S.T.A.M.P.E.R. not S.T.E.M. For Public Education Reform

October 25th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

S.T.E.M. is one of the acronyms du jour in the current public education debate. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, which represent, some argue, the four areas that act as the foundation for America maintaining its preeminent position as world leaders in innovation and technological advancement. Some education reformers believe that these four disciplines are taking a hit in our public education system and explain the decline in achievement test scores among U.S. students compared to their peers worldwide. Given these concerns, it seems perfectly reasonable that these four subjects should be a primary focus of public education reform in America.

At the same time, I would suggest that an overemphasis on S.T.E.M. will cause other essential areas of education to suffer at a net cost to the next generations of students and our country as a whole. S.T.E.M. strikes me as offering too narrow a focus to produce a truly well-educated and balanced citizenry capable of being engaged members and vital contributors to all parts of our society. It also doesn’t offer enough to our students for the U.S. to continue to call itself a civilized culture. Though S.T.E.M. are essential ingredients to robust creativity and innovation, there are other equally important elements that should be included in the public education mix.

In place of S.T.E.M., I would recommend that we broaden our focus onto S.T.A.M.P.E.R (policy wonks do love their cute acronyms!) which stands for Science, Technology, Arts, Mathematics, Physical, Emotions, and Reason.

I keep Science, Technology, and Mathematics intact because they are inarguably essential components of the equation in which Quality Education lies to the right of the equal sign. But I left out Engineering for several reasons. First, because engineering is the practical offspring of science, technology, and mathematics, placing it alongside them seems premature. Second, the specialized and applied nature of engineering appears better suited for college and graduate school programs which is where engineering now resides. It would seem that a comprehensive orientation toward science, technology, and mathematics in elementary and secondary schools would set the stage for excellence in engineering in post-secondary-school education.

Arts is a no-brainer to me because of its perhaps not-so-obvious impact on scientific, technological, and mathematical thinking. New ideas and innovations, though sowed in the firmament of hard knowledge, blossom from the more ethereal creative flights of fancy that the arts encourages. Inventive thinking can not be “taught” in the traditional sense of the word, but it can be experienced and nurtured through the various forms of artistic expression.

I add Physical because our health and well being have become the rejected stepchild of public education despite its clear importance to individual achievement and societal vitality. At a time when childhood obesity is an epidemic and adult obesity is becoming the norm, many public schools have dropped physical education classes, ended recess, and continue to offer a cornucopia of junk food in cafeterias and vending machines, all in the name of budget cutting. These decisions are shortsighted and counterproductive for both students and our society as a whole because, as the saying goes, without our health, we’ve got nothing.

I’ve added Emotions for the simple reason that there is no more important contributor to the success and happiness of individuals and the functioning of a society. Fear, frustration, anger, and despair are daily companions of young people all over the country (hopefully with some inspiration, joy, excitement, and happiness thrown in there as well). Bullying, born of unresolved emotions, has created a toxic culture in schools and headlines in the news. And, despite its obvious importance, where do young people learn about emotions? From their parents? That is a scary thought given the apparent emotional capabilities of the current generation of parents. From popular culture? Another scary thought when you consider the unhealthy emotional role models portrayed on television, film, music, sports, and other media. As I travel the U.S. speaking at schools, I am amazed at how few have any sort of curriculum that systematically teaches students how to master their emotional lives.

Finally, when I talk about Reason I mean the ability to think logically and cogently. Reason involves the capacity to draw coherent conclusions and make rational decisions based on the available information. Reason allows people to minimize the pitfalls caused by the cognitive biases that researchers have demonstrated to govern so much of our thinking. Given that how we observe, interpret, and decide on information dictates just about everything we think, feel, and do in life, it seems incumbent on our educational system to help students harness their reason to make better decisions and life choices.

It just occurred to me that, to create a truly complete public education package, I should probably add an H. to the acronym for Humanities. But then I would be stuck with S.T.A.M.P.H.E.R. or S.H.A.M.P.T.E.R. And what kind of credible public-education-reform advocate would I be with a nonsense acronym!

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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6 Responses to “S.T.A.M.P.E.R. not S.T.E.M. For Public Education Reform”

  1. larry |

    dr. Jim
    A way back a long time ago primary education focused on the skills of reading, writing and math. I think we lost a great deal when we allowed too much deviation from that criteria. It wasn’t until I attended high school that I had any choice in my curriculum. There are far to many “dodges” in todays system. Kids get lost or else “pigeon holed” and left behind because they made poor choices. Who is to blame?

  2. Brian |

    Dr. Taylor, I’d suggest that all of those things are the fruits of civilization, not civilization itself. It may seem a mere point of semantics, but it isn’t.

    A perfect case in point is the old USSR. They had all of those things, just like we do, but I would hardly call Soviet society civilized. Civilization cannot exist, at least not for long, where a man can be coerced or forced into caring for his brother. The use of force for any purpose other than defense is antithetical to civilization.

    It is irrational to suggest that force may be employed to attain noble ends. Every tyrant in history has justified objectionable means on such grounds.

    I agree with much of what you’ve written here. As far as emotional health, I’d recommend that Dale Carnegie be taught early and frequently reinforced. I can think of no better secular guidebook for how to deal with one another than “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and no better guidebook on a healthy self-image than “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.”

  3. Tom Carter |

    This makes perfect sense. It’s necessary to learn more than reading, writing, and arithmetic, and this is a pretty good formulation of what’s ideal — including the “H.” It would be great if local school boards with state assistance would design and develop curricula of this kind.

    Of course, there’s great variation among schools across the country. Many schools these days, especially in inner cities, usually don’t even succeed in effectively teaching the three Rs to the students who don’t drop out before graduation. Other schools do well, including a wide variety of AP courses, and most of their students graduate with a functional education, ready for college or entry into the workforce. Trying to implement STAMPER in the former would be fruitless; in the latter, much of what you discuss is probably already happening but undoubtedly could be fine-tuned and improved.

    I think the first priority in public education today should be trying to improve the performance of lower-performing schools and the students who attend them. I know everyone says they’re working on it, but the results aren’t encouraging.

    Here are some suggestions for getting “H” into the acronym:


    Hmmm … let’s just leave the “H” out.

  4. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Brian: I’m not sure I agree with your direction of causation re: civilization. I don’t believe that these things are the fruits of civilization, but rather their causes. A broad-based education creates informed and engaged citizens which, in turn, creates civilization. Make any sense?

    @Tom: I would suggest that, and I don’t say this with absolute certainty as it just popped into my head, if we can instill effective emotional and reasoning skills in children, the schools would improve without any direction improvement. Why? Because these emotionally mature and reasoned young people would see the value in education, work hard, behave well, and avoid bad roads. If you have good learners, you don’t need superteachers, just reasonably competent ones. You don’t need state-of-the-art resources, just passable ones.

    Now that I’ve written that down, I kind of like it! Could be worth stand-alone blog post…

  5. Tom Carter |

    It’s hard to argue with the logic, Jim, that “emotionally mature and reasoned young people” populating our schools would solve a lot of problems. But how in the world do we get there? It would require fixing decades of the decay of families, re-orienting millions of people who aren’t amenable to being re-oriented … in effect, making parts of society something other than what they have become.

    We should have listened to Daniel Patrick Moynihan 45 years ago. If we had, it might have been possible to do things differently for the benefit of everyone — most importantly for the benefit of those who have been the victims of well-intentioned but seriously flawed social policies.

  6. Brian |

    All productive human activity must necessarily follow rational thought. Civilization isn’t possible without rational thought, and civilizations that abandon rational thought will soon not be civilizations.

    It is our adherence to rational thought that has provided the fertile ground for the unprecedented wealth we have, for the advances in science, agriculture, logistics, etc.

    So, as I said, those things are the fruit of civilization, of rational thought. Those things signify that we are civilized, they are not civilization itself.

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