Stop STEMming the Tide of Creativity in Schools.

This time of year, I find myself having the same conversations with students with what seems like increasing frequency.

Me: “Hey Janice! I see you are doing your course selections for next year. Coming back to drama?

Janice: (With a pained, embarrassed and somewhat apologetic expression) “Sorry, Mr. Frost. I can’t take Drama in grade 11. I have to get my (*Insert Science class here) next year. I will be a) too busy or b) have no room in my schedule.”

If I had a nickel for every time I heard that, I might actually be able to retire at a reasonable age. Whether it be Advanced Placement this or High Academic that, students in our public schools, it seems, are often forced to choose. And for many, the choice is not really a choice. As a society, many Canadians seem to think of Arts education as a quaint little endeavour, meant to serve no greater purpose than to “round out” a course load. A nice little diversion from the rigors of academia. Not to be dismissed, mind you, unless of course, it gets in the way of true educational pursuits.

It seems that even here at home, we are not immune to the view of Arts education as secondary subjects. We like to say that we consider the Arts as valuable as the core sciences, but proof to the contrary can be found in the latest move by our Province towards a full year math program in grade 10. One day, the media is reporting that our math scores are low and the next day, BAM!, a brand new full year math course and a brand new curriculum. This may mean better math students, but it may also means students with fewer course options. I would love to see what sort of media storm could bring about a similar result for, say, dance.

There is a large body of research that points to the retention of math skills being inversely related to time away from the classroom, so I certainly see the value in a full year math credit. But why must there be a trade-off? Why must the pursuit of one academic path so often eliminate the exploration of another?

For many students in our schools, this is the reality that is their high school experience. In school after school, year after year, this conversation is repeated. Students must choose between courses which they feel, (and are often told), are valuable and those which are self enriching. The recent rabid “slash and burn” approach to cutting public education funding certainly has not helped the matter. I have always considered this constant, often one-sided battle for students as a fundamental structural flaw in the system. And the more I read about education, the more I see people who are agreeing with me.

All over the world, from Canada, to the US, to the U.K., people are recognizing that in order to remain vibrant and innovative, economies need to embrace areas of development outside what has been referred to as the STEM core (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Just this past week, the Globe and Mail carried two such stories, one talking about how educator’s in Oklahoma are working toward focussing more on the Arts, and one from the UK, which had an expert exclaiming that “creative types…are key figures who have the potential to push stagnant economies back into growth.”

It is interesting to note that both these articles appeared in the paper’s business section.

I am not anti STEM. I am simply pragmatic. We want innovation and creativity in our villages, towns and cities. We want vibrant, engaged next generations. We want new ways of approaching old problems. If this is what Canadians truly want, then we need to see the value in a wide based approach to public education which equally foots Chemistry and Drama, Physics and Dance. Yes, it will cost. But to not encourage creativity and innovation among our youth will ultimately prove much more expensive.



Filed under Educational Change, math education, Public education, Quality education

8 responses to “Stop STEMming the Tide of Creativity in Schools.

  1. As an STEM education researcher I have to heartily agree with you. While i wonder about the research you site regarding time away from the math classroom, I can point to a number of studies indicating that the integration of the Arts into STEM fields will produce greater achievement in all those areas. In case you are interested here is a recent addition to the scholarly publishing world out of the Claremont Graduate University (CGU) where I work and study. This journal we call “The STEAM Journal” is dedicated to publishing scholarly research at that very nexus you discuss.

    Your other very important and subtle statement regarding the testing agenda in our two countries is not lost on me. This “assessment and accountability” craze has dumbed down the curriculum and removed a great deal of creative thought in all fields. All in the name of higher test scores.

    I say Bravo to your post!

    • Hi Chris!

      The research I mention is simply an extrapolation of the work done by some around “The Summer Slide”, the theory that kids lose content over the summer months, and one of the reasons brought forth to argue for year round schooling for students. It is also a bit “tongue in cheek” in that our own Provincial government claimed that they had done research into full year math programs and had seen that it was a successful strategy, although the rapidity with which the full year program was announced calls any claim of serious research into question.
      The STEAM journal was fascinating! Thanks for sharing. I have read a few of the articles, and there is indeed food for thought there. The only odd twinge I have about the thrust of STEAM is that I have some concern that this would result in the arts only being valued in schools for their ability to contribute to the advancement of the sciences. I don’t want the Arts to remain in the schools because they create better chemistry students; I want the Arts to stay in the schools because they create. However, any line of educational inquiry that sees the value in Arts education in schools gets me very, very excited.
      Anyway, thanks again for the link, truly great stuff.

      • Happy to share. I agree with you regarding the need to keep arts in school for their own sake. As a parent of three kids who all, through great personal wrangling on their parts and my wife and my parts, were in musical arts education all through their schooling. I see first hand the power of the arts. Interestingly all three have chosen widely variant adult paths of interest while remaining deeply connected to music. (one is in fact studying music as a profession.)
        The hue and cry regarding the more easily tested skills of reading and arithmetic and the schools “apparent” inability to improve those scores is an insidious waste of energy imho. Schools should not be about testing, teaching to the test, and testing again. Rather, they ought to be about inspiring, informing, challenging to create, and in general making students into humans able to solve problems in the areas of interest and focus.
        I appreciate your thoughts and feedback

      • I can’t tell you how heartening it is to hear a researcher from south of the border say that about teaching to the test. We have a slightly different approach here in Nova Scotia to testing which is not quite as insidious as what I believe has developed in the US. However, there really is a major ground swell developing against standardized testing down there isn’t there? A friend of mine sent me a link to this story.( Not sure if you have seen it or not, but it rings tones of a gentleman from up here named Lynden Dorval who stood his ground against a school board policy bred from standardization and was disciplined for doing so. I will continue to follow the Steam movement with considerable interest.

      • I am sorry that I dropped the ball in this conversation. I have been slammed over the last 7 weeks or so, but hoping to dig out soon, and actually begin blogging in earnest this fall.

        Regarding the rising tide against standardized testing in the US, you ought to take a look at what our House of Representatives passed by way of a Bill last week. H.R. 5 sponsored by and passed, totally symbolically and down party lines, calls for a massive re-design of our federal Department of Education and complete ending of accountability measures tied to testing. It won’t pass the Senate, and is sure to be vetoed if it makes it to the President, but it does illustrate that there is a growing sense of discontent regarding our over reliance on norm referenced standardized multiple choice tests.
        I will read this article in the coming days. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Betty Jean Aucoin

    Great article Grant. I am excited that my son has the opportunity to take both pre IB math and music, next year. Math and music have both contributed to his intellect and talent.

  3. Hugh d'Entremont

    STEM subjects are important to everyone. However look around at the doctors, dentists, and engineers you know you will find they are also talented musicians, artists, actors and athletes. Most of the professionals I know credit their success, in large part, to the skills they picked up in the so called soft areas of curriculum.

    If we don’t stop treating education as factory and teachers as machine operators our school’s biggest product will not be graduates rather it will be dropouts.

  4. Pingback: Art for art’s sake? Old adage may have new ally. | frostededucation

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