Education's Alphabet Soup Problem



Education has a problem with catchy acronyms. We've come to know and love so many abbreviations, but it can definitely be overwhleming and jargony. For example, I found a company that works in STEM and STREAM. What in the world is STREAM? Oh, it's just the self-fulfilling prophecy that STEM created. Let me be upfront: STEM was and continues to be a catchy term that achieves a minimal goal within education. Instead of adding more letters to the alphabet soup in education, we need to step back and reassess how we want education to happen and what resources will be needed (human, physical, digital, and otherwise). STEM is a base idea that does some good but reinforces a broken system. So lets stop the STEM, STEAM, STREAM (why not MASTER?) madness. Let's step back and think through future education to find a better solution. 

Divided We Fall

First, a big issue with the idea of STEM is that it reinforces this division of subject areas. This begot STEAM (A for Arts) which now begets R for Reading to make STREAM. While a skilled teacher can integrate A and R easily into curriculum, it ultimately means that we should consider all content areas and skills here. So let's not forget another T for teamwork or C for critical thinking or a H for history and so on (because SETMATCH is a great acronym, right?).

I want us to pause in this moment to consider the above and look for a better answer and path forward.  It's hard to say it, but STEM, STEAM, and STREAM (STEM+) are not the answer. We can validate that idea with this example: STEM+ proponents tend to overlook that E is for engineering. Engineering is the application of Science, Technology, Reading, Arts, and Math. That's why we have biological, chemical, mechanical, electrical, software, database, etc. engineers. You don't just "teach" engineering. You apply principles and practices from diverse fields and engineer solutions to problems. With that said, it makes more sense to work on instilling engineering principles and practices within our schools, educators, and learners.

Arts or Something Else?

markers on paper for design

Lest we forget about that magical A in STEAM. The shift to standardized testing and metrics-first education saw our failing school districts shift funds away from "elective" or "special" classes like music, wood shop, home economics, and art. While pedagogy may align with this, it took a lot of soul out of schools and turned them into test-prep mills. Advocates for arts saw a problem with this and fought to expand STEM to STEAM. But, is art as we knew it in elementary school what is needed for future education? Taking our idea about engineering as a fundamental approach to education, what role does art play? A big one in fact, but it's in the shape of design. 

If you're a fan of the TV show Silicon Valley, you might have seen a recent episode where the revolutionary technology is great, but the platform the show's team creates is too confusing for a typical user. This isn't an isolated problem in engineering, software or otherwise. Consider the book, The Design of Everyday Things. Donald Norman, the author, points out that there are many terribly engineered things in the world and they would benefit from better engineering and design principles. In fact, Stanford's design school (D.School) advocates for Design Thinking to support how products and services are engineered so they best meet user needs and truly help solve real-world problems. When design and engineering meet, they can create some of the most powerful products and systems possible (iPhone, anyone?).  This interaction is needed in classrooms desperately.

The Path Forward


If STREAM is the latest transmogrified version of a misdirected idea, where do we go from here? From my point of view, there is a simple but difficult solution. Schools need to focus more on supporting their students to engineer solutions that are designed to solve bigger, real-world issues and problems. This is an easy thing to say, but the actual implementation is truly like unraveling the knottiest mess by moonlight: many considerations must be made, with too few examples, and there is serious guesswork involved. In reality, this could be a very good thing if schools wants to have more ownership of what they do and how they do it (deep ambiguity included). 

Two caveats: One, students still need to learn foundational knowledge (phonics and reading comprehension, writing, math facts and theories/properties, subject area content knowledge, etc.), but content acquisition should not be the main focus, especially after 2nd or 3rd grade-- just consider what Montessori schools offer. And caveat two, while this can be a difficult transition, it's not impossible. Some schools are doing it, and they have seen great outcomes in their youth. It is a community effort and needs cooperation ranging from school administration to families, teachers, partners, and volunteers. But, when done faithfully, the benefits are astounding and far more rewarding than appeasing a test.  

Final Thoughts

STEM served a purpose. It emphasized the need to transition away from an education system that underemphasized the need for high quality education in science, technology, engineering, and math. Unfortunately, it opened a flood gate that has only diminished its initial purposes and led the education system off course. We need to step back from this alphabet soup leadership and transition to what will matter for the next 100 years in education. Content learned in STEM and other courses is vital to the learner and human experience-- this I cannot deny. But, why we educate and how we reach student outcomes needs to be reconsidered because we need students to be leaders today. The world can't wait.