Thursday, August 29, 2013

Is STEM dumbing us down?

Now that we're experiencing a new spasm of education reform zeal it's probably useful to begin asking some basic questions about the kinds of reforms we are being told will bring about a new heaven and a new earth. One of the proffered vehicles for our educational salvation is a renewed emphasis on science and technology. Merely by implementing "STEM" education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), we are given to believe, will usher in a new educational age.

Not so fast.

Among many other interesting and informative comments in Stanley Fish's new post at his blog at the New York Times, "The Two Cultures of Education Reform," a review of two books on education--two-time Harvard president Derek Bok's Higher Education in America and William Bowen's Higher Education in a Digital Age--is this one:
Not only has the twin emphasis on quantitative methodology and vocational instruction failed to achieve genuine educational breakthroughs; but it has apparently had deleterious effects. The more the focus has been on disciplines where computational skills are central, the greater the erosion of the skills we refer to as “critical thinking” (another phrase I abhor, but one impossible completely to eschew these days): a “longitudinal study of twenty-four thousand undergraduates revealed that majoring in engineering was associated with declines in writing ability, cultural awareness, and political and civil participation.” And the “surprising finding” of another study “was that the writing of seniors who majored in science had actually deteriorated over the four years of college.” There’s something those would-be engineers and scientists aren’t getting; we might call it training in serious thought, another of those “intangibles” that escape the net of numerical assessment.
These quotes, we should note, come from people (Bok and Bowen, in this case) who are advocating quantitative methods of education.

So where is the evidence that "evidence-based" education will improve our schools? If anything should have quantitative evidence in its favor its the quantitative education reforms.

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