19 comments on “STEM Education Promotes Critical Thinking and Creativity: A Response to Fareed Zakaria

  • ” Misrepresentation #3: STEM does not value good writing ”

    I guess Zakaria never had a chemistry teacher ( if he ever had a chemistry teacher ) like the one I had. Dr Price was death on poorly written lab notes and his favorite target was incomplete sentences. If you can’t write reasonably well you will not have a career in any STEM field.



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  • I think this is the key point of the article:

    @OP link- Students learn technical skills such as how to culture cells in a dish, insert DNA into cells, use microscopes or quantify protein levels but these technical skills are not the focus of the educational program. Learning a few technical skills is easy but the real goal is for students to learn how to develop innovative scientific hypotheses, be creative in terms of designing experiments that test those hypotheses, learn how to be critical of their own results and use logic to analyze their experiments.

    Pretending that some woolly Liberal Arts or “Postmodernist literature” can substitute for this sort of teaching, is the basis of failure. It is the sort of failure which creationists (who pretend the scope of science is strictly limited to basic mechanical details), applaud.

    My own teaching and mentoring experience focuses on STEM graduate students but the STEM programs that I have attended at elementary and middle schools also emphasize teaching basic concepts and critical thinking instead of “technical skills”. The United States needs to promote STEM education because of the prevailing science illiteracy in the country and not because it needs to train technically skilled worker bees.
    Here are some examples of science illiteracy in the US:
    Fort-two percent of Americans are creationists who believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so. Fifty-two percent of Americans are unsure whether there is a link between vaccines and autism and six percent are convinced that vaccines can cause autism even though there is broad consensus among scientists from all over the world that vaccines do NOT cause autism.
    And only sixty-one percent are convinced that there is solid evidence for global warming.

    A solid STEM education helps citizens apply critical thinking to distinguish quackery from true science, benefiting their own well-being as well as society.

    This is the crux of the issue.

    Zakaria writes: – and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.

    This is a rather antiquated false dichotomy between the “Humanities” and science.
    History, Geography, and human activities in general,need a scientific basis of study in a joined up interdisciplinary view of the world.



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  • I think the big error is thinking that some education at the start of life will suffice you for your entire life. Technical education will be out of date within 5 years or so. You have to keep refreshing it.

    Your basic education should teach you how to learn, to reason, to research.



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  • How about maths, chemistry, physics, biology?

    In any case, most of my early Science education was getting familiar with procedure, protocols (experiments, data gathering, analysis, reporting), and of course the theory and maths involved. What was missing IMO, was an understanding of how it all fitted together. It would have been really cool to see early on how trigonometry related to optics, statistics to experimental results. It is frankly obvious now, but the lack of big picture and context often led to many ‘what is the point’ moment.

    Same with history, philosophy. It was mainly stuff that you had to learn, just because.

    All of this means extra hours, IIRC I reached around 40-42 hours a week of lessons on various subject. Way to much for kids IMO. Teaching smarter instead of cramming all that stuff in, history, geography, French, English philosophy, two hours at a time, in one sitting.



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  • I have always believed that what goes for education now is orthogonal to how it should go. Rather than be stranded vertically into subjects like maths, english, science, history, etc. it would be better turned through ninety degrees and go across the ways using the existing knowledge from the verticals as illustrative of the big principles, which I propose are-

    Language (input / output organisation of ideas), to incorporate, spoken and written language, mathematics, coding (as we now call it in schools), music and the like.

    Model making (analogues, simulations, hypotheses, theories), to incorporate partial, complete/rigorous and good enough models using the foregoing, critical thinking, illustrated by all the vertical strands

    Narrative forming (sticky/effective language), to incorporate, literature, history, advertising and propaganda. (Science writing in all its forms!)

    Problem finding (Identifying and assessing value, personal and absolute, value judging) to incorporate, critical thinking, logic, mental arithmetic, ethics, psychology, science, the arts

    Problem solving (creating new value) to incorporate problem reframing, problem aggregation, working with incomplete models, solution selling pathways.

    Happiness (finding it, getting it, keeping it) What others do. What others seem to do right.

    Most strands of conventional subject knowledge can become illustrative of the broad principles identified, giving all a flavour of all but an opportunity to better play to particular personal strengths or interests.

    The demands on teachers would be significant but I propose the rewards should be greater. (I also believe they should be amongst our highest trained and best financially rewarded professionals.) The bane of current education is the levelling down to that required for affordable, competent marking of exams. Marking cannot begin to deal with assessing creative thinking as it once did. (I look back at even some old 11plus papers to discover quite how much creative free thinking used to be involved. My teenage kids looked shocked!) It would be better to have more assessment from very high performance teachers (as per Finland) expressed in personalised CVs and kick more of the qualifications into touch. As an employer the qualifications tell me nothing about problem solving (in my terms, value adding). Even a Phd say little about this these days.



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  • obzen Mar 31, 2015 at 4:05 am

    How about maths, chemistry, physics, biology?

    The groundwork for these needs to be done during the early years.

    In any case, most of my early Science education was getting familiar with procedure, protocols (experiments, data gathering, analysis, reporting), and of course the theory and maths involved. What was missing IMO, was an understanding of how it all fitted together.

    It sounds like the science work was not started until teen years.
    In the best education simple measurements, making simple observations and predictions, testing outcomes, matching estimates to results, etc. starts in the infants course (UK Key Stage 1) with pouring water and sand into different containers, growing plants etc.

    If you are interested, here is the English Schools’ Science Programme of Study for KS1, (4 – 7yrs.) and KS2, (7 – 11yrs.), for comparison with teaching in other countries.

    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/239132/PRIMARY_national_curriculum_-_Science.pdf

    Much of this work is done in groups and teams discussing what they are doing and the outcomes of practical activities.



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  • @OP – Zakaria writes: – “The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity.”

    Mmmm!! Really!!

    It is widely acknowledged that STEM subjects are integral to the UK’s prosperity and success: the UK is the world’s sixth largest manufacturer, engineering turnover is around £800 billion per year, and whilst the UK makes up only 1% of the world’s population, we produce 10% of the world’s top scientific research.

    Yet despite this, even though STEM graduates have the potential to earn amongst the highest salaries of all new recruits, employers find it difficult to recruit STEM skilled staff. http://www.thejournal.co.uk/north-east-analysis/analysis-news/newcastle-science-city-set-significant-7405706



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  • I think this was the rationale that the sixth form college principle had when she made all pure science (I was studying, Maths, extra Maths, Physics and chemistry) students do three hours of English Literature! – She got a bit cross when I asked why pure humanities students weren’t forced to do three hours of science! Anyway, I reckon that the E.Lit tutor had her worst nightmare when the likes of me turned up. I can vividly remember that when she suggested that the passage in D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons & Lovers” had suggested that the two main protagonists has consummated their relationship (beneath a cherry tree or summat) – I countered with my premise that they had in fact been playing chess! This caused her to argue, but I insisted – since Lawrence at no time used the words “he inserted his penis into her vagina” – she could not convince me that my interpretation was not as valid as hers!



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  • You know what, I have real trouble remembering any science done before say, 12, whereas I can remember moments from other subjects. To the point where I wonder if I did any of that stuff at all before middle school.

    I do remember science classes from there, these being mostly dry and uninteresting, where the goal was about grades, memorising theory, results, and in retrospect, seemed to be all about meeting quotas and standards.

    And these were some of the most interesting classes, where I barely got by. I hated school, it was just boring rote learning, with uninspiring teachers, long hours and endless homework. All in the name of grades, and making the school look good.

    It doesn’t take much really, I could have learned and retained a lot more than I did back then, with a little care. I was very good at maths, and willfully terrible in some other courses. I thought it was funny at the time, but they made me pay the price for it.

    How many people here love the science stuff, history, biology, but were either bad at it or uninterested when they were kids?



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  • I haven’t met many technical people who can or will write a coherent document, especially one containing useful drawings. If you respect your (sighted) audience’s time (add it up if that helps), there’s no better way to show it than by drawing a good picture that saves them from deciphering pages of million-dollar words. The visual arts are much neglected in our education.



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  • GreggyStills Apr 2, 2015 at 1:33 am

    I haven’t met many technical people who can or will write a coherent document, especially one containing useful drawings. If you respect your (sighted) audience’s time (add it up if that helps), there’s no better way to show it than by drawing a good picture that saves them from deciphering pages of million-dollar words.

    I’m not sure which “technical people” you associate with, but the university technical exam papers I see, are loaded with engineering diagrams, circuit diagrams, labelled anatomical images etc, along with the associated terminology and formulae.



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  • Glad this isn’t a problem in your world. My world is corporate IT, 20 years in various disciplines/companies. I even worked at a university for a bit, and have seen my share of those two-column LaTeX papers. Many documents/books have diagrams; few of them have enough, or good ones, e.g. not overloading a single diagram because you don’t feel like drawing two, making effective use of color/shapes/lines to distinguish elements, ensuring all concepts are represented (and accurately). I’ve not seen a B.S. curriculum that required a single practical art class; maybe some students do it as an elective. How would the typical technical person even know if their diagrams are good, or whether they could do better, if few of them study or reflect on visual communication? Where do we learn the visual equivalent of grammar?



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  • GreggyStills Apr 2, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Glad this isn’t a problem in your world. My world is corporate IT, 20 years in various disciplines/companies. I even worked at a university for a bit,

    Ah! You seem to be in a narrow field. It’s also a field where you need to run fast to avoid being left behind.

    A lot of the papers I see are in structural engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, biology, and medicine where diagrams are a key element.

    But in IT there could well be divisions of expertise.

    One of my sons is in charge of developing commercial database management programmes for multinationals. – He does the coding and design, and the graphics people do the user front ends.



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  • “Misrepresentation #1: STEM teaches technical skills instead of critical thinking and creativity”

    Why is it portrayed as one vs the other? I would think that STEM must include critical thinking and creativity. Perhaps the real problem is a lack of qualified science teachers?



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