Despite an element of moral panic, there is well-founded concern in Anglophone countries about a decline in the science and mathematics skills of students. International studies such as TIMSS and PISA bear out some of this decline, none more starkly than the PISA mean scores for Scotland and Australia:
This has prompted discussion from politicians and policymakers focused on so-called on STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Such discussion betrays the instrumental view of education that many policymakers hold; a view that sees education purely as training for the workplace and meeting the demands of workplace skills shortages. Not only is this myopic, it doesn’t actually fix the problem that has been identified.
Many STEM initiatives are superficial and silly – like the Australian government’s notorious STEM apps. They operate under the assumption that provoking short-term situational interest by, for example, asking a scientist to speak about their work or showing a cool demonstration, will lead to a long-term personal interest in the subject. Such activities probably help, but they don’t really take into account the students’ self-efficacy; their feelings of competence in a subject area. Self-efficacy is associated with motivation in STEM subjects. Most people assume an ‘interest-first’ model where an interest in a particular subject provokes a desire to work hard in that subject which then develops self-efficacy. However, the reverse ‘competence-first’ process is also plausible, where increased feelings of competence lead to a greater level of motivation.
The interaction probably works both ways but there are some hints that competence-first is more important in early maths education. If true, we should focus more on effective teaching of maths and science and less on gimmickry.
In some ways, STEM is an odd basket of subjects. Engineering is barely taught in schools because the fundamentals rely on physics and mathematics. Traditionally, we teach students these fundamentals first before they develop specialisms at university. This is because we view these disciplines hierarchically. However, many initiatives seeks to involve students in solving ‘real world’ engineering problems as a way of promoting STEM. This is again based upon an interest-first view that if students see the relevance of STEM to everyday life then they will be motivated to study it.
There are many risks to adopting such an approach. Chief among these is the risk that students may not develop self-efficacy as a result and may become demotivated. We know, for instance, that problem-based teaching methods are not optimal for students learning new concepts so we either need to deliver explicit instruction prior to problem solving or reduce the complexity of the problem solving and run the risk of students concluding that this is not the real-world experience that they had been sold.
Far from being the solution to our downward trend, the narrative around STEM might actually be contributing to it. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence embodies many trendy notions around real-world problem-solving and yet Scotland is seeing a decline in its STEM results.
To confound the issue further, some folks have decided to put an ‘A’ in ‘STEM’ to create ‘STEAM’. The ‘A’ stands for ‘Art’ or maybe ‘Arts’. Depending on your source, it could refer to the addition of a fairly contained set of notions around visual art and design or it could represent the arts more generally. In the case of the former, you often hear reference to ‘design thinking’ as some kind of desirable skill to develop, although I doubt it is anything like the generic skill that people imagine. In the latter case, there is very little in an academic curriculum that would not be covered by STEAM. Which takes the focus away from considering the selection curriculum content and much more towards teaching methods.
Because STEAM seems to prioritise certain styles of teaching such as Project-Based Learning. Project-based learning has been a central component of the progressive education agenda since at least as far back as William Heard Kilpatrick’s 1918 essay on The Project Method. Even so, there is little evidence for its effectiveness, despite the grandiose claims that are often made. A recent Education Endowment Foundation trial of Project-Based Learning found a potentially negative impact on literacy, although this finding was compromised by a high drop-out rate from the study. So it either doesn’t work or schools find it really hard to do. Either way, project-based learning is not promising.
STEAM’s old-fashioned progressivist agenda is only enhanced by its focus on collaboration, critical thinking and so on; the misnamed ’21st Century Skills’. Again, skills like critical thinking are not generic and there is little evidence that they can be developed through STEAM approaches. The claims made are ideological rather than based upon evidence.
So I think that STEAM is a cipher. It appeals to an anxiety about STEM education but then subverts it to call for old-fashioned progressive education. I suggest taking the ‘A’ back out of it, and maybe the ‘E’ and the ‘T’ too. That way, we may focus on the effective teaching of science and mathematics instead. This is the best way to arrest any decline.