Strong Thinking over Narrow Expertise

Strong Thinking over Narrow Expertise

by Dr. Neal Brown, Head of School, Green Acres School

My mentor Ted Sizer emphasized that schools’ most important purpose should be to help students “use their minds well.” Embedded in this simple statement is the notion that a broad, general, or liberal education—rooted in daily exposure to math, science, literature, social sciences, and the arts—helps all students to think more critically and more creatively.

Last month, I came across Fareed Zakaria’s Post Op Ed article, “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous.” Like many schools, we have promoted STEM practices because they support our notion that students learn best from hands-on experiences. Through increased units in our science classes featuring robotics, engineering, and technical and/or design challenges, we see our students applying their learning, problem-solving skills, collaborative skills, and creativity to real-world challenges. This perfectly fits our progressive approach. Just recently, for example, I observed one our Middle School science classes where the students were testing their structures for how they would hold up to various natural disasters. Students in teams watched with great excitement to see whether the “hurricane” (aka leaf blower) would knock over the structures that they designed specifically to avoid this outcome!

In the rush to embrace STEM, however, some schools and policy makers have focused on technical, science, math, and engineering skills at the expense of time devoted to literature, history, and the arts. In the name of keeping up with international competition, as Fareed Zakaria points out, they have underestimated the link between the kind of thinking stimulated by a broad, liberal education (that includes math, science, and technology) and the development of the skills needed to promote innovation. In many cases, as well, test scores emphasizing the memorization of information and/or the narrow application of mathematical or scientific skills, continue to be held up as the only standard against which we judge the capability of our students.

At Green Acres, we are excited about the growth in our application of STEM, but more often we refer to it as STEAM, with an “a” for “Arts.” This reminds us that creativity, critical thinking, and the ability to understand an issue from multiple perspectives and disciplines, are critical to unlocking the kind of innovation that STEM promoters most covet.