The STEAM vs STEM Debate: Practical Answers for Music Teachers

Image Credit: Woodley Wonder Works
Graham Strahle
| August 15, 2017

With the Federal Government’s push to introduce STEM-based education in Australian schools, what challenges does this pose for music as a classroom subject? Does it risk being progressively marginalised in the new educational landscape that prioritises science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) over arts, history and language?

Like it or not, STEM-based learning is already transforming our school system. In 2016-17, the Department of Education and Training rolled out its $112.2 million Inspiring all Australians in digital literacy and STEM initiative. Its purpose has been to assist teachers with curriculum design, fund school programs in promoting digital literacy for children in Years 4-12, and launch foundational digital learning programs for pre-schoolers “to promote curiosity and learning about STEM education”.

In this brave new world, music and the arts generally can look frighteningly lost, hence the argument in favour of STEAM as a more coherent, all-embracing educational model to drive the school curriculum. In Australia, a coalition of peak arts bodies under the banner of the National Advocates for Arts Education (NAAE) has been strongly advocating for STEAM-based education in Australian schools. Its submission to the Government’s Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy in January 2017 concluded:

“If Australia wants to be competitive in the 21st Century global economy, STEM education is important, but it can also limit the scope and depth of learning. Including The Arts in STEAM education will foster increased creativity, innovation and critical thinking, and provide limitless opportunities for young Australians to solve the big problems of the 21st Century.”

Music Australia and the Australian Society for Music Education (ASME) are members of NAAE, and The Music Trust is an observer. Read more about NAAE here.

It has been six months since submissions closed to the Inquiry and still there is no Government response. Such is its “almost exclusive focus on STEM” though, that a ground-shift to STEAM looks unlikely.

What that means for music teachers is where a new book comes in. Kim Milai’s Language Arts, Math, Clear search and Science in the Elementary Music Classroom: A Practical Tool (Oxford University Press). A graduate from the Eastman School of Music and a trained Kodály and Suzuki educator, she takes a different tack, saying that the unarguable merits of STEM are its interdisciplinary approach, and that the same idea should underpin music teaching.

“The reality is that there is a tremendous benefit for everyone in more subject integration. Student learning styles vary and interdisciplinary learning addresses this,” Milai writes. “The challenge for the music teacher is finding ways to explore these concepts in the context of the music lesson.”

To that end, she sets out over one hundred lesson plans that are designed to promote integrative learning through music across language, creativity, maths, social studies, science and technology. The lesson plans are entirely practical in focus and are formulated around the so-called Core Arts Music Standards that were established in the US in 2014 by the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards.

As such, Milai’s book is not directly relevant for teachers in Australia; nevertheless its strong conceptual foundations and practical emphasis nevertheless make it a useful companion to any music classroom. More on her views on how teachers can add STEM subject strategies into music lessons can be found in an article she has written here.

What we sorely need in this country a similar book framed around the Australian Curriculum and its requirements for music up to Year 10.

Meanwhile, support for STEAM continues to grow. One US commentator says the term “is becoming more and more popular to the ears of teachers and students alike and, right now in the educational sectors, it seems to be all anyone is talking about.”

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