Two cheers, or maybe only one and a half, for the Obama/Duncan education administration’s launch today of Educate to Innovate.   Clearly there are many things to like about the federal government’s decision to prioritize the skill of innovation as the highest of all priorities; this is what we too have decided is most important (or equally so, when paired with leadership) at St. Gregory.

I like the phrasing “educate to innovate”; I have found myself saying it regularly the last few months, and I think it creates a nice little abbreviation in E2I.    This statement, too, from President Obama is constructive and valuable: “Reaffirming and strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation is essential to meeting the challenges of this century,” though I wish he hadn’t needed to qualify the central word, innovation, with the limiting word “technological.”

I also appreciate some of the brand new program’s features, such as the national science fair in science, technology, and robotics to be held at the White House, and the initiatives to use interactive and immersive gaming to advance the cause: “Five public-private partnerships that harness the power of media, interactive games, hands-on learning, and 100,000 volunteers to reach more than 10 million students over the next four years, inspiring them to be the next generation of makers, discoverers, and innovators.”

Which brings me to the larger point, my great disappointment that the E2I initiative is configured in such a way as to be limited to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), rather than being more broadly, and more valuably, defined as  STEAM (with Arts added!).

President Obama has identified three overarching priorities for STEM education: increasing STEM literacy so all students can think critically in science, math, engineering and technology; improving the quality of math and science teaching so American students are no longer outperformed by those in other nations; and expanding STEM education and career opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women and minorities.   The Obama Administration has already taken bold action in the STEM education arena by directing that the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” school grant program assure a competitive preference to states that commit to improving STEM education. “The Department of Education takes the STEM competitive priority very seriously – and states should as well,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

This is really unfortunate.  Now, it is important to emphasize that I believe deeply in STEM education, and am working vigorously to expand it here at St. Gregory and in my blogging arguments.   I promote robotics, I promote science education, particularly hands-on and experiential, and I promote quality math and science teaching.   But we know by now, we know very, very well, that in order to educate to innovate, we need to teach critical and creative thinking, we need to enhance independent minded-ness, we need to urge students to pursue their passions as individuals.

Dan Pink taught us this six years ago in a Whole New Mind, that teaching STEM alone makes our students far more replaceable in the economy than teaching STEM plus (or STEAM).    Chinese parents recognize this; as I wrote in a recent post, 45% of Chinese parents believe Creative thinking is most important for innovation, and only 9% think STEM is most important.     A Harvard Business school piece on innovation similarly argued that it is “discovery skills” that are most important, and we need to teach these alongside STEM if we seek to educate to innovate.    The European community recently strove for this same goal, to educate to innovate, and they put teaching creativity first.     President Obama, Secretary Duncan, it is not too late.  Direct funds also to arts education, call for the teaching of creativity alongside Science and Math, within and without, and offer ways for all students to think differently, discover, and invent in all their studies.