Global Education & Skills Forum

Skip to content
12 - 13 March 2016

Atlantis The Palm,
Dubai, U.A.E.

GESF Agenda: Are we becoming too focused on STEM education?

STEM education – science, technology, engineering, and maths – is increasingly seen as a vital element of today’s education, to prepare students for the world of tomorrow. But is this focus leaving the arts and humanities by the wayside? The debate on this issue at the Global Education and Skills Forum was chaired by Neil Carberry, Director of Employment & Skills at the Confederation of British Industry.

“For” the motion: “The House believes that we are becoming too focused on STEM education” was Anna Winthrop, Department of Music & Performing Arts Professions at New York University, and Nancie Atwell, Head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and winner of last year’s Global Teacher Prize.

Debating “against” the motion was Stephen Ritz of Public School 55 and Oley Dibba-Wadda, the Executive Secretary for the Association for the Development of Education in Africa.

The case for

Anna Winthrop began the debate noting that, “there is a hierarchy that exists in education worldwide and within this hierarchy STEM is somewhere at the top.” Arts on the other hand, she noted, are at the bottom and this is highly problematic.

“Focusing solely on STEM is not only detrimental to students, but also inefficient.” Teaching through the arts helps students “learn on a deeper level, retain information longer and is highly effective at reaching different types of learners.”

“The arts provide social, emotional and physical benefits that greatly impact students’ behaviour and their ability to function well.” Ms Winthrop went on to note that students involved in the arts have a more positive attitude to school, and statistics shows that arts have the “greatest impact for students coming from underprivileged backgrounds.”

Nancie Atwell acknowledged that “science, math and technology certainly do matter a lot” but noted “they don’t matter the most.” Emphasising STEM at the expense of the arts is risky and, she believes, is narrowing students’ worldview and their career options.

Technology alone isn’t enough, she noted, but married with the liberal arts and humanity it can bring the results that “make our hearts sing.”

“Public education was never intended as vocational training,” she said, asking “Why not education for whatever world students encounter after graduation? We need well-rounded citizens to make the future for our children and grandchildren.”

The case against

Stephen Ritz began his arguments against the motion by stating: “We can never have too much STEM,” but adding that we must integrate the arts.

“The problems of the new age are unprecedented,” he stated, emphasising the importance of skills in the technology filled future.  “STEM to employment is critical,” Mr Ritz claimed, especially for marginalised communities.

“STEM enables us to add life to our days,” Mr Ritz passionately stated, arguing for more STEM education to allow for everyone to prosper. “Technology will not save the world,” he said, “people will.”

Also speaking against the motion, Oley Dibba-Wadda began by giving an African perspective: “Africa is supposed to be going places, yet we don’t.” She highlighted the importance of STEM for the continent – Africa cannot rise without a focus on STEM.

“There needs to be balance, but we need to respond to demand versus supply,” Ms Dibba-Wadda said, stating that the world can’t do without STEM, and embracing it is important because it allows us to evolve and grow.

Drawing conclusions

Moderator Nail Carberry rounded up the arguments, noting the points of agreement between the sides. Following the debate, the audience voted in support of the motion, with the majority narrowly agreeing that we are becoming too focused on STEM education.

Which side did you take?


The Global Education and Skills Forum is the leading multi-stakeholder education event bringing together leaders from the Public, Private and Social sectors together to address how we can deliver on the promise of education, equity and employment for all.


     education GESF2016 STEM

Blog post by:

Harsha Sharma
Harsha Sharma
Digital Communications Manager, Varkey Foundation