Wednesday, 23. September 2015 15:11
Here below, to live is to change
And to be perfect
Is to have changed often
(Cardinal John Henry Newman)
The easiest thing in the world is to criticize an educational initiative. Anyone who has been in education for any length of time can look with a jaundiced eye at passing trends and the cycle of excitement, disillusionment, and abandonment. Seasoned veterans in their cups share battle scars of the initiatives that they have endured (and buried). The danger of this is that many educators come to believe that all initiatives are without merit. This is the quickest path to fossilizing good people.
To be honest, I've been on the serving side as much as the receiving side of new ideas. Perhaps it is my fundamental tendency toward boredom, but I'm always interested in how the world is changing and how classrooms have to change as well. I bristle at accusations of jargon and gimmickry, though I understand the mechanism that causes this. However, sometimes the way a new initiative is packaged can reduce its effectiveness and sow the seeds of its own demise despite its merits.
I think we may have done this with our attempts to redefine and rebrand STEM. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) was a relatively clear initiative (though in part 2 I need to look more deeply at this). It was “designed” around a clear need for greater emphasis on these skills that was understandable to most, and there were some fairly clear classroom applications. Whether STEM was a good idea or not, it was a concept that most parents, teachers, and students understood.
Until it got messy. In a chorus of “where's my parade?” other non-STEM subject teachers saw this initiative as a threat to their own areas, that emphasis on one must mean deemphasis of other. Doing a better job with math, science, engineering, and technology had to mean doing a worse job on the humanities. Though this was never the intent, the immediate remedy was not to answer this misperception but to add an A for Arts on the STEM (now STEAM) train. So along with working out the mathematical, technological, scientific, and engineering aspects of a problem, students would also draw a picture.
It got worse. Literature advocates, unwilling to be subsumed under the single banner of Arts, added an R for Reading, and now we were swimming in a STREAM. To complicate things further, well meaning (I say well meaning because I was one of them…if I had not been, I would have said misguided) leaders in Catholic education felt that the entire process needed to be baptized in Catholic identity, so an alternate R for Religion split the STREAM into to branches.
But I think we have made a mistake on two grounds one pedagogical and one branding. From a pedagogical perspective, the AR layover were not fundamental to the original STEM methodology, and they were not primarily added because they were missing. Rather, they were primarily added to address the perceptions and feelings of teachers (many social studies teachers continue to press for STREAMS (or STREAMSS). This Frankencurriculum does not best serve the original need of the initiative. I have seen numerous STREAM lessons and there is always a tagged on feeling to these added elements. Teachers have a significantly harder time mastering this methodology, so many don't try.
From a branding perspective (and I know we bristle at words like branding when it comes to the world of education, but to some extent I'm simply talking about clear communication) we have created an alphabet soup of terms that have lost all clear meaning to most. Whether they really understood it or not, parents, teachers, and students had a pretty clear idea what STEM is. However, when I say STEAM or STREAM, I have to spend the next five minutes explaining what I mean, and my explanation always starts, “Its like STEM, but….” Some Catholic schools still claim to do STEM, others STEAM, others STREAM, and parents ask how they are different and I have to admit, I don't know.
If we are going to pursue STEM (more to follow) let's let it be STEM, let's call it STEM, and let's let the other letters wash down the stream of experience.
As always, I welcome your comments.