Should we focus on STEM or languages?

As you may know, from the North American shores to the African safaris, governments are scrambling to modernize their education systems so that they may be relevant in the 21st Century.

The focus of most governments have been to try and get as many learners proficient in STEM subjects so that the pipeline is not starved of a constant supply of talent.

This is good but is the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) misplaced? Many a governments have realised that teaching STEM in isolation does not achieve the intended results and have now remixed STEM into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics).

Americans have been known to be very good communicators such that they can easily compensate for lack of content knowledge with confidence and eloquence. By the way in a small and very informal survey I did in 2016, learners at a SOuth African high school thought that Barack Obama was the most intelligent President in the world because of his sublime oratory skills. This is an indicator that the mastery of language can lead to significant change through a clear articulation of aspirations and how we will get there.

There have been studies thathave shown that there is a strong correlation between language of instruction proficiency and success in subjects like mathematics and physics. I am neither saying that to be good in physics one ought to be good in the language of instruction nor am I am saying the converse.

Using SOuth Africa as an example, Ihave seen how lack of language mastery is causing mayhem to learners’ proficiency in mathematics. In a class I taught a while back I asked the learners a word problem as follows:

Question: Take a number, double it, add 5 and the answer is equal to 25. Write this English statement in mathematical language (equation)

50% of the respondents gave the following response:

Answer: Let x be the unknown number, x/2 +5 = 25

I was surpprised as to why learners would give such a ridiculous answer to a simple statement. Looking at the answer you can see that every aspect of the equation is correct except the use of 2. The students clearly did not know whether to multiply or divide by 2. This led me to probe even further to ascertain whetehr the learners understood the word “double”.

What I found was astonishing because they gave me feedback that in the townships they have a slang statement that says “double up” meaning “shortcut”, so to them double implies making something smaller thats why they divided.

I then realised that there was a communication barrier between me and them because I had assumed that the word double is known to all man as multiplying by two.

My point here is that I am emphasizing the fact that this was not a mathematical ability problem but a language problem. This problem was a hindrance to the learners’ success in mathematics.

To drive my point hom I am going to say another statement:

Question: “What is the palindrome of 55?”

Now tell me how you are going to answer that quaetion correctly if you dont know what the word “palindrome” means? Is this a mathematics problem or a langauge problem?

The policy makers within education should take cognisnace on the need to push for language literacy as this has profound implications on how a learner will do in STEM and other subjects. So, should we be focusing on STEM or ensuring language is good?

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