Category Archives: STEAM
On the second day of the Conference the focus seemed to shift from what schools should be doing, to the nature of learning itself. Dr Maria Calderon took us on a whistlestop tour of what neuroscience has to tell us about learning. Key to understanding this is the surprising role played by emotion in mediating learning experiences. If the amygdala is too excited learning is blocked. Ian Russell then stressed the importance of changing the way learning happens in schools so that it reflects how the world now works and students are better prepared for the world of work. Learning needs to be flexible and delivered just in time. Employers are interested in your skills not your qualifications. The days of students earning a degree and then entering the world of work are gone. Mark Lester amplified this idea by stressing how tertiary learning is increasingly blended and modular. Life-long learning is the new norm.
Dr Neelam Parmar presented us with a model for weaving together technology and pedagogy. Choices around technology and pedagogy are driven by decisions around curriculum and finding a match between schools and the world of work. She left us with an image of the accelerated use of AI in schools: robots in China that monitor student attention and nudge them awake when they fall asleep.
It is in many ways an image which encapsulates the future and its possibilities. Technology can deliver a more personalised, seamless tracking of educational achievement, much of it delivered online. Students of all ages can learn what they need to learn just in time, building their own curriculum. The curriculum can be based on the task, the challenge at hand. And yet there is a danger, a danger that we will lose the ability to discriminate out what it is that is important to learn. The dilemma of self directed study is that you can’t know what you need to learn until you have learned it.
There is a strong movement away from traditional school disciplines, towards problem based learning, and I believe this is a mistake. Knowledge is coherent because it is bounded by a field. If it becomes nothing more than fodder for solving problems we lose something very valuable and that is the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake. Something happens when you do history for its own sake, not just to prepare for a career in politics, for example. Or if you do maths just for engineering. You lose a certain perspective, you lose knowledge itself. Knowledge is not just something you gain to live, it is something, almost tangible that enriches our lives because it throws up surprising perspectives and unleashes powerful forces of change.
The conference this year had a strong sense that the teacher is increasingly irrelevant, and I’m not that convinced that wide awake robots are the best solution. I think the teacher will be with us for quite a while yet!
In some quarters Art has rather begrudgingly been added to STEM, and although some definitions include the Humanities, Art is normally conceptualized as the creative arts, visual art, design and possibly music – a catchall for being creative. This leaves disciplines such as History, Philosophy, Language Arts or Literature out in the cold. Again, this depends on those doing the defining, but I would argue that we need to conceptualize STEAM as SHTEAM to make sure that the Humanities are included all the time! I believe this is vital because many begrudge adding even Arts to the equation! Yes, I am being somewhat facetious, because this suggestion, in fact, returns us to where we were before the STEM movement raised its head. SHTEAM is of course nothing but a well-rounded education! And that’s my point!
On my local University campus, you can see the consequences of neglectful thinking. Crossing campus from the sparkling and obviously well-funded Sciences block towards the Arts and Humanities buildings; run-down, in need of structural repair as much as just a lick of paint, the years of neglect are visible. The Performing Arts building looks positively dangerous to navigate with unprotected stairwells and industrial looking holes in the wall! Now I know there will be some who argue that this is not that problematic. The idea behind STEM Education was to prioritize STEM subjects as they carry key weight in promoting entrepreneurial growth for any country. Science, Engineering, and Technology are vital and fill a skills gap in the economy. I agree, but surely the Arts and Humanities are as vital to our economy? I can almost hear some shaking their heads and saying sure, they are important, but not key imperatives and arguing for a well-rounded Renaissance education dilutes the emphasis on the Sciences.
I kind of get that on a logical level, but it offends my soul! In a world where Artificial Intelligence is likely to make STEM pretty redundant, perhaps we should be cultivating the Arts and Humanities more – they might be all the robots leave for us! The likely effect of Artificial Intelligence is to reduce the number of jobs across all industries, diluting the imperative for Science majors in any case. I realize that current job needs also need to be factored in, but we are educating kids now who will be reaching current retirement age only in the 2060s!
So why do we need the Humanities as opposed to the Creative Arts and Design? History, Philosophy, and Literature give us a sense of our place in the human scheme of things, of our story and our worth as a species. I want you to imagine a world, maybe only a decade hence when Artificial Intelligence has led to the shedding of a vast number of jobs across a wide swath of industries and professions. Universal Basic Income is the norm and employment for life is abnormal. This is not too far-fetched. There are only a certain number of possibilities if this is our future, and most of them look pretty bleak for humanity. Humanity will either exist as a vast underclass kept under control merely to consume the products of robotic armies and keep a small uber class in power, or humanity could assert itself and insist on its worth and value, free from the curse of manual labour, free to explore our creative sides and flourish. The second outcome is highly unlikely, to be honest, but downright impossible unless we start to gain a sense of our worth now and assert our rights! A thorough grounding in the Humanities is, to my mind, essential to this project.