STEAM: Person, Place or Paradigm Shift?

Children are capable of more than many want to give them credit for. The STEAM movement is popularizing this idea, and giving schools ways to think about language, time and space to make that idea real.
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STEM as an acronym was born, as many things are, out of worry. In 2006, President George Bush stated that there was a significant concern about the lack of high quality STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) research and education initiatives, resulting in an urgent concern about our nation's ability to compete. He announced, during his State of the Union address that year, the federal assistance program "American Competitiveness Initiative" which promised millions of dollars to STEM initiatives in education and R&D. As a result, science, engineering and robotics programs have been popping up in schools. Recently, there has been a movement to add the "A" for arts and design into the mix, led by John Maeda, Rhode Island School of Design's former president (and Advisory Board member at our school), among others, and there is now a caucus focused on this at the Federal level. The STEM to STEAM movement is based on the belief that "art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century just as science and technology did in the last century."

At Blue School, we have been exploring the relationship between these five disciplines since 2006. As a school with STEAM in our DNA, we have been pursuing both high quality and deep implementation of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics with children from the aged two through 10. We believe that these ingredients cannot exist outside of their relationship to one another, nor can they exist without a deep and rich understanding of history, literature and the human condition. But contrary to the idea that STEAM is an add on, a place, or a person, the existence of STEAM in our DNA derives from a set of beliefs that define how we think about education to support the unknowable demands of the future.

Begin with a definition of creativity

This may sound like a strange place to begin, but, if the "creativity economy" is where we are headed, we should share a common vision of this goal. For us, a working definition for educators is Sir Ken Robinson's notion of "imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and have value." He posits that describing someone as creative ...

..Suggests that they are actively producing something in a deliberate way. People are not creative in the abstract; they are creative in something: in mathematics, in engineering, in writing, in music, in business, in whatever. Creativity involves putting your imagination to work. In a sense, creativity is applied imagination. (Robinson, Out of Our Minds, 2001)

This definition is important, because while it is natural to say that a four year old is creative when she draws a face in a new way to experiment with unique color choices, true creativity (per this definition) takes place after mastery of a domain when a new intervention is made within it. Beginning with a definition is essential to knowing what kind of learner we are attempting to cultivate with our work, and also what it looks like when we have achieved the goal.

Along with a definition, we create the conditions for creative thought to take place. This is where in-depth attention to insight and metacognition come into play. Dr. David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership and Your Brain at Work, argues that insight requires quiet, internal focus, a slightly positive outlook and, ironically, not focusing on the problem. Because teachers and classrooms cannot always provide all of these conditions at once, Rock and his colleagues wanted to know what the best proxy for these could be, and found that they revolve around metacognition. They asked these simple questions:

1) What are you trying to achieve?
2) How long have you been working on this?
3) What is your best guess about the best way forward?
4) How many different approaches have you tried?
5) How close to a solution are you?

They found that by asking these five questions during problem solving, subjects increased the amount of insights by 55 percent.

Authentic materials

Children -- at two years old and at 12 -- need to have real materials in their hands. Whether it is at two as they study water and soil, or when they are five and they use masking tape and cardboard, or at 12 when they create robots to solve every day problems, STEAM requires us to put the same tools in the hands of students that are those used by the professionals. If you want the child to be an artist, give him the same materials an artist would use; if you want her to be a scientist, give her the tools and materials she needs as well.

Of course, there are developmental questions about what types of materials to hand to children, but we try not use proximal materials or representations. The technologies and inventions we have in today's world are likely the least advanced our children will ever have in their hands, so we give them the tools to make things better as early as we can. Classrooms should be stocked with materials, and children should know where to find them, how to use them, and how to care for them.

True curriculum integration

Neuroscience tells us that we learn best when ideas and domains are integrated, and when we are following threads of our own interests and motivations. As adults, we know this: When we have a burning question or idea to pursue, the content is extremely engaging, the search is a joy, and the learning we do stays with us. Yet, in schools, many of us still isolate subject areas and break learning down into arbitrary time blocks. To build the skills and understandings necessary for our scientists, mathematicians, technologists and artists, we choose to create full and big studies, framed by unanswerable prompts and provocations, and organized by iterating through problems and designs. To do this -- to truly live up to what the neuroscience tells us -- we need schedules that allow for time to go deep into material and discussion, specialists in the arts or sciences to work within the classroom study rather than as a pull out, and culminating projects that invite learners to dig in, to build up, to enter in multiple ways, and then to engage with authentic audiences.

Redefine technology

Since I became a school leader 10 years ago, I have been asked the following question almost once a week: "How do you integrate technology?" For me, this has always been the wrong question. Technology is a tool, like a pencil, a protractor or pad of paper, and it is also a method for organizing information. Imagine if someone were to ask how we integrate those tools! It is no longer a question that work will be performed online in the future, no longer a question that online collaboration makes for better communication. So, we want to more fully explore what technology enables us to do, and how it can help us explore the full potential of the human mind. If we accept that technology allows us to get most of the world's facts and information more quickly, we are freed up to use our time in school to do the work of understanding the nuances of the human condition, histories, transitions, dilemmas and to then use technologies -- indeed get the tools to build the technologies -- plus our human drive to do something about it.


This is the most challenging, but most essential, piece. The culture in which STEAM disciplines can be nurtured and strengthened require a culture that begins with leadership, teachers and families. If we want children to experiment, take risks, persevere in the face of disappointment or failure, become flexible and resilient, then we have to try it ourselves. We have to be willing to take the risk of jumping off of the 45 minute period schedule, ask teachers to reflect and take risks themselves, and to truly integrate curriculum. There are mistakes inherent and celebrated in this type of environment, and in this way, it can be a challenge to support a culture that supports risks. Families who can partner with schools and who can believe and see that this is what the brain science really says, know that what they had when they were young is simply not good enough for young people today.

Commitment to content and skill mastery

There is an important underlying assumption that must be said, though for some it goes without saying, which is the critical importance of identifying exactly what skills and understandings young people need to learn within these disciplines. Teachers need to be able to articulate and imbed the skills and content students need, even if timing or entry points change, and they must ensure that students master those skills. It is not enough to create a robot if one doesn't understand electronics. Skills, and skills practice, need to go hand in hand with these ideas. For a kindergartener, building a scaled down neighborhood out of cans is wonderful when the design has been planned, the number of needed cans in different colors, shapes and sizes has been calculated.

At Blue School, our building buzzes with makers, explorers, mathematicians, builders, and artists who are also voracious readers, writers, and worldly thinkers. This comes from the steady belief that children are capable of more than many want to give them credit for. The STEAM movement is popularizing this idea, and giving schools ways to think about language, time and space to make that idea real. In the end, however, the real challenge of implementing deep learning in the disciplines of arts, science, mathematics, technology and engineering, is asking bold questions about time, the integration of curriculum, and culture.

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