Why 21st Century Learning Must Go Beyond STEAM

Nicole Haver

Nicole Haver

This article was written in partnership with Simone Becker, Head of Lower School at Whitby.

As the workplace has evolved, the skills kids need to succeed have changed as well. It’s no longer enough for students to just learn about science, technology, engineering and math—they must also have the ability to think creatively and adapt their thinking to a fast-changing world.

Today, educators talk about STEAM education, which includes teaching children about Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. At Whitby, however, we believe that education needs to go beyond STEAM to truly prepare students to succeed in the 21st century.

First, What is STEAM?

Originally known as “STEM,” this educational acronym sprang into wide usage around 2010, when President Obama prioritized educational initiatives designed to help educate a rising class of students to meet the increasing need for professionals in the sciences and mathematics fields.

The concept of STEAM arose in 2012 when the Rhode Island School of Design began championing “innovation that comes with combining the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer.”

STEM by itself is extremely powerful. Its scale is amazing. But that alone doesn’t create warmth and humanity and connection. For instance, a thing like an MP3 Player is a STEM technology. But until Apple came along, it didn’t become desirable. It was a STEAM technology that made it a part of our everyday lives.
- John Maeda, President, Rhode Island School of Design

Today schools talk about the importance of STEAM in helping prepare students to be the innovators and entrepreneurs of the future—but we argue that it’s not enough.

Why Schools Must Go Beyond STEAM

At Whitby, we believe that it’s important to prepare students to thrive in the real world. We want to help students become lifelong learners, critical thinkers, action-takers and global citizens. To do that, we believe that education must be broad, balanced and relevant to a student’s life.

At Whitby, STEAM is not a new idea. The IB program emphasizes teaching students to become knowledgeable across a range of disciplines. And the Montessori education has long taught the value of art in helping students learn to think in creative ways.

Yet we also believe STEAM is not enough—especially since it doesn’t include critical subjects such as English and the humanities. Nor do schools teaching STEAM always tie those subjects together in a way that helps students amplify their knowledge by understanding how it applies to the real world.

21st Century Learning Is Transdisciplinary

Instead of approaching STEAM areas as separate subjects, we believe it’s important for students to discover how different disciplines interweave in the real world. For example, instead of just exploring the science of weather, we want students to learn how data is collected, practice interpreting the data and discover how to make weather predictions based on actual data. Those exercises turn a science unit into something that is bigger than data collection.

As another example, we also look for opportunities to bring subjects together. Two years ago, we had a farmer come in as a guest speaker during a plant science unit. He talked about how understanding plant science helped him make the right decisions as a small business owner. It was a chance for students to see how the ideas from their economics and plant science units came together in the running of a farm.

By using this transdisciplinary approach, our educators mimic the experience of being in the real world. When students engage in different disciplines simultaneously, they learn to look at issues from a variety of different perspectives. This approach prepares students for the true challenges of our increasingly complex world.

How We Go Beyond STEAM at Whitby

Our focus on interconnectedness between subject areas begins in Whitby's private elementary school. During the six different units of inquiry, Lower School students create opportunities for students to make meaningful connections between science, social studies, language, mathematics, PE and the arts.

In our private middle school, educators come together as grade level teams in a Teacher Work Week every fall and continue these conversations throughout the year. Every Upper School subject shares their Year in a Glance curriculum and then the teachers brainstorm ideas for interdisciplinary learning opportunities.

Recently our Lower School students had a unit of inquiry focused on how cultures use performance and light to tell stories. To help students learn, their teacher collaborated with our physical education teacher to challenge students to tell a story through creating a dance. Students not only learned storytelling, they discovered how to use light and movement to create patterns and how to use their bodies to create a desired visual effect. Learn more about this project on the IBO blog.

Our sixth grade students completed a unit on sound that connected both science and music. Instead of just learning about sound conceptually, students were challenged to create and play their own instruments. This hands-on experiment helped them learn how sound is made and how an instrument’s shape can change the pitch of a sound. At the end of the unit, they presented their instruments to the class and explained the choices they made to create their desired sound.

In eighth grade, we use a transdisciplinary unit to help prepare students for the secondary school admissions process. Instead of just Whitby counsellors teaching students to how to do admissions interviews, a team of teachers helped students understand what it takes to interview well. In English class, students studied the power of the spoken word by discussing famous speeches and podcasts. Meanwhile in their theatre class, eighth graders learned how to hold their body and use their voices confidently. Then students bring it all together by creating a podcast where they practice speaking their beliefs. As a result, when students head off to their interviews, they feel confident that they’ll be able to do a good job.

Learning for the Real World

The recent push to have students learn about art in addition to technical subjects is a step in the right direction—but it’s not enough. Students not only need to learn creativity, they need to learn how everything they study is connected. After all, no one subject exists in a vacuum in the real world.

For true 21st century learning, it’s important for educators to teach students to hold multiple ideas and perspective at once, and encourage students to develop knowledge and understanding about real life issues through a variety of lenses.

To learn more about how Whitby prepares students for the future by helping them build bridges from one subject area to another, schedule a tour of our International Baccalaureate and Montessori school.


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Nicole Haver

Nicole Haver

Nicole Haver is the MYP Coordinator and an Upper School Language and literature teacher at Whitby. She developed a love for all things international during her first overseas trip in high school, where she joined the school's trip to France and Monaco although, at the time, she didn't speak a lick of French. Since then, she's made it her goal to travel as much as she can, and, being an English teacher, read as much as she can to learn about the new cultures she's exploring before she goes. She does her best to bring her passion for inquiry, understanding other perspectives and a love for reading into her classroom every day.