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Why We Need Both STEM And The Arts

1.2.2019 | BY JOSEPHINE LISTER
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It makes sense why governments and education leaders have been focusing in on STEM in recent years. Young people have graduated into a world where they haven’t been prepared for the jobs in coding and technology that are available, and the domination of tech companies in our world (eight out of the ten largest companies in the world are tech companies) makes it clear that if we want kids to have opportunities after school, they need to be well-versed in STEM.

For awhile education has been playing catch-up with the outside world, so the narrow-sightedness on improving STEM education certainly seems reasonable. However, as with anything in life, variety is the key to truly preparing kids for the future, and honing in on one set of skills (which suit one set of people) is a fundamental mistake education systems across the world are falling into.

In a world where we’ve seen the negative influence of tech left unchecked by morality, we’re coming to learn – and want – tech companies that look out for our shared humanity, and the arts and humanities perfectly compliment the sciences in this way. As a world we need empathetically designed tech, companies who have our best interests at heart and are creating things that we are actually helpful. So pushing all of our children into the neat STEM box, one that doesn’t fit everyone’s capabilities, and defunding the arts and humanities in the process, is a scenario that will cripple our world. We need diversity across the board, gender, race, backgrounds, abilities, to create companies and products that look out for us.

We see this destruction most prominently in the rise of fake news and polarisation of ideas. Data, as a system, naturally learns what we like and shows us more of it – again and again. This only helps to create a divide in the world, where we all end up on strongly opposing sides of an argument. What technology has lost is the nuances of what it is to be human, and so it still is very rudimental in its approach. We need humanity in technology but STEM doesn’t necessarily always leave room for this.

Left unchecked, tech is simply data and coding which doesn’t truly understand the human experience. As Eric Berridge explains in his Ted Talk, Why Tech Needs The Humanities, ‘Where the sciences tell us how to build something, the humanities tell us what to build and why.’ We need people trained in the arts and STEM lessons to make room for these skill sets, to help shape the digital landscape as it evolves, to make sure it’s something that works for humans.

For many children, particularly those from low socio-economic backgrounds, school is the only opportunity they get to experience the arts and learn how to express themselves in a healthy, constructive way. It is therefore extremely important for schools to champion these subjects and not just the sciences, as this is their only opportunity to get to do these things, express themselves and figure out who they are as individuals.

‘Based on my experience working directly with and teaching more than 500 orphan children in Vietnam over the last 8 years, one problem I have seen is that most orphan children do not have opportunities to recognize or show their true feelings,’ explains Tra My, Program Director at Kidspire Vietnam and Initiator and Co-ordinator of the Maker Academy. ‘When they get angry or upset they exhibit a tendency to react in exactly the same way as the treatment they received before from adults or older students at orphanages. If they regularly received proper love and care, they showed it. If they regularly received punishment or bullying they showed it. That’s also the reality of society, not just in orphanages, not only in Vietnam, but around the world. If we are not mindful we will behave to others in exactly the same way as others have behaved to us.’

The arts have long been used as a way to understand our world, as Berridge says, ‘The humanities give us the context of our world.’ It’s no surprise, therefore, that the arts are frequently used as community outreach projects and used in conjunction with therapies to help people with mental health issues or behavioral problems. This goes to show how powerful the arts can be to build a stable society, that can communicate, express and thrive healthily, as Tra My explains, ‘Students who have better socio-emotional skills and other character skills can delay their gratification. They can recognize, control and regulate their emotions and behaviors, show respect to others and have empathy, they make more responsible decisions and prefer to take on more challenging tasks. This helps them to have a healthier mental state and a happier life.’

Surely every school and company wants students and workers who have this breadth of skills. In which case we need to value the arts and humanities just as highly as we do STEM. The question is though, how can we blend the sciences and arts to make sure students have this wide variety of skills?

Maker Academy in Vietnam blends socio-emotional learning with design thinking, project-based activities and personalized learning, to give orphan children in Vietnam the skills they need to succeed in life. Unlike more rigid STEM curriculums, Maker Academy’s exploration model allows children to take risks and to fail in a safe environment. For Tra My, this is a key component of the curriculum, ‘This process helps them to develop problem-solving skills, resilience and a sense of self, as they can make better decisions only after making some bad ones. They increase their confidence because they see they can finally succeed in making something.’

This is particularly powerful for the orphaned children Tra My works with as ‘their living environment does not allow them to do something wrong or fail, they must be right all the time or obey the adults. So allowing children the space to fail helps them to better prepare them for their life after leaving the orphanages.’ Although particularly powerful for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, having the space to experiment is vital for every child.

In the arts, unlike the sciences, children have the opportunity to experiment in a way where the outcome isn’t definitely right or wrong. ‘(The arts and humanities are) purposefully unstructured whilst the sciences are purposefully structured,’ explains Berridge. This exploration and playful route in education is incredibly important for children to build up skills in resiliency and creativity, and allows children to explore their thought processes and follow their own learning. Whereas science is structured, the arts provide the space to build additional character skills that are incredibly important to help children not just survive an uncertain future, but thrive – no matter what life throws at them.

The space to fail and learn, which Maker Academy makes room for, also helps children learn to regulate their emotions and how to overcome temporary setbacks and negative feelings in a safe environment. It gives children the opportunity to express themselves in a natural way so other children and teachers at the school can start to understand the child better and therefore know how to help them progress. This helps to personalize the learning, which Maker Academy achieves by allowing freedom of choice. Between three to five stations are set up with different activities across the maker spectrum including circuitry, robotics and coding. Children get to choose if they work by themselves or with others, and which activities they participate in. The opportunities are designed to improve their STEM skills but also their character skills such as curiosity, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. Self-reflection sessions help the educators to improve the opportunities they provide for the children and for the students to reflect on what they’ve learnt, deepening their learning.

By limiting the world into STEM or arts, we’re not doing children any favours. Similarly, if we simply force the arts into STEM to create STEAM, we’re not giving the arts and humanities the recognition they deserve. We don’t just need kids who are able to use their creative abilities to design solutions to problems facing the world. For societies to function, and for us all to thrive, we need to educate children to help them understand themselves, the world and be able to express and communicate themselves comfortably. We need to all realise that the humanities and arts are not second rate subjects, they deserve equal billing with the sciences, and together they can help to create a more harmonious world.