programmes reveals other potential issues. It is interesting to note, for example, that most universities still do not recognise computer science courses for credit in math and science faculties. Additionally, STEM programmes have the potential to exacerbate demographic inequalities, as women, indigenous peoples, and other groups tend to be significantly underrepresented. A parochial education would tend to lead to parochial outcomes.
Where does the balance lie then between liberal arts and STEM programmes? If both have merit and relevancy in a high quality education, what are leading educational organizations doing to marry the two?
A few months ago, I went to listen to the new president of UBC, Dr. Santa Ono, speak about the university's strategic direction in preparing students for a rapidly changing world and job market. He was adamant — UBC is about STEAM (emphasizing the value of the Arts) and not STEM. He spoke of the importance of foundational knowledge across all disciplines and the benefits of a holistic approach to learning. He also reiterated the gift of diversity in developing students for a post-multicultural world.
Mulgrave subscribes to this same notion of a STEAM-based education for students. Through the framework of the IB, we are STEAMing ahead with developing our curriculum. Over the last couple of years, we have introduced Music, Philosophy and Economics Higher Level (HL) courses in the Senior School, and at the same time have also introduced a new Design course with a strong emphasis on robotics. Additionally, in the Middle School, a raft of elective courses, including drone flying, dance, 3D modelling, and outdoor education supplement the strong academic core of science and math courses, creating an array of options to enrich and personalise the learning of students. And in the Junior School, Minecraft, Lego robotics and coding dot the landscape of co-curricular offerings, along with sports academies, ballet, and visual arts. STEAM is evident throughout the IB Continuum at Mulgrave, embedded as a core feature of a holistic, well-rounded education.
The best schools continue to evolve their programme offerings over time. In this day and age, it ought to include preparation for a digital world, but of higher importance, it continues to include what the liberal arts have always offered the best fundamental preparation for — democracy, intercultural skills, ethics, and global citizenship. This has never been truer than it is today, never more important, never more relevant. We look forward to ensuring that a Mulgrave education continues to be rich, holistic, and leading edge, inspiring excellence in education and life.