We need thinking, even more than STEM

February 10, 2011 at 10:09 am 6 comments

Alan Kay kindly forwarded to me this link.  It’s a column by Stanley Fish that builds on the new book showing how little students learn in the first two years of college.  Fish’s point is that what’s needed is students learning to think, and whether they’re doing science, mathematics, and technology is not the most significant bit.  Liberal education may be better for achieving that goal.

Now it’s clear what is going on here. Obama is developing his major theme: we need innovation to catch up with China and other advanced societies. And it is perfectly reasonable to tie innovation in certain fields to the production of citizens who are technically, mathematically and scientifically skilled. But is that what’s wrong with American education, too few students who acquire the market-oriented skills we need to compete (a favorite Obama word) in the global economy and too few teachers capable of imparting them? Is winning the science fair the goal that defines education? A dozen more M.I.T.s and Caltechs and fewer great-book colleges and we’d be all right?

Quite another account of what is wrong is offered in a new book by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. The book’s title is “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” and its thesis is that what is limited — in short supply — is learning that is academic rather than consumerist or market-driven. After two years of college, they report, students are “just slightly more proficient in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing than when they entered.”

via Race to the Top of What? Obama on Education – NYTimes.com.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bonnie MacKellar  |  February 10, 2011 at 10:43 am

    I have been following this, as well as the entire discussion on Chronicle of Higher Ed which is related to this. It is driving me crazy. Why? Because there seems to be a presumption that students taking science, math or engineering courses are not engaged in critical thinking. And that drives me up a wall. I would argue that students in my introductory computer science course are being asked to think more carefully and deeply than in any of their humanities classes – and that is why they have so much trouble. They also need to read, closely and carefully, in order to succeed in a computer science course. At least with my students, they don’t seem to have ever been asked to do that before. I would bet, if you separated out the STEM majors from the others, and looked at how much they have learned in their first 2 years, they probably have learned more.

  • 2. Alan Kay  |  February 10, 2011 at 11:22 am

    The main problem with Stanley Fish’s point of view is that he thinks learning science is learning “what scientists have found out” rather than learning how to think much better about most things than the human race has ever done before.

    He should be forgiven for this because most science curricula in K-16 is much more about already discovered knowledge than “how to think” and “how to assess what you think you know”. And even some people with scientific degrees missed understanding what science is about.

    I think his main strong point is that “learning how to think” also has to be able to handle the big contexts of our universe, and that most “hard-STEM” curricula don’t do a good job of including large contexts.

    A problem with the point in comment #1 is that learning to think logically in inappropriate contexts (which I think much of computing and computing education is about these days) is actually quite dangerous, because it has the illusion that a logically reached conclusion is a good one, and a solved problem is good.

    This is why (to me) real science completely dominates “math”, because it is trying to relate our representations to “what’s out there?” rather than take pleasure in a simple deduction. This requires enormous effort in setting the context and premises, and this again is what science is really about.

    With much more context brought to bear as an intrinsic part of what it means to think, we are led more strongly to better “problem finding” and stronger ways to invent and use the large idea of “implication”.

    Best wishes,


  • 3. Educational Debate | Mythic Logos  |  February 10, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    […] I just saw a blog blurb referencing an article suggesting that liberal education may do more for thinking than teaching in […]

  • 4. Blake  |  April 6, 2011 at 4:09 am

    To Alan Kay,

    I love what I do, and when you say that when I pour my soul into creating the most beautiful piece of code you have ever seen is not good enough, is offensive to my core. I love my work, and don’t care if you think it is mind narrowing. My wish is simply to be left to study the beauty of this world we have created.

    I see little use in the 15% of my curriculum that consists entirely of classes full of students who resent being forced to be there. The reality is that if the best teacher in the world walks into a room full of students that hates them, very little learning of any kind will occur.

    So leave me be, and I will write poems in python. Chain me to a desk and I’ll give you garbage about Muir.


    • 5. Alan Kay  |  April 6, 2011 at 8:24 am


  • […] in Education Researcher shows that the motivation really matters, and it calls into question the value of the Academically Adrift study that claimed that Colleges aren’t teaching much.  How do you know, if students don’t […]


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