Using STEAM to Nourish Diverse and Democratic Learning Cultures


Effective educational reform requires that we apply STEM to the design of curriculum and to student and teacher management and assessment. We should apply the sciences of learning, human development, management, culture, and communities to our reform efforts. Additionally, curriculum design would benefit if we were to move from discipline-segregated silos to multi-disciplinary teams that use classrooms as R&D design studios where designers work with and learn from students and teachers to create integrated learning experiences.

By using STEM plus Arts (STEAM) to create new learning cultures, we can begin to create a rational and scientific rather than a traditional foundation for school reform.

This requires that the classroom cultures encourage and not smother our highest intellectual, aesthetic, and affective instincts that naturally motivate people and nourish their diversity.

For those who imagine that we have applied scientific research to school reform, there are many rebuttals, key of which is that research has tended to not take the diversity of students and teachers into account. Further, researchers have asked linear rather than systemic, holistic, or “ecological” questions. Thus, in many instances for many students and teachers, we have applied research that has misled us and has created predictably dysfunctional consequences.

The essence of science is to learn to observe, question, and think critically and to learn from formal and informal experiments. Adding art to science more effectively educates us to look out into the world and back into ourselves in order for curiosity to stimulate appreciation, questioning, and reflection. Both science and art educate us to evolve rational and intuitive problem-solving and expressive skills. These are exactly the skills called for to develop higher order and 21st century capacities and provide a strong argument for modifying the acronym from STEM to STEAM.

We instill the values of wonder, truth, beauty, equality, and democracy when we apply, model, and educate for art and science. This requires that the classroom cultures encourage and not smother our highest intellectual, aesthetic, and affective instincts that naturally motivate people and nourish their diversity. Thus, we need to roll back our focus on learning for the purpose of passing tests. Instead, educators should motivate learning for the purpose of achieving meaningful understanding and stewardship for one’s self, others, and local and global communities and ecologies.

Learning and management sciences clearly show that people do not function at their best when doing higher-level problem solving if they fear failure or are measured by some comparative or external criteria. People function best when they have a shared purpose, feel supported by others, and have time to develop deeper understanding through exploration, reflection, expression, and supportive feedback.

For anyone who doubts that people can learn more efficiently without a carrot and stick, please consider that almost every child achieves the impossibly difficult task of understanding and speaking a language without any formal teaching or testing. Most three-year-olds will have a better grasp of their native language than a student who studies for six years in a foreign language class.

While we speak of personalized learning and educating for diversity, in fact our instructional and assessment practices have become more homogenized and depersonalized. Our current approach to instructional reform ignores what STEM tells us about how to best nourish people for learning. The learning, management, social, and cultural sciences “prove” that learning happens most efficiently when people are motivated by a shared purpose and by mutual respect in a non-judgmental community. Top-down control by purse-string holders over administrators, administrators over teachers, and teachers over students impedes learning and increases stress, teacher burnout, and student dropout rates.

The scientific knowledge and technology exist to lay the foundation for far more efficient, effective, and enjoyable learning. Based on current human sciences, arts, and digital technologies, the potential for effective educational reform is within our reach.

To create a functional foundation for achieving reform, we should not merely teach STEM in our schools, we should apply STEAM to the process of designing and managing education. We have to wed our curriculum design, assessment, and management processes to what we know about people’s diverse developmental needs — students, teachers, and administrators.

Secondly, we should apply the first principle in the science of design: The designer must be immersed in the environment she wishes to influence. The holy grail of educational reform has been an integrated, theme-focused, spiral curriculum; yet we continue to design in discipline-segregated silos separated from students, teachers, and people who have much needed insight and design skills. Science is taught separately from math; reading from writing; and social studies from introspective behavioral sciences that relate to students’ and teachers’ feelings, motivations, conflicts, and behaviors.

Finally, we should grasp that our current technology makes it possible to do what was previously unimaginable — to empower integrated design teams so they can continually improve, diversify, and personalize instruction, feedback, and assessment. Local field testing and global publishing should then follow. But this can only happen if we see our classrooms as R&D labs and design studios where integrated teams of in-residence experts and artists work hand-in-hand with students, teachers, and technologists to create, evolve, and continually improve ever more engaging learning experiences.

We may not see big changes in one or two years, but if we pursue this course, within a very few years our schools will become creative learning studios designed to nourish the full range of people’s richest capacities. If we continue to design curriculum and support technologies from traditional, discipline-discrete cubicles that are far from classrooms and the science of learning and management, we will use our knowledge and tools to create an ever more elegantly rigid, accountable, and dehumanizing system.

The first step is for publishers and school districts to partner with universities and talented members of their communities so our sciences, technologies, engineering, mathematics, artistic, and communication experts can work together with students and teachers. This requires a new way of organizing for doing the profound work of building learning cultures from within people, classrooms, and communities.

Until we align 21st century design and learning principles to the process of designing curriculum and assessment, we cannot expect to create school reform that is worthy of our best human capacities.

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Jon Madian founded Humanities Software with his wife, Karen Jostad, in 1983 — sold to Renaissance Learning in 1999. Jon also founded the Artist-in-Residence Reading Project in the Inner City of Los Angeles (1976–1979). Foundation, state, and federal grants capitalized R&D to create one of the first learner-centered, computer-assisted curriculum design programs. A consultant for Apple, IBM, Capstone, and Microsoft and for schools and curriculum publishers, Jon is also a psychologist and children’s book author. He helped developed over 100 reading and writing software programs and has written extensively on technology, curriculum, and school reform.