If you’re agonizing over whether literacy-based or STEM instruction is best for your child, stop worrying. Any good education should harness the strengths of both approaches.
Teachers and academics like to present themselves as constant and unflappable.
But much like the fashion world, the education sector is actually pretty susceptible to the influence of passing styles and trends.
And few would dispute that the hottest look on the learning catwalk these past few seasons has been the STEM approach.
It is the bushy beard, plaid shirt and skinny jeans of the teaching world. And like all big sensations, it has caused more than a few ripples.
Flashy new thing
STEM (it stands for science, technology, engineering and math) has surged in popularity in recent years.
This happened largely because educators and political leaders realized that American schools aren’t producing enough science-minded graduates to meet future job demand. Put bluntly, we’re going to need more number-crunchers and science nerds to remain competitive in global markets.
And make no mistake: STEM subjects are important. But as so often happens, the arrival of a flashy new thing has made the ‘old’ (in this case, a traditional literacy-based education) seem suddenly old hat. And that’s not really fair.
In some respects, STEM is a bit like the gluten-free diet of the education sector. Nobody had heard of it a few years ago, but now it features in schools across the country and its influence is everywhere.
But it’s important to remember that every child needs a well-rounded education that takes in the full spectrum of knowledge and experience – and STEM won’t be able to accomplish that alone.
As Valerie Strauss archly put it in The Washington Post: “Budding scientists and engineers can’t comprehend complex texts if they can’t read.’
Rather than setting up literacy and STEM instruction against each other, schools need to integrate them.
Some of the more innovative schools are doing this already. By using science texts for reading lessons, or presenting problem-solving exercises in the form of a story, teachers are engaging students on both levels.
But for things to progress further, there needs to be a move away from the rigid, one or the other way of thinking that has informed much of the debate so far.
The truth is, literacy and STEM are the burger and the bun of a child’s education. One doesn’t quite work without the other. (Apologies to Atkins diet followers…)
And you may ask, where does all this STEM mania leave a self-professed ‘literacy’ organization like Book Trust?
Actually, in a great place.
True, our core mission is to promote literacy skills (which we do by empowering kids from low-income families to choose and buy their own books).
But scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll see that our program encourages all kinds of practical skills – and prepares kids to get the most from their STEM instruction in the future. Surprised? Here’s how it works:
Book Trust benefits
1. Book Trust kids choose books from the Scholastic Reading Club flyer which, in addition to fiction, is crammed with informational texts. Lots of beginning readers prefer STEM-based topics (dinosaurs, spiders, planets, that kind of stuff) over stories, so we happily oblige.
2. By regularly getting new books, our young readers learn sufficient literacy skills to make the all-important third grade pivot from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’. Without that key developmental leap, they would be unable to cope with the more advanced demands of STEM subjects later on.
3. The whole experience of being a Book Trust child is geared towards developing complex thinking and analytical skills – key goals of STEM instruction. First, our kids learn to plan carefully and make value judgements when choosing their books. They develop financial literacy skills by working out how many books they can afford. And the simple act of owning books teaches them to self-monitor, as they learn about their own tastes and preferences.
Too often, literacy and STEM education are set up in competition against each other. It’s almost as if there’s an existential battle going on for the ‘right’ way to train young minds.
But the fact is, they can – and must – work together if children are to have the best chance of a successful education, followed by a fulfilling career.
It may be challenging, but finding new ways to integrate the two approaches can also be fun. Take just one example: the hugely popular Fly Guy presents Snakes book.
In this little page-turner, one of America’s fictional favorites delivers a straight-up science and nature lesson in his own inimitable (and slightly gross) style.
Keep them interested
Boom. Fly Guy fans learn some interesting facts, while more factually-minded kids spend a little time in storyland.
And that’s the answer, really. Meet in the middle. Make science tell a story, and put practical instruction at the heart of literacy learning.
After all, kids aren’t interested in classifications and academic approaches: They just want to be taught everything in a cool way that keeps them interested.
Let’s not let them down.
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