Interview request from Iris: STEM & STEAM

I received this interview request from Iris, a sophomore at an American University. She wanted to ask me about the importance of art in education and the change from STEM to STEAM. Here in the UK we do not seem to be paying as much attention to STEAM as the US but maybe we should be – integrating art more instead of squeezing it out!

Do you think art has the ability to teach?

In my experience, art as a primary education subject in the UK is hugely undervalued and underused. What some people don’t realise is that the benefits of a good art and design provision surpass those traditionally thought of as purely subject specific. I believe that those decision makers who don’t understand the value of art as a subject are missing a trick.  Art as a subject in schools has the ability to teach art but also to enrich learning in many aspects of the curriculum. For example, art and artefacts are a lens that children can enjoy learning about history, science and geography through, maths and art have many natural links and talking and writing about art can increase language skills.

Would you place art education of equal importance to math and science and what is the relationship between the two disciplines?

Yes, Primary art is my specialist area and I firmly advocate a well-rounded curriculum in primary schools. Some schools may prefer to keep subjects compartmentalised while others may work with cross-circular methods of teaching, but one thing is for sure, we should not be leaving art (and other creative subjects) out of primary education.

Why is the “A” in STEAM necessary and what is wrong with the original STEM system?  What is the key goal of a STEAM centered curriculum?

I think that the US are way ahead of us when it comes to STEAM learning – over here the arts and creativity are taking a battering and those in decision making positions seem to be going backwards in terms of their education ideology, instead of forward thinking like those that advocate STEAM. From my understanding the original STEM model did not take into account the importance of creative, lateral thought and by including art and design STEAM recognises that the future needs innovators, creative thinkers and risk takers – qualities that art and design nurtures. The addition of art and design is promising for a future that supports entrepreneurial innovation, hopefully for forces of good!

Why do you think art is undervalued in the public educational system?

Maybe the wrong people are in charge and they don’t value the wisdom of people outside of their way of thinking.

I think there is this idea that we are born either academic or creative, I see this attitude projected towards children all the time and most of us adults identified as one or the other when we were young. We categorise people as artsy or mathsy, airy-fairy or practical, right or left brain led. Of course, individuals may have preferences and tendencies but it can’t be so black and white, because humans aren’t, look at Leonardo Da Vinci for example! STEAM seems to say that we can have it all, certainly primary aged children should have the opportunity to explore all subjects before fitting into a ‘type’.

I wonder if those people who are in charge and side-lining art and creativity do not value art education because they didn’t experience a good one themselves. It makes no sense though, because so many of us enjoy the creative industries and cultural enrichment, how can these things continue if we have no creative people?

Has there ever been an instance where you have had to fight for arts place in education?

Yes. I worked for an academy chain in London, the trustees were philanthropic, Conservative donors (a reductive description but I’ll stick with it) who had no background in education. I was the primary art teacher there and had written the art curriculum. When these people took over the school, I found myself in meeting after meeting as they tried to scrap art from the curriculum. They wanted (primary aged children) to be taught art history and did not understand the point of teaching the children art skills or a visual language.

What is your favorite part of encouraging art in kids education?

I absolutely love my job. I treat the children like they are artists and I am constantly surprised by the way they improve their skills, the concepts and ideas in their work and how they discuss art. I love when I teach a group of children for a number of years and I get to see how they develop as artists. Year 6 primary children working on their own concepts and in their own choice of materials is really fun to witness.

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