Zakaria Got It Wrong about STEM Education, Creativity and Critical Thinking

Apr 6, 2015

(This article was adapted from a piece that originally appeared on the 3Quarks Daily website)

By Jalees Rehman

All obsessions can be dangerous. When I read the title “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous” of Fareed Zakaria’s article in the Washington Post,  I assumed that he would call for more balance in education. An exclusive focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is unhealthy because students miss out on the valuable knowledge that the arts and humanities teach us. I would wholeheartedly agree with such a call for balance because I believe that a comprehensive education makes us better human beings. This is the reason why I encourage discussions about literature and philosophy in my scientific laboratory. To my surprise and dismay, Zakaria did not analyze the respective strengths of liberal arts education and STEM education. Instead, his article is laced with old  clichés and misrepresentations of STEM.

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

Zakaria writes:

“If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science –and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.”

and

“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.”

Zakaria is correct when he states that a broad education fosters creativity and critical thinking but his article portrays STEM as being primarily focused on technical skills whereas liberal education focuses on critical thinking and creativity. Zakaria’s view is at odds with the goals of STEM education. As a scientist who mentors Ph.D students in the life sciences and in engineering, my goal is to help our students become critical and creative thinkers.

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.

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 United States: Forty-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 6 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 61 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.

Zakaria’s criticism of obsessing about test scores is spot on. The subservience to test scores undermines the educational system because some teachers and school administrators may focus on teaching test-taking instead of critical thinking and creativity. But this applies to the arts and humanities as well as the STEM fields because language skills are also assessed by standardized tests. Just like the STEM fields, the arts and humanities have to find a balance between teaching required technical skills (i.e. grammar, punctuation, test-taking strategies, technical ability to play an instrument) and the more challenging tasks of teaching students how to be critical and creative.

Misrepresentation #2: Japanese aren’t creative.

Zakaria’s views on Japan appear based on simplistic stereotypes.

“Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have benefitted enormously from having skilled workforces. But technical chops are just one ingredient needed for innovation and economic success. America overcomes its disadvantage — a less-technically-trained workforce — with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook. A country like Japan, by contrast, can’t do as much with its well-trained workers because it lacks many of the factors that produce continuous innovation.”

Some of the most innovative scientific work in my own field of scientific research — stem cell biology — is carried out in Japan. Referring to Japanese as “well-trained workers” does not do justice to the innovation and creativity in the STEM fields and it also conveniently ignores Japanese contributions to the arts and humanities. I doubt that the U.S. movie directors who have re-made Kurosawa movies or the literary critics who each year expect that Haruki Murakami will receive the Nobel Prize in literature would agree with Zakaria.

Misrepresentation #3: We should study the humanities and arts because Silicon Valley wants us to.

In support of his arguments for a stronger liberal arts education, Zakaria primarily quotes Silicon Valley celebrities such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. The article suggests that a liberal arts education will increase entrepreneurship and protect American jobs. Are these the main reasons for why we need to reinvigorate liberal arts education? The importance of a general, balanced education makes a lot of sense to me but is increased job security a convincing argument for pursuing a liberal arts degree? Instead of a handful of anecdotal comments by Silicon Valley prophets, I would prefer to see some actual data that supports Zakaria’s assertion. But perhaps I am being too STEMy.

There is a lot of room to improve STEM education. We have to make sure that we strive to focus on the essence of STEM which is critical thinking and creativity. We should also make a stronger effort to integrate arts and humanities into STEM education. In the same vein, it would be good to incorporate more STEM education into liberal arts education in order to combat scientific illiteracy. Educators in all fields need to collaborate in order to improve the overall quality of education.


jalees-rehmanDr. Jalees Rehman is an associate professor of medicine and pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As a cell biologist and cardiologist, he directs a research laboratory that investigates the growth of blood vessels and the biology of stem and progenitor cells.

 

21 comments on “Zakaria Got It Wrong about STEM Education, Creativity and Critical Thinking

  • Zakaria is so blinding full of crap it is unreal. We need IT people at a rate that is not being filled by the current system. Thousands of students with worthless humanities degrees are now forced to return to trade and tech schools to get the skills needed to avoid a life of poverty. Humanities can, and should be taken as a minor, or studied of your own accord. Want to see a philosophy major in action? Go to Starbucks and ask one for a a double espresso.
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  • 2
    Reneebrown says:

    Having made the transition from liberal arts undergraduate major to STEM focused graduate student to professor in an interdisciplinary field, I do believe that there is room for the liberal arts in the practice of science and in business. However, it is not based on the reasons typically given. I read research from anthropology, social science, philosophy, and psychology (two of those fields are actually a part of the scientific world) when developing research projects, even though most of my work involves data mining. Those people-focused fields help guide my work by giving me ideas about how I can apply tools.
    However, if it takes a liberal arts background to be creative, and think outside of the box, how did Silicon Valley become what it is today? I don’t understand the thinking behind these statements about STEM and creativity. I don’t understand the response so many people with a liberal arts education have when it comes to the near constant development, and innovation in STEM.
    How does:
    Seeing a group of people educated with STEM backgrounds produce one on the most innovation focused communities the world has ever seen.
    Make one think:
    They don’t know how to do that, but I can do it better.
    Why do so many people who are supposed to be the best at thinking never once question their premises when it comes to this question despite the fact that the evidence does not support their beliefs? Is there, perhaps, more than one way to foster critical thinking and creativity? How is it that everyone is such an expert when it comes to what it means to learn technical skills, no matter how little experience they have doing it, or time they spend trying to understand it? Maybe someone should tell the cognitive psychologists (there was a recent paper out about understanding the cognitive processes involved in learning technical tasks) there is no need to investigate this issue, because there is a simple stereotype that explains it all.
    If Silicon Valley celebrities truly think STEM educations are roadblock to innovative thinking, why don’t they recruit in the humanities the way the recruit Stanford comp. sci. majors and offer so many HB1 visas? There was a recent book out about the recruiting practices at Google, Facebook, and Apple by someone who worked at all three, and he said that getting hired at those companies with a liberal arts background was really hard. I wonder if this is just branding. They may just want their customer base to believe this because it reflects what the customer base wants to believe. Apple could hire top liberal arts majors by the dozen today if they wanted to.
    However, one thing I will say is that while theoretically the liberal arts fosters critical thinking it often fails to reach that goal. I believe there are aspects of STEM that help do a better job of pushing ideas forward. For instance, I was recently having a conversation with a professor from the humanities about working on a collaborative project. One of the first things that struck me in the conversation was how easy it was for me to understand his current research, because the ideas that dominate his field have not changed in decades. Many decades. I could still get away with a couple of Foucault quotes, and references to postmodernism. Anything outside of that, and there would be no way he would accept my views. One of the things I did not like about some of my liberal arts classes, they were so rooted in very specific theories and there was no room to question them. This was not representative of all my classes, but many. In science, because we want to be able to understand patterns, make predictions and understand processes. Our evidence constantly shows us that we are not there yet, and so we think of new ideas, and try new experiments. The idea that, even in classes that are skills focused, we are not learning how to think is ridiculous. The mere acceptance of some scientific truths can be enough to throw one’s entire view of the world upside down.
    The class that required the most critical and out of the box thinking I have taken would have to be my algorithms class. In that class, all tests and assignments took complex problem solving skills and inventive thinking. Hardly ever was the answer obvious. Sometimes you change a problem slightly, and it might not be reasonably solved, or the solution is completely different. It was so difficult because there were no formulas, or theories that made it easy to tackle each new problem. You just had to work with it, and try different approaches. Sometimes the solution is so out there that people write books trying to figure out what the line of thinking was that lead to the solution. The professor did not even expect that most students would be able to get through all the homework assignments. That class taught me how to really be a critical and creative thinker. When there are answers (not necessarily perfect, not necessarily only one), students get pushed to think critically because it is hard to know which one of many answers would work.
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  • @OP – Misrepresentation #2: Japanese aren’t creative.

    Zakaria’s views on Japan appear based on simplistic stereotypes.

    That does appear to be so!

    http://www.citylab.com/tech/2011/10/worlds-leading-nations-innovation-and-technology/224/

    The first map (below) charts the percentages of economic output countries devote to R&D investment. The U.S. ranks sixth. Israel is in first place, followed by Sweden, Finland, Japan, and Switzerland, which make up the top five.

    The second map charts scientific and engineering researchers per capita. The United States ranks seventh. Finland takes the top spot, followed by Sweden, Japan, Singapore, and Denmark. Norway, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand round out the top ten.

    The third map plots innovations, measured as patents per capita. Now, the United States takes first place, followed by Japan, Switzerland, Finland, and Israel. Sweden, Germany, Canada, Denmark, and Hong Kong round out the top ten.

    By combining all three of these measures, we end up with an overall Global Technology Index, a broad assessment of the technological and innovative capabilities of the world’s leading nations. The United States ranks third. Finland takes the top spot, followed by Japan. Israel’s fourth place finish may come as a surprise to some.
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  • Is there a tiny suspicion of Islamic anti-science dogma in his background?
    Born to Muslim parents (therefore, in Islam for ever Muslim) he has disowned his religion but…
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  • This Zakaria-Rahman debate is as old as the hills (anyone still recall C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures?) Its biggest problem is that it is carried out in language so vague and ambiguous that no answer at all would be meaningful–they’re just talking past each other. From my perspective as a lifelong teacher of both physics and philosophy, a far more important issue is the quality and factuality of the content of the courses being taught today, which continually becomes both more watered-down and more ideologized (yes, even in the “hard” sciences, but horribly so in certain humanities). THAT is the subject we should be discussing.
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  • Ferrel Apr 8, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    This Zakaria-Rahman debate is as old as the hills (anyone still recall C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures?) Its biggest problem is that it is carried out in language so vague and ambiguous that no answer at all would be meaningful–they’re just talking past each other.

    That is the problem with lots of “uncritical thinking” masquerading as “Liberal Arts”.
    For example Postmodernist tripe is the very opposite of clear critical thinking!
    There are also lots of fallacies and special pleadings presented as “reasoning”, by those promoting their pet band-wagons!
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  • Engineer and atheist here – part of the reason I am an atheist is my engineering degree I took at a Jesuit run college which included liberal arts courses – my studies in Philosophy and Religion must have backfired I guess.

    I for one found out that engineering is never about memorizing things but discovering how to reason them out so I think my critical skills are fine.

    I support STEM focus but a well rounded education is best – I see very little focus on STEM in the US – there needs to be more but in balance with a well rounded education.

    I am a fan of Fareed but maybe he should stick to things he has some expertise in.
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  • Which ever approach is taken in education, it is essential that students learn how to think scientifically. There is far too much reliance on what people “BELIEVE” rather than what theories the repeatable observations in the natural world supports. Also students must how to think in terms of populations and gradients rather than on past customs or anecdotes as a basis for new ideas and actions.

    In agree with Reneebrown that ” One of the things I did not like about some of my liberal arts classes, they were so rooted in very specific theories and there was no room to question them.” In science, all theories are open to question.
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  • As an E in STEM (20 years doing RF/Microwave circuit design), I must say the shortage is a myth, and the IEEE agrees:

    http://spectrum.ieee.org/static/the-stem-crisis-is-a-myth-an-ongoing-discussion

    I’m not sure why we need more STEM, other than a desire to depress the wages. It’s sort of like the race for supercomputing; exactly what is the prize? EE employment declined by 35k jobs last year, with the unemployment rate at 4.8% for EE, which is about what it is for general unemployment; it used to be roughly half that of general unemployment.

    http://www.computerworld.com/article/2487847/it-careers/what-stem-shortage–electrical-engineering-lost-35-000-jobs-last-year.html

    What is needed are smarter (higher energy) engineers, not more of them. Quantum behavior is not understood by politicians and MBAs, so just through more money at the problem which is futile at crossing the barrier. The education system is failing in this regard, and as it pushes people into STEM who really don’t have an interest in it, the results are mediocre.
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  • Who cares what ‘we’, presumably profit seeking corporations, need. This discussion is about what individuals need in order to function within an enlightened society, something from which the u.s. is further removed than any other developed country i have ever lived in.
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  • Yeah, right, where are they ? Stuck in the early middle ages and obsessed with religious bullshit, as even the expression ‘islamic countries’ implies.
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  • While i agree with many of Rehman’s points, the sad truth is that the art of critical analysis is almost nonexistent among the tech savvy younger than 40 in the u.s.

    I communicate with plenty of young people, mostly based in the u.s., who are scientists, programmers etc, many of them self declared transhumanists, and i find that while they are very good in their respective fields, often more advanced than myself, when it comes to integrated views on the role of science in society, or to political and historical grasping of the political and historical significance of daily events, they are mostly completely clueless.

    This is probably partly due to the pervasive effect of religion, even the residual reverse effect on those who managed to escape its grip, and partly to the even more pervasive one of implicit political propaganda which is usually not even perceived let alone understood. I myself am a 66 year old atheist, occultist and transhumanist with decades long careers in programming (DBs, ERP) and in clinical psychology and therapy as well as a degree in sociology.
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  • 15
    Reneebrown says:

    The point isn’t whether STEM education leads to integrating views on the role of science and society, the point is that science itself takes critical thinking.
    Life is fractal. There are some people who focus on combining sociology, psychology, and basic science, for instance. To them, they may look at technology as one dimension. They can get a sense of it, but they do not fully understand it, because they are looking at life at a higher dimension. Within each field there are multi-dimensions, and sometimes it seems as if you are a world within a world. I could spend a life-time studying a problem that takes a multi-dimension, and fractal view of the way the world works, integrating many ideas, and all the while staying within the world of science.
    Often, people who try to integrate ideas at a higher level appear to be incapable of critical thinking when it comes to how they talk about a specialists’ field. They may not know enough about it to do more than throw out stuff they learned verbatim, and will never be in a position to think critically with those tools. I have known people who are good at thinking about the big picture, who have studied programming, but can’t think their way through a programming problem unless they are being spoon-fed. Should I conclude that they can’t think just because there skill-set lies somewhere else?

    It is a problem if we define critical thinking only in terms of the skill set to think about how science fits in with society. Unfortunately, people are using an intuitive definition of critical thinking based on their own experience, and what they would be in a position to evaluate. The issue of the role of science is important, but it does not mean that unless someone does not focus on those types of problems they can’t think critically. There is also no proof that it takes more critical thinking to work on problems directly related to human society. Critical thinking cannot be defined based on a specific problem set.
    There are numerous people in the humanities as well who would face a similar problem. There have always been people who struggle to justify their role to society. There are not numerous English professors who can talk study literature from decades ago and can’t speak critically on current events.
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  • 16
    Reneebrown says:

    The point isn’t whether STEM education leads to integrating views on the role of science and society, the point is that science itself takes critical thinking.
    Life is fractal. There are some people who focus on combining sociology, psychology, and basic science, for instance. To them, they may look at technology as one dimension. They can get a sense of it, but they do not fully understand it, because they are looking at life at a higher dimension. Within each field there are multi-dimensions, and sometimes it seems as if you are a world within a world. I could spend a life-time studying a problem that takes a multi-dimension, and fractal view of the way the world works, integrating many ideas, and all the while staying within the world of science.
    Often, people who try to integrate ideas at a higher level appear to be incapable of critical thinking when it comes to how they talk about a specialists’ field. They may not know enough about it to do more than throw out stuff they learned verbatim, and will never be in a position to think critically with those tools. I have known people who are good at thinking about the big picture, who have studied programming, but can’t think their way through a programming problem unless they are being spoon-fed. Should I conclude that they can’t think just because there skill-set lies somewhere else?

    It is a problem if we define critical thinking only in terms of the skill set to think about how science fits in with society. Unfortunately, people are using an intuitive definition of critical thinking based on their own experience, and what they would be in a position to evaluate. The issue of the role of science is important, but it does not mean that unless someone does not focus on those types of problems they can’t think critically. There is also no proof that it takes more critical thinking to work on problems directly related to human society. Critical thinking cannot be defined based on a specific problem set. I have
    There are numerous people in the humanities as well who would face a similar problem. There have always been people who struggle to justify their role to society. There are not numerous English professors who can talk study literature from decades ago and can’t speak critically on current events.
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  • 17
    Reneebrown says:

    If every time someone talks about STEM education it devolves into a conversation exclusively about the most out of touch people who work in IT (many of whom have tech degrees, not even comp. sci. degrees, or no degree at all), then perhaps we should show everyone the absurdity of their thinking by reducing humanities to our worst experiences with people in human resources departments.
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  • In a technological society, all citizens need to know a great deal of science. Notice how many people get the wrong answer on nuclear power because they haven’t studied the science and math.   All high school students should be required to take 4 years of physics, 4 years of chemistry, 4 years of biology and 8 years [double classes] of math.   Probability and statistics should be included starting in the third grade. See Kitty Lit book “Probability,” where mice toss coins to make a histogram. I read it to my daughter when she was 8 years old and my daughter made a histogram.

    If high school students are required to take 4 years of English, 4 years of history, etcetera, then balance means 4 years of physics, 4 years of chemistry, 4 years of biology and 4 years of math. But math is the basis/language required for everything else.

       In college, Everybody, regardless of major, should be required to take the Engineering and Science Core Curriculum [E&SCC] plus a laboratory probability and statistics course plus more physics lab courses plus one course in computer programming.

    E&SCC = 2 years of calculus at the college level, 2 years of physics and 1 year of chemistry. All engineering and science students are required to take the E&SCC in their freshman and sophomore years.

    Getting correct answers requires doing math.

    Most people, including people with college degrees in subjects other than science and engineering, use their emotions [emote] when they should be doing math. Most people are afraid of nuclear power because they do not understand it. Nor do they know how to think rather than emote [have emotional reactions]. “To think” means “to do math.”
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  • Asteroid1Miner
    Apr 9, 2015 at 11:06 am

    In a technological society, all citizens need to know a great deal of science. Notice how many people get the wrong answer on nuclear power because they haven’t studied the science and math.

    That and the media and politicians being full of “my bomb is bigger than your bomb”, macho-crap!

    We could have had Thorium generators (which can’t blow up, or be used for terrorism), up and running by now, but no – their research and development budgets were cancelled “because they had no military applications”!!!

    http://www.itheo.org/thorium-energy-conference-2012

    Only recently has interest been belatedly renewed by the more far-sighted people!
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  • I think both are right in the sense that educated people need a broad, well-rounded liberal education. The humanities are necessary not just to promote critical thinking–though that is essential–but to provide a broad undergraduate education (in the liberal arts). If you are an American, you are not really educated without at least a taste of English and American literature, foreign languages and literature, and the arts. I had all these as an English major, along with a taste of the physical sciences (fortunately little, since I am inept in that area!). Is it too much to ask that majors in the physical sciences and math have basic groundwork in the humanities? To me the concern is that we throw the baby (humanities) out with the bathwater, creating a population of narrow-minded (as a whole) science and math techies.
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  • Science education should be a strong part of K-12. By the time someone graduates high school (well, most anyway) they should have a reasonable idea about which direction they want to proceed. Everyone’s different, and a person should pursue a career path that works for them, whether STEM related or not. I’m a software engineer and love what I do. If you don’t have passion for something, you’ll be miserable. My son is a math genius, but he hates math. He can certainly LEVERAGE on that same skillset with something else that he feels passionate about. He’s getting a math degree because it is ‘easy’ for him. I have a friend who got her Bachelor’s degree in accounting, she became a bartender because she loved the people interaction. Years later she went back to school for 6 years and is now a veterinarian. STEM education should be AVAILABLE, but what career path someone chooses is about what they want, not what is being pushed.

    Again, the most important thing regarding math and science is that it needs to play a critical role in K-12, as that is WHEN people discover where there passions are. Don’t wait until college to discover STEM.
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