UA professor argues support for STEAM education misplaced 

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 1,743 views 

The STEM education movement, a push for K-12 educators to put more focus on science, technology, engineering and math, has in recent years yielded some ground to the STEAM effort, which advocates intertwining STEM studies with the arts.

The STEM movement is rooted in reports of a lack of adequate training in those subjects for American students and a need for a stronger pipeline as more careers are created within those fields. The STEAM movement, advocates say, is meant to enhance STEM education by adding arts, humanities and design, in an effort to drive innovation and promote creative thinking.

Jay Greene, distinguished professor and head of the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform in Fayetteville, sees another motive behind the STEAM movement — one where arts advocates view glomming onto subjects that are popular from a policy perspective as a means to preserving arts education — and he thinks it’s a mistake.

He said reports showing study of the arts improves students’ results in other subjects are mostly correlational, versus causational, and research efforts would be better spent looking at the direct benefits of arts education on its own.

Greene shared his thoughts in an opinion piece titled “Arts Integration Is a Sucker’s Game,” published Oct. 2 in Education Week magazine.

Greene wrote in the EdWeek piece, “If arts instruction is integrated into science, math and other subjects, schools will be tempted to curtail separate arts classes and staff. School leaders could claim that the arts are being covered at other times, in other places and by other staff, so there is less need to set aside specific time for the arts.

“By trying to put the arts almost everywhere, integration is likely to result in arts education almost nowhere.”

Greene touts standalone arts study as the best protection for arts education within the framework of educational institutions, where “bureaucratic politics” come into play, he said. The arts can be defended in school by occupying space in the school day, on campus, on the faculty roster, he added. If there is a designated art teacher, a person whose livelihood is tied to teaching art, if there is a specified art room with equipment, “if there’s a time in the schedule called art, it’s harder to get rid of these things,” Greene said.

He relayed instances where schools under the pressure of impending standardized tests have instructed teachers to integrate reading, for example, into their art curriculum. It’s an example of educational institutions “high-jacking” arts classes for other purposes, Greene said, adding it is useful for art teachers to be able to point to a schedule and say the time is designated for art study, not reading.

“The school day is a fairly strict economy. There are always trade-offs, a focus on one thing comes at the expense of doing something else,” he said.

In fact, he doesn’t believe the push for STEM education is appropriate, because each subject has a purpose, and each subject that is left out of an integration effort runs the risk of not getting its due representation, Greene said.

Alongside Greene’s article within EdWeek’s “Arts Education: A Look Ahead” package is an opinion piece written by Susan Riley, an arts integration advocate based in Maryland. She wrote STEM education requires creativity for observation and problem-solving.

“Our 21st-century economy requires the ability to connect across content areas and create with ingenuity. … At its best, STEAM removes the limitations of pure orderly thinking and replaces them with wonder, critique, inquiry and innovation. Students are able to think more deeply and ask non-Googleable questions,” Riley wrote.

“What schools must stop doing is teaching the puzzle pieces and then never letting students put the puzzle together. Through arts integration, students are finally discovering and creating their own solutions, rather than waiting on the teacher to tell them how to arrive at an answer. That is why schools should intentionally work across standards to provide a deeper, richer opportunity for students to truly own their learning. We can’t simply teach our content areas separately and expect that students will be able to integrate them after graduation,” Riley wrote.

Greene believes K-12 is too early to introduce integration.

“Kids are not discovering new things in fourth grade. They are learning about things that others have learned,” he said. “At the graduate school level is where we might see more use of creativity and interdisciplinary work. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in elementary school. First, you have to gain some command of material before integration. That, theoretically, will occur later. We can’t be in a hurry to get to graduate school. We cannot expect students to run before they can walk.”

Greene wrote in EdWeek: “… academic disciplines help organize and convey knowledge more effectively.”

“Every good science teacher will use some tricks from art and any good drawing teacher will talk about perspective,” Greene said. “It’s not as if teachers of these subjects never draw on tools from other disciplines.”

Artistic methods can be helpful in a wide variety of educational situations, but in terms of tacking the arts onto more “policy popular” subjects as a strategy to save them, Greene said it’s a not a winning strategy. He takes issue with the attempt to truly integrate the subjects and contends the STEAM method is “pedagogically unsound.” He believes STEAM education is hard on teachers and hard on students.

“My fear is that trying to integrate means they won’t have command of any of the subjects,” he said. “We’ll be straining teachers too much, expecting them to have command of many different disciplines.

“It’s hard enough to master science or music, much less both,” he said. “As a result, the teachers will do a worse job.”

STEAM advocates argue the integration of art is not about simultaneously teaching two subjects with equal weight. It is about the use of art to aid in the understanding of content and as well as in the expression of knowledge gained.

Stacey Mason, owner of Mason On Leadership in Bentonville, said: “The goal is not to embed art within science. It’s not about advocating for the teaching of band or ballet in biology class. I think it’s about the desire to develop well-rounded students by ensuring greater exposure to diversity of curriculum and thought.”

Mason describes her company as a “leadership consultancy” that focuses on behavioral assessments and executive coaching. She recently wrote an opinion piece about STEAM education for Talk Business & Politics-Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.

“STEM is a deep dive in four disciplines. Those fields of study are broad but all hard skills in the end. The soft skills — or tangential skills — get lost in that intense focus,” she said.

From a business perspective, she said, “Leadership is part science and part art. It’s never really just about what you do, because it’s influenced greatly by how you do it. Style matters. Intentional effort applied to leadership competencies (science) will undoubtedly serve a leader well. The differentiation, though, is how the leader chooses to demonstrate his or her mastered skills (art).”

Mason also pointed to a recent book by Alan Alda, international actor, writer and director. His book is called “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating” and is about his journey helping scientists more effectively communicate complex ideas in ways wide audiences can understand.

“It’s a great example of merging science with art,” Mason said.

Greene wrote in EdWeek: “The arts teach particular ways of thinking about and viewing the world. The arts teach some vocationally useful skills. And most importantly, the arts connect us to our cultural heritage and teach us how to be civilized human beings. Education is not entirely about the pragmatic, but should also convey the beautiful and profound — something the arts do well. That is why arts education should be preserved in its own right.”

He believes arts education advocates would be better off commissioning more research on what the arts do on their own and ensuring the findings of that research are widely disseminated. The value of the arts should not primarily be in service to other subjects, Greene said.

“The arts are not purely instrumental, not just a vehicle for learning science. It does something on its own.”

At the same time, Greene said there is “no evidence that art is a very successful vehicle.” While a growing number of studies show a correlation between students who study the arts, Greene in his EdWeek piece points to 2013 research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that says the most of the findings are not based on empirical data. (Link here for a PDF of that report.)

Greene pointed to a report that showed students who took more art classes did better in school, and he said it was impossible to divorce the better class performance from other possible explanations. For example, did students who took more classes in general perform better overall? Were students who did better academically afforded more time to pursue arts or were they encouraged to do more?

“The causation/correlation difference is really an important one,” Greene said. It comes down to a chicken-and-egg premise. The question is “whether the arts make people awesome or awesome people are drawn to the arts.”

Greene and his team at the University of Arkansas National Endowment of the Arts Research Lab are conducting research to answer this question through their work looking at the short- and long-term effects of arts-focused field trips in education.

The OECD study was an update from a previous study from the same researchers who looked at the possibility of transfer learning. The data, Greene said, show “knowledge is domain-specific and tends not to transfer. If you learn math, you don’t get better at reading. If you learn reading, you don’t get better at music. If you learn music, you don’t get better at reading.”

There are a few exceptions, according to the OECD study. It shows there are potential ties of music and dance to spatial skills and visual art to geometric reasoning. It also shows theatre education can strengthen verbal skills. However, the researchers’ overall conclusion was skills don’t transfer.

The study also stipulated that there were limits to the way creativity can be measured, and that is an area STEAM advocates deem central to the debate. They say the rigidity of scientific methods are at odds with art and, therefore, it is impossible to show value that way.

Arts advocates say the arts, especially theatre, encourage empathy, and they point to studies that show its benefits.

In the same EdWeek package, Mariale Hardiman, professor of education and the vice dean of academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, wrote about her team’s randomized control trials to test the effectiveness of arts-integrated science units compared with conventional science units.

Hardiman wrote: “According to the results of delayed post-tests, arts-integrated teaching showed an advantage for long-term retention of science content. That increase in retention in the arts-integrated units was especially strong for students at the lowest levels of reading achievement. We believe, therefore, that the arts provide another vehicle for students with limited language or lower academic skills to demonstrate mastery of academic content.”

A separate report shows making art can affect your brain. According to research published in the scientific journal PLOS One in 2014, producing visual art improved psychological resilience and increased brain activity for the participants by the end of the experiment. The study looked at before-and-after brain scans of two groups of recent retirees. One group was given lessons by an art educator, and the participants actively created pieces of visual art, while the other group discussed art and interpreted selected paintings and sculptures. After a 10-week class, the retirees who made art showed increased connectivity in the part of the brain that deals with cognitive processes like introspection, self-monitoring and memory.

“And then there’s the entire conversation around merging left-brain and right-brain thinking,” Mason said. “From my Improve Thru Improv perspective: [Applied Improvisation] Improv is the bridge. It creates the place to have the conversation. So, from a platform of theater, I’m actually teaching personal, team and business skills. In this way, it truly is a blended-thinking approach to learning and development. … In the end, what we really need to teach is how to learn. We can figure out what to learn from there.”