STEAM vs Traditional Education 101

One of the first questions anyone will ask themselves when discussing STEAM education, is how it measures up against traditional education. Is the former “just a fad”? Is the latter utterly archaic? It’s hard to gain a clear perspective on these questions without drilling down into the true nature of both methods, what they stand for, and their delivery.

So let’s jump right in and look at the five main differences between the two, and paint a picture of what the educational system has always looked like, versus where we (luckily!) seem to be heading.

The 5 Main Differences

Comparing the traditional method of education and the innovative STEAM method can be best done by focusing on the five main points below.

steam vs traditional 1

1. Focus: Practice vs Theory

The main focus of traditional education has always been gaining knowledge, while glorifying theory. This is mostly done by:

  • Memorization
  • Repetition

On the other hand, when it comes to STEAM education, the focus is on practice over theory, and direct implementation of what is being learned.

Very simply, theory and practice do not always align in real life, and the STEAM method acknowledges this fact. Therefore, it aims to prepare children in the most practical and applicable way possible for real life, through specialized learning for subjects that actually exist, while gaining skills they will actually use.

An example for illustration

Many children studying math may recognize a parabola, but very few will have been taught its real life implementation. One classic example is the parabolic shape used in satellite dishes which better reflects signals. This example demonstrates very clearly the infinitely large gap between theory and practice, and how this applies to comparing traditional and STEAM education methods. In old-fashioned methods of teaching, kids may learn HOW to do something, but may not realize WHY it is useful, and WHAT contribution it makes in real life. We all know what it feels like solving equations at school, and moaning that we have no idea why we will ever need this stuff!

2. Emphasis: Creation vs Replication

STEAM education places an emphasis on creation, invention, and innovation. Traditional education is all about replicating what already exists, based on well-founded theories and ideas. The rules of the traditional education game are set and well established, and there is a typically binary “Right” or “Wrong” approach. If the output does not match up perfectly to what is expected, it will be labelled as “incorrect” and any process that was in motion can come to a squeaking halt.

STEAM education is focused on creation from scratch, in order to make way for true innovation. In essence, stimulating the brain to create a new reality. In life, there isn’t always a “Correct” or “Incorrect” answer – life is more complex than that. Embracing this complexity is what leads to true greatness.

An example for illustration

Did you know that the pacemaker was invented by accident? In the mid-50s, Wilson Greatbatch, an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo thought he had messed up his project. While trying to build a heart-recording prototype, he accidentally used a transistor that was 100 times more powerful than the ones he needed. This resulted in a signal that sounded for 1.8 milliseconds, and then paused for a second. He suddenly realized that this could be perfect as a new type of pacemaker!

He then spent two years working on his new invention, perfecting it, and creating a revolution in the medical world. Greatbatch had a long and successful career, and was even awarded the National Technology Medal in 1990 from President George H.W. Bush, and earned  the Lifetime Achievement Award from MIT in 1996.

Can you imagine if his project as a young man was marked as “failed” and the process got sealed without further thought? That would have been an unfortunate dead end.

The focus of STEAM education is discovery through creation, and creation through freedom. The world is more complex than what traditional education reflects, and our methods should definitely be in line with that reality for true progress.

3. Concept: Experience vs Learning

While learning is the most crucial part of both traditional and STEAM educational methods, there is an unmistakable additional dimension of experience when it comes to the latter. Through hands-on experience, not only do kids gain a deeper understanding of the topic at hand, but they will also be stimulated to ask questions such as:

  • “Why do we need this knowledge?”
  • “What are the true causes and effects of this process?”
  • “How could what I’m learning be applied in other uses?”

We all intuitively know that hands-on learning is more effective, but we may not realize how profound this method truly is when preparing kids for future STEAM careers, and when encouraging them to be inquisitive, creative, and explorative.

It has been shown that children retain information better when it is meaningful to them, and that true learning is based on the brain’s ability to make connections with other snippets of information. The integrative nature of STEAM education does just that – and acknowledges that everything is connected. Solving real-world problems in a hands-on way is the ultimate method of acquiring true skills.

An example for illustration

The “Storm in the Glass” experiment teaches about the forces that create rainfall.

Using a glass of water and spraying shaving cream on top, you will be able to teach kids how a real storm is formed. When you add colored water on top of the shaving cream that simulates a real cloud, that water will then push through the “cloud” and dramatically burst through to the water below, creating a “mini storm”. This is utterly enticing to see, and a fascinating way to learn about very real concepts of science and physics.

Could words or images possibly replace this hands-on experiment when explaining to young kids how storms are formed? Your answer to this question will tell you everything you need to know about STEAM education.

4. Method: Interaction vs Lectures

Closely related to the hands-on characteristic outlined above, learning can be more profound when it’s truly interactive. In other words, learning together and from each other. Instead of one-side lecturing, using methods like open-ended questions and sparking an engaging discussion can pave the way for a whole new dimension of learning.

Also, traditional education tends to take place in a classroom in a rather rigid format. STEAM education can take place any time, anywhere, whether outside in nature observing plants and insects, or on a field trip to a factory to explore first-hand how machinery works.

An example for illustration

Here are some methods used for interactive learning that can enhance the classic method of frontal lectures:

  • Brainstorming. A group session in which thoughts and ideas are generated is a truly enriching, productive, and interactive experience.
  • Problem-Solving. By analyzing a case or a story, kids are able to learn important concepts through solving real-life problems.
  • Q&A. When kids get to have dedicated sessions to their questions, they are able to express themselves and engage very deeply. In traditional education, there tends to be a very limited, set time for questions, as the method of delivery is mostly frontal and unilateral.
interactive learning

5. Assessment: Experiments vs Tests

When it comes to traditional education, it’s very hard to test true understanding and implementing of the learned concepts in real life. Many students take tests after memorizing the material perfectly, and then ace the test by regurgitating what they learned onto the exam sheet. Guess what? They may not even remember a thing once the test is over.

Also, traditional testing of knowledge is typically carried out in a written format, in either question, true/false or multiple choice form, and the grading method is rather stark – summed up in a single number. The test is to be completed in a set amount of time, and once grades are given, that tends to be the end of the cycle.

Through experiments, assessment can be much more effective. While testing validates an existing idea or set of knowledge, experiments enable kids to discover new ideas and create their own conclusions. Assessments shouldn’t necessary be carried out as a “test of knowledge”, but rather as observing the way children use their existing knowledge to carry out an experiment, and the conclusions they reach from its outcome.

Here are some guiding questions we should ask ourselves when looking at the assessment methods that we’re all used to, versus the newer STEAM way of doing things:

  • Can one grade in the form of a number truly sum up one’s full knowledge on a topic?
  • Do these tests encourage and reward memorization or true understanding?
  • In the age of technology, when all information is at the tips of our fingertips, is memorization really important?
  • Is the time limit really necessary? Why is time such a crucial factor? What results could there have been if we don’t cap processes with deadlines?
  • Can a “good grade” have an adverse effect, making the student believe that they know everything there is to know about the field in question? Can a “bad grade” demotivate a student from continued learning?
  • In conventional tests, is much thought given as to how these skills we be used in a practical sense?

Here are some alternative testing methods to explore:

  1. Planning and carrying out student presentations, for students and by students
  2. Students collecting a variety of works they admire or feel strongly about
  3. Writing a “bibliography only” in which kids will have to choose various sources and be able to explain their choices and the authors’ contributions to the field
  4. Creating a fact sheet or a poster on a topic
  5. Utilizing the power of peer critique rather than conventional grading by one person

More Perks of STEAM Education

As if the 5 differences above are not enough to demonstrate why STEAM education is so much better, there are some additional bonus perks to keep in mind.

1. It breaks down the girl-boy divide

STEAM education focuses on value-free activities which don’t segment subjects according to the two genders. For example, you won’t typically find a female-oriented STEAM toy, and it’ll be challenging to find anything that’s “boys” only. For example, DIY Building Toys are enjoyed by boys and girls alike, and Montessori Toys are 100% unisex – as they should be.

Though the STEM field has always been more male dominant, this is changing very fast. STEAM education gives girls a bright and beautiful gateway to fields such as engineering, science, technology, and more.

STEAM education erodes and chips away at “boy-girl” stereotypes in countless ways, while promoting gender equality and equal opportunity.

February 2017 Data Byte large top of page image
Female and male presence are still not equal in STEM fields, but it’s evening out very rapidly (Source)
science-cosmos-kids-steam-education-center-franchise-opportunities-2 |  Science Cosmos
Girls and boys love STEAM topics to the same extent, and have the same abilities (image source)

2. It enables kids to excel in more ways than just one

Some children are not able to fit in with the traditional method of testing, we all know that. Albert Einstein famously said: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a FISH by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” The STEAM educational paradigm enables kids to shine in so many different ways, by opening new channels of interest and a variety of modes of learning. When it comes to STEAM education, there is truly something for everyone!

3. It doesn’t separate subjects into distinct boxes

Is there truly science without math? Or math without art? How about engineering without technology? These subjects cannot, and should not, be viewed as separate. It may be neater to do so, but reality is far from neat.

The STEAM education approach is interdisciplinary and integrative in nature, and it acknowledges that everything is connected in real life, and therefore all studies should be treated as such. The bridge example is a perfect demonstration of how the STEAM topics are interrelated. A bridge cannot be understood through one lens alone – all 5 are needed.

steam education the bridge example 1

Summing Up

STEAM education has more merits than can be counted, and the positive moves in that direction are felt far and wide. Eager to equip children with skills that they will need to be successful innovators of the 21st century, this new and groundbreaking approach could change the face of education as we know it.

As technology innovator and President of Enterra Solutions Stephen DeAngelis eloquently said:

 “Those [STEM] subjects teach students how to think critically and how to solve problems — skills that can be used throughout life to help them get through tough times and take advantage of opportunities whenever they appear.”

That sure sounds good to us!

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