STEM education is not binary

The SMH reports that a leading academic claims that a focus on STEM education is leaving kids prey to fake news.

The argument, from Professor Punya Mishra, runs that subjects like history and art taught students how to question the status quo and see different perspectives and so less liable to accept fake news. Well I question the Professor’s contention – but then I was taught history and art.

What I really don’t like is the binary characterisation of STEM – that if you are into technology and maths you are intrinsically not interested in, or learning, history or art. You are in Professor Mishra’s world a one dimensional movie-geek.

Look it’s a fairly obvious argument that STEM-learning in fact helps you be wary of fake news. You understand deductive reasoning, you are taught logic, you understand algorithms and how technology can be used to manipulate you, and so on.

It is STEM skills utilising technology, maths and science that are being used to manipulate people’s thinking. Understanding how that works is the base-line for avoiding being manipulated. So, STEM skills are crucial in navigating a modern world of technology.

But having STEM skills doesn’t mean you can’t also be taught about the arts. When did this become a black-and-white, binary choice?

Surely the goal of all primary and high school education ought to be to turn out as well-rounded individual with foundation skills across a range of disciplines. It ought not to be to create a monolithic focus either for STEM or for the arts. It’s about balance.

It’s important not to loose sight of the fact that, in Australia at least, the current educational focus on STEM is there because we haven’t been balanced. We have pushed kids into the arts and away from maths and technology. You just need to look at the numbers of students taking maths or physics for the HSC to recognise that the balance is still badly tipped away from where it needs to be and now is not the time to be scaring people into pulling back from STEM education.

We need well-rounded young people leaving school. People able to understand when they are being manipulated, whether by fake news or by advertising. And the way to do that is to provide a rounded education that includes all students having studied STEM as well as a range of other disciplines. We’re not going to achieve that by spuriously blaming STEM or by characterising this as an either/or choice.

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