The Blindspots of STEM-Focused Education Reform

Guest Writer
3 May ,2016

by Laila Le Guen

Curriculum reform is a hot button topic in any part of the world but the stakes are particularly high in Kenya, where the 8-4-4 system has been so consistently criticised since its implementation. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics – known as STEM subjects – have been identified as a priority and take up a large chunk of the debate. However, viewing education solely through the lens of STEM introduces a number of dangerous blindspots.

Scientific thought is produced by social beings

While it’s evident that well-trained STEM specialists are needed for Kenya’s economic development and that education could be tailored to respond to this pressing need, a strong push towards STEM education might not achieve all that it is expected to. In a society where the image of the scientist is of someone who outsmarted everyone in school and has an uncanny ability to understand mathematics, the temptation is strong to view STEM professionals as special beings removed from social issues, operating in the ethereal world of hard facts and figures. The shocking truth is that science is in fact made by scientists, who are human beings like you and me. As such, they navigate a socio-cultural environment where tribalism, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other unsavoury -isms and -phobias exist, no matter the profession one happens to practice.

The study of science and technology trains the mind in a certain way of understanding the world, of interacting with data and solving problems. It’s such an incredibly valuable method to have at one’s disposal that one might be tempted to extend it to every sphere of life. Unfortunately, being a responsible member of society requires an analysis of a broader spectrum of experiences that do not easily find an answer in science and technology taken in isolation. This is because we live in a society that has a history, traditions, norms and belief systems that affect us individually and collectively.

Social sciences and the arts have developed approaches to questions such as: how do we combat prejudice and discrimination in the workplace? How do we think beyond our own circumstances to include people whose experiences we will never fully understand? How do we build a better society for all? These are questions we are all confronted with daily by virtue of living alongside other human beings who can never be summed up by a mathematical model.

Hidden ideologies

This line of thinking takes us all the way back to the fundamental issue implicitly addressed in every educational endeavour, that is the vision we have for young people. Do we see them as future cogs in a big economic system or do we consider them as full human beings in need of guidance to find their place in a complex society? It looks like the former model often goes unquestioned because it is seen as the more pragmatic of the two, the more realistic, or even the only we can afford to pursue.

I would argue that the kind of education we find desirable tells a lot more about our political leanings than about what the economy ‘demands’. Thinking that technology is a neutral force in the world reveals not the absence of a political stance but a vision of society that wilfully ignores structural injustice.

Thus, curriculum design implies choices and ideological orientations that may not always be explicit. It is about sorting out between values and coming to a compromise about what knowledge is deemed valuable enough to be passed on at a national level. Every part of the educational experience – what subjects are taught, the content of lessons, how students are examined, etc – is a site where power relations are at play. A national education system focused mainly on building a strong STEM foundation sounds appealing in the short term and intuitively makes economic sense. It’s also a domain of knowledge that’s reassuring for it seemingly provides clear-cut, universal answers to important questions. So, let’s cover our bases, the rest will come later, right? Except that encouraging STEM to the detriment of other equally worthy subjects of interest can have deleterious unintended effects. For instance, the strict division of young people into discrete arbitrary categories (scientist / arts-oriented) creates a mindset of limitation instead of potential and ends up devaluing non-STEM talents.

Reevaluating our approach to STEM

For formal education to be a transformative experience it needs to be in touch with contradictory strands of knowledge, a perspective known as contrapuntal analysis, thus defined by Harry Garuba in an opinion piece on the changes needed following the #RhodesMustFall protests in South Africa:

Contrapuntal analysis takes into account the perspectives of both the colonised and the coloniser, their interwoven histories, their discursive entanglements – without necessarily harmonising them or attending to one while erasing the other.

Transforming the curriculum involves contrapuntal thinking at every level; it needs a contrapuntal pedagogy that brings the knowledge of the marginalised to bear on our teaching. A transformed curriculum is one that encourages contrapuntal thinking and pedagogy.

If we accept harmonious society-building as a goal of education, we need to understand how science and scientists fit into the society. This work must be chiefly done by scientists, with input from specialists of other disciplines. Doing this requires asking the right questions and adopting thinking strategies such as contrapuntal analysis, which brings to bear all the messiness of the human condition. For instance, have you ever researched what mathematics and philosophy looked like before Western-style schooling was introduced in what is now Kenya? If not, we’re working under the assumption that these disciplines were created by Westerners and that Kenyans are condemned to constantly playing catch-up to externally received forms of knowledge. This sounds like a destructive worldview to pass on to younger generations. I believe school could be the place where one receives guidance on how to examine these issues without necessarily providing ready-made answers.

By any means, encouraging young people to study STEM subjects and giving them the means to succeed in this field should remain a critical part of the current curriculum reform. However, the process should be informed by a broader view of education, one that does not take for granted a vision of STEM-focused education as the highway to economic development.

Laila Le Guen is a translator and editor based in Nairobi. She is a member of the Ed10 Consortium, a civil society organisation currently involved in the public consultation on curriculum reform. She is particularly interested in the intersection of language, education and technology in the Kenyan context.

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