Should we teach problems instead of disciplines?

A couple weeks ago I was chatting with a colleague about how we can do more to encourage STEM education (a topic that comes up a lot in Silicon Valley), and someone chimed in saying no, no we need STEAM education. Turns out there is a movement to introduce arts into the STEM curriculum—see for example It’s an interesting idea, and at least on this site you quickly can see that the addition of “A” does nothing to impact the emphasis on “creation” and “building” in how we think about education.

Now, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with this, but I’ve recently been thinking a lot about literary culture, and in particular how critical it is for scientists and innovators. Fiction has been my guilty pleasure of late—I’m currently making my way through the Orphan Master’s Son (a full post on that to come at some point, I imagine, unbelievable novel), and a couple weeks ago quite enjoyed Lahiri’s recent and somewhat dark story about immigrant Americans. But the novel that really stood out recently was Flight Behavior.

There is apparently a growing genre of fiction about the effects of climate change on our world. That this is true is perhaps not much of a surprise, and yet…Kingsolver’s contribution, at least, left an impact. Unlike the dystopia novels of yesteryear predicting the various consequences of climate change, she writes about a story we actually are experiencing today. The thing is, the truth about which she writes her fictional story doesn’t seem terribly well-known—I like to think of myself as reasonably well-read, but I hadn’t heard about the plight of the monarchs until reading Flight Behavior.

Thinking of these two things alongside each other—STEAM education and climate change fiction—reminded me of this brilliant post over at HBS from a year or so ago. Instead of encouraging our kids to become passionate about science, technology, engineering, math, or art, why don’t we spend more time making sure they are exposed to the really hard, really important problems society is facing?

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One Response to Should we teach problems instead of disciplines?

  1. Lea Masiello says:

    Hi Betsy. These are all really great books that you mention in your post, and I agree with you that fiction can be a way into discussions about important problems. I think Orphan’s Master is superb, and I just read The Lowlands–also excellent. I liked Flight Behavior a lot–have you read The Lacuna by Kingsolver? This one is very rich historically and socially. I would also recommend State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett for initiating conversations about science and society. If you want an earlier take on all these issues, read the original Dracula by Brom Stoker–you’ll be surprised.
    You know, your father is the most amazing reader I’ve ever met! any time I ask him, “Have you read….?” he’s three steps ahead of me! When I listened to his talks to Congress about energy, I thought, “Oh, this is how he puts it all together.” He’s interdisciplinary thinking in action.

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