Impact of ‘A’ in STEAM – Averting a National Crisis


“Whenever we want to improve something, we add music to it. A movie, we add music. A dining experience, we add music. A sporting event, music. Political gathering, music. But when it comes to our educational system, we take music away to improve it? Yeah, that makes sense.” (the 13th Chair, 2012)

Australia’s education is not progressing well internationally, with “Australia singled out for its declining performance on the world stage” (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 March 2016). A ten-year low, Australia is now ranked 19th in the world education rankings published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Should politicians and administrators be reflecting on the movement in the US with the inclusion of the arts being integral to the development of skills required in the 21st century and beyond?

A landmark decision to include music and the arts as core subjects in the Every Student Succeeds Act (US Congress, 2016) in the US is a vital step forward for the holistic education of children. The act also mandates that funds be utilised to promote a well-rounded education through “programs and activities that use music and the arts as tools to support student success through the promotion of constructive student engagement, problem solving and conflict resolution”. Yes, music and the arts are included in NSW syllabi K–12. However, it is a travesty that pre-service teachers have little training in the arts, resulting in many classes not singing, dancing, making, playing and performing, thus not integrating the arts into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

In music and the arts, students learn an abundance of skills that transfer to other areas. The research investigating the affect of music on cognitive ability and executive functioning is substantial (a limited representation being: Shafer, 2016; Miendlarzewska & Trost, 2014; Wiebke, 2014; Schellenberg, 2005). Students who participate in music groups, be it singing or playing an instrument, develop explicit skills in effective communication, teamwork and collaboration. They develop higher order thinking skills through self-reflection and evaluation of practice and performance, develop information fluency and refine problem-solving skills all within a context that is relevant to their world. A poll conducted in the US resulted in 66 percent of participants believing their music education equipped them for creative problem solving, 66 percent task management, 66 percent flexibility in work situations and 71 percent indicated that music education prepared them for working productively in teams (Nielsen Interactive – The Harris Poll, 2014).

Critical and creative-thinking skills are pertinent and may contribute to the skills now being advertised by the Australian Government (2016) in the promotional video We’re building skills today for jobs tomorrow. Welcome to the Ideas Boom. Be a part of it! In this short marketing clip, children indicate their preferred career, some of which are “a fashion technologist, a virtual reality tour company, a holographic animator and a 3D printing architect”. The voice-over mentions that these most exciting jobs will require science, technology and maths, with no mention of the arts. The arts are fundamental in contributing to the development of skills for jobs presently existing and non-existent.s

Creativity is the essence of the jobs the government is espousing. Due to this, there is a growing interest in STEAM (STEM + the Arts) education as a means to enhance the creativity of STEM students and broaden interest in STEM fields. Many art educators, however, “object to the instrumental justification for study in the arts as a way to improve student performance in other areas” (Sochacka, Guyotte & Walther, 2016), with the argument of the arts for the sake of the arts. However, providing creative activities in science, technology and maths may trigger the desire in a student to pursue a topic further and may also develop imagination, inventiveness, ingenuity and originality. “If you are doing something that does not resonate with your spirit, five minutes feels like an hour. And the reason so many people are opting out of education is because it does not feed their spirit, it does not feed their energy or their passion” (Robinson, 2010). Students need to be engaged in their learning. Incorporating the arts in STEM may fulfil this need for students, igniting the passion and energy in them to further investigate areas in STEM through artistic and innovative strategies. As Ken Robinson states, teachers do not want to educate creativity out of students. Teachers need to ignite, nurture, encourage and cherish the creativity of each student. This is why STEAM not STEM is vital to the development of ingenuity and inventiveness in students. The A in STEAM supports and endorses creativity; promoting and cultivating innovative thought and design processes. “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status” (Robinson, 2006).

Mengli Song conducted research into STEAM through integrating teaching drama and dance whilst teaching math. Comparing its effectiveness with other early childhood interventions, he concluded that students in the STEAM “program did not necessarily learn additional math content but they did demonstrate a better grasp of the material” (Balingit, 2016). The most significant impact that the research has had is the professional development teachers have gained in the embedding of the arts with math. The method applied, Wolf Trap, provides support for early childhood teachers with strategies for employing the arts in math learning activities. Next in the research is incorporating the arts into science, which may provide “some teachers a head start toward ensuring students will engage in and enjoy science early on” (Ludwig, Marklein & Song, 2016).

Children learn, and concepts are reinforced, through singing, playing and moving. This research is also supported by Leah Shafer (2016) who suggests, “If educators want to develop critical, creative thinkers who can set and accomplish their own goals – and who can use those skills to strengthen their math and reading skills – they may want to take another look inside the music room.” The juxtaposition of the arts with STEM is a fundamental requirement for the holistic development of the student and an increase in cognitive ability resulting ultimately in innovation and economic success of the nation.

Impresarios who employ a creative resourcefulness include Richard Branson (Virgin), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Chad Hurley (YouTube), Elon Musk (SpaceX and PayPal), Steve Jobs (Apple, Pixar and Next), Marissa Mayer (Yahoo!), Albert Einstein (theoretical physicist), Dong-Hoon Chang (Samsung) and John Maeda. Maeda discusses how art, technology and design inform creative leaders who are needed to lead throughout the 21st century. He proposes the necessity of emotional intelligence, which is developed through the arts. “The arts bring a humanistic creativity that makes science and technology better. You need to counterbalance STEM with art” (Maeda, 2016).

An integrated curriculum approach is required for students to attain their potential and be prepared for lifelong learning and multiple career paths after formal education. “Schools cannot continue to only teach isolated disciplines based on simple reductionism. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) should also be integrated together with the Arts (STEAM) to promote creativity together with rationalization” (Boys, 2013). The assimilation of a cross-curricular paradigm may benefit “longer term socio-technical futures instead of short-term financial predictions that currently lead to uncontrolled economies” (Boys, 2013). STEAM, through this integrated approach, may improve Australia’s international ranking in literacy, numeracy and computer skills and provide the long-term goal of Australians leading in corporate, industry and trade through creative and innovative acumen.

It is evident that the research highlights that STEAM is an ideal methodology for all parts of the educational puzzle to concatenate‎ perfectly. Not all letters need to be represented all of the time; however, all students learn differently, and have different passions and preferred learning styles. Whilst the arts will always stand alone as a subject to be taught to develop creativity, inspire the imagination and develop originality of thought, integrating these skills into STEM will further promote innovative thinkers who will be more adept to contributing to the economy, developing innovative commercial, trade and industry concepts and contribute to the fiscal wealth and intellectual growth of this nation.

“The point is, art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people. It can affect people so that they are changed… because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events… by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.” (L. Bernstein)

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Bernadette Bentley

Bernadette Bentley

Bernadette Bentley is a passionate music educator who thrives on learning throughout her career. She has had immense experience in the performing arts including music, ddrama, dance, music theatre and entertainment. Bernadette believes the purpose of education is to encourage a love of learning that will continue throughout life. Fundamental to Berndatte's philosophy of education is creative teaching in the context of the student's world, in a challenging and nurturing environment, which encompasses 21st century skills. Her teaching and learning embeds technology, independent learning with the use of project-based learning, online learning and games, which develop critical and creative thinking. Bernadette has completed a B.Mus.Ed, M.Ed.Admin, and is currently studying Gifted Education.
Bernadette Bentley

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  1. Meghann

    I invite you to look into and see some of the supporting research from Georgette Yakman the the original and most comprehensive educational researcher and epistemologist of STEAM education.
    She is the originator of the most comprehensive PD for STEAM Education. Her company has trained 2000+ educators in the past 3 years, and they all work to co-create STEAM lesson plans. Please see this article; We hope this adds some value to your research and welcome you to take a deeper look at to see if our program is something that would be of interest to you. Cheers!

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