Stemming the tide

Recently the Conversation Hour featured some of the world’s greatest scientific minds sharing their personal stories.  It is worth a listen especially Professor Ian Frazer’s reflections of how studying German at high school changed his career path from wanting to become an astrophysicist to studying medicine. Ian Frazer ended up inventing the technology used in the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine.

The reason for mentioning Professor Frazer is because in part, his story demonstrates how non-mainstream subjects (e.g German) complement learning and contribute to a holistic education.  The current push by governments around the world towards a STEM-driven educational agenda and the creation of STEM-focussed schools seems to be short-sighted.  It reflects a popular view that innovation is not only central to future economic growth but that it is largely driven by advances in science and technology.  The danger is that we run the risk of reducing education to a training capacity.

With the rapid development of quantum computing and its potential to power artificial intelligence we are entering uncharted territory. Even today’s complicated programming and coding will increasingly be done by machines that can learn. It is simplistic to assume that current programming and coding skills will remain the same into the future. Before the agrarian revolution the prime skill set was agricultural expertise. The industrial revolution changed that. As the knowledge age expands the same will happen to current skill sets.  The ability to use technology critically and creatively (i.e. soft skills) will be more vital than hard skills.

Universities are having a similar debate over the utility of educating students for the short-term job market when we live in such a rapidly changing world. Kate Carnell, former chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry told the Universities Australia conference in March that we had more to gain by focussing on the skills needed in existing jobs rather than focussing on future jobs.  According to Ms Carnell, ‘innovation is as much about people and process as STEM invention’.

We have always known that a good education is the balance of soft and hard skills; non-academic and academic paths; science and the humanities. Innovation will be defined by how well we teach all students to apply critical and creative thinking across all disciplines.


4 thoughts on “Stemming the tide

  1. Another insightful and deep perspective on the ‘ big picture’ of the relationships between learning, constructing knowledge, and the creation of opportunities for learners to continually construct, deconstruct and reconstruct meanings across disciplines. Whydon’t our policy makers read Greg’s stuff ?

  2. Thanks for your contribution to the blog Brian. I think our policy makers are too busy developing policy based on competition, short-term election cycles and scare campaigns. It would be nice to think our politicians respect the integrity of excellent theory, research and practice in crafting a coherent educational framework to deliver what they claim they all want for Australian schools!

  3. Great post, Greg.
    Enjoyed reading it….. and agree with it compltely. There is research coming out of US about how STEM concept and the label is polarising educators both in primary and secondary schools. And what Australia has borrowed is just the label, because our STEM definition is much narrower – we don’t include health and medical sciences as STEM – as per reports from Chief Scientist. So it’s again discipline wars in academia to attract Uni and research funding !! Other “derivative” labels such as STEAM, STEM pipeline, ‘Some STEM for all ‘vs ‘All STEM for some’ etc are not helping the cause either. Will send some of my analysis separately.

  4. Agreed Greg the interrelationship between disciplines of learning and as Brian said the creation of knowledge is why we fight for a balanced curriculum. Hello wake up policy makers!

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