Proposal for a Holistic Emphasis in K-12

Bob Hoffmann80aBy Bob Hoffmann*

[Note: This article was written in response to Harry Keller’s “Acronym in Cheek: STEM, STEAM…” (11/11/13). -Editor]

Thanks for your insightful article.

This exact question was presented as New Business Item (NBI) #43 to the delegates of the National Education Association (NEA) Representative Assembly (RA) in terms of “ways to integrate the arts into STEM.” The Vocational, Career, and Technical Educators’ Caucus (of which I am a past-chair) looked into the claims by supporters of the “Put the Arts into STEM” (STEAM) initiative and found that the motion would give an NEA endorsement to massive changes in our courses. We organized an effective response, which defeated the motion among the 9000+ delegates.

The STEAM Initiative advocates claimed that “art is used everywhere in STEM,” from the Fibonacci series in math and nature to the “Harmony of the Spheres” of the solar system orbits, from design in architecture to the “form factor of the iPad in your hands.” We should certainly recognize that this is true in specific historical cases, yet our challenge now is to encourage similar innovations from our students, keeping in mind that such grand new ideas are the exception, not the rule.

The maker of the proposal, Mr. Tom McLaughlin, identified the source of many of their arguments for STEAM as a book by Robert S. and Michele M. Root-Bernstein titled Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People. While the authors clearly support the integration of creative thinking skills with the arts, the inverse does not seem to hold — that students must learn the arts to become creative thinkers. 

If we look at our learners in the classical sense of “body, mind, and spirit,” then HPER (Health, Physical Education, and Recreation) classes should develop the skills and “habits of mind” unique to that portion of life experience. Likewise, the STEM courses focus on how we relate to the natural world through the principles and concepts unique to these disciplines. The realm of the spirit, then, belongs to the “Communication, Creative, Cultural, and Social Arts” (3CSA), which has its own unique practices and methods. Any well-rounded K-12 curriculum should develop the “whole person” in equal measure, in my opinion.

After further investigation of this issue, it seems that the ideas of “WKID Intelligence” are more fundamental and foundational than the three branches of the traditional curriculum. Recent revelations in brain research and cognitive science show that “Wisdom, Knowledge, Information, and Data” develop in a “bubble-up” sequence, rather than from a Eureka moment when the “light bulb switched on.” Thinking, learning, reflecting, and creating are all basic mental processes and are applied to all three sectors of schooling. No single area has a monopoly on the mind.

My conclusion from these experiences is that we need to clearly identify the various “thinking tools” that we apply to our mental processes and their application. As components of “literacy,” and “citizenship,” we can present them as distinct items to be learned and assessed, apart from specific courses or disciplines. Standards could be developed, which identify the contents of a “Tool Box of the Mind” that all K-12 graduates can take with them as they enter the workplace, college, career, and the community.

So whether we wear lab coats, smocks, or jerseys, we should be able to pick the fruit from the tree of knowledge in equal share, if we can just recognize that it is within everyone’s grasp.

* Immediate Past-President at SDEA (South Dakota Education Association) Retired Educators Association.

One Response

  1. This is an excellent expositionas well as an overview of education in general.

    Every single course taken in formal education settings should be cognizant of the “tool box of the mind” and should contribute to it. The contribution may be small or large depending on the subject and the maturity of the learner.

    You cannot teach science well without recognizing arts. However, I dispute the artificial injection of this or that art into a science course just because. I am pleased that Bob Hoffmann and others agree.

    I view these attempts as distractions from improving education through the replacement of memorizing with thinking and understanding underlying principles. Time and again, it’s been shown that such understanding leads to higher test grades, at least as good as memory, and that the learning stays at better levels and longer with understanding.

    My article is intended to illustrate in a semi-humorous fashion that the replacement of a grand old word (science) with an acronym (STEM) may do more harm than good. My first thought was “Why?” Then, I thought that STEM was putting a spotlight on science education, which is a good thing. Now, I am concerned that K-12 science courses will turn into engineering courses and that others will use the STEM bandwagon to press forward with alternate agenda (e.g. STEAM).

    BTW, I have reviewed a set of “project-based” middle school science textbooks and found no science in them. That’s why I am concerned about the STEM movement going in the wrong direction. Adding in some engineering has merit, but removing all science is too high a price to pay.

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