Creative thinking: the art of education

As the world becomes increasingly focused on science and technology, Patricia Clarke asks whether schools are overlooking the value of creativity 

"We are educating people out of their creative capacities,” says Ken Robinson in his 2006 TED talk, “Do schools kill creativity?” It is a simple enough statement, but it throws everything we know into question: are we being stifled by our education, the very system that we rely on to carry us into the future?

In his talk Robinson focuses on creativity, which he defines as “having original ideas that have value”. He laments the hierarchal nature of most teaching methods, claiming creativity takes a back seat in education when it “should be as important as literacy”.

Robinson calls for a total subversion of teaching methods, in favour of a cross-disciplinary approach that values different kinds of intelligence. His message has resonated with many; in the 10 years since the conference, Robinson’s remains the most-watched TED talk of all time, garnering the attention of more than 42 million people in over 150 countries.

Why the popularity of this particular speech, when education is constantly called into question? One reason could be the following: in the past decade, many education systems have seen cuts to arts, crafts, and humanities in favour of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

In the face of such bias, many are quick to defend the arts as “good for the soul” – a necessary form of leisure. Robinson’s talk offers something different; more than emotional escape, the arts, and creativity in general, are essential to our formation.

This argument is often overlooked, though unsurprising. If you look back through history, you will discover that many of the world’s most influential thinkers were polymaths. Albert Einstein was a talented violinist; Leonardo da Vinci was a pioneer in the fields of mathematics and engineering when he wasn’t painting; and Alexander Fleming created art out of the microbes that he used to discover penicillin.

This is just to name a few; and yet it is only recently that interdisciplinary education has become a topic of global attention and scientific research. “There is an appearance of a divide between arts and sciences,” says Dr Robert Root-Bernstein, an expert in the field of creativity. “But this is not the case at all.”

Root-Bernstein has dedicated a lifetime of research to the importance of arts and crafts in STEM fields. One of his studies, for example, compared the avocational interests of all Nobel laureates in the sciences with those of an average group of scientists, alongside those of the general US public. These did not differ widely between average scientists and the public, but Nobel laureates were at least twice as likely to be photographers or musicians as the typical scientist, and 15 to 25 times as likely to participate actively in arts and crafts.

There is a dangerous side to creativity. If everybody were creative all the time, we’d have chaos. Would you want your dentist trying to be creative every time he goes into your mouth?

Dr Robert Root-Bernstein

Root-Bernstein suggests that an arts education, which naturally involves a more creative teaching approach, developed the imaginations of many such geniuses, leading them towards innovative breakthroughs. Rather than advocating for teaching creativity itself, he suggests that education systems should blur the boundaries between arts and sciences, to encourage new ways of thinking. Many educators are now considering this approach.

“In the UK there is a discussion about whether STEM should be expanded to STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics]” says Deborah Bull, Assistant Principal at King’s College London (King’s), who advocates for this change.

In an attempt to bridge the gap, King’s is collaborating with Science Gallery London on a new campus building. Due to open in 2018, the facility “will bring together researchers, students, local communities and artists to stimulate new approaches to contemporary challenges.”

Many such initiatives can be found in the UK, which is celebrated for encouraging thinkers and academics to use cross-disciplinary methods to answer global questions. Educators across the globe also acknowledge the importance of creativity, and are taking steps towards reform, though approaches to creativity vary from country to country.

As part of its National Innovation Strategy, the UAE has vowed to focus on STEM subjects, encouraging young people to get interested in science and technology. Though this may seem to go against creative thinking, there are other factors at play.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, introduced a policy in January 2016 that enforces innovation and entrepreneurship as mandatory classes in every subject of higher education.

Dr Flevy Lasrado, Assistant Professor at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, agrees with the change, stating: “What was really lacking in our curricula was teaching people how to think differently.”

The new higher education policy came ahead of the October 2016 opening of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI), the first university of its kind in the Middle East. This is a huge step in the development of Emirati arts education.

“We are at an exciting point for the arts and creative economy in the UAE,” reiterates Catherine Abbott, Project Manager for Arts and Creative Economies at the British Council. As part of the British Council, Abbott has run a series of projects across theatre, dance, music, film and interdisciplinary creativity in the emirate, which she claims has shown her “at first hand the positive impact that arts education has on young people.”

She also cites emotional, cognitive, artistic and even physical development (studies have shown that art can improve hand-eye coordination) as first-hand benefits of an arts education.

Most intriguing of all, however, is cultural development. Abbott claims, “Through early childhood art, children begin to understand the relationship of art to culture and history.”

Many of the world’s most influential thinkers were polymaths. Albert Einstein was a talented violinist; Leonardo da Vinci was a pioneer in the fields of mathematics and engineering when he wasn’t painting; and Alexander Fleming created art out of the microbes that he used to discover penicillin

Root-Bernstein picks up on this sentiment. “You have to have a background in world history, politics, religion, art, crafts, and more in order to actually make use of your inventions.” As well as “creative thinking”, he advocates for the universal knowledge provided by an arts education, which he believes is crucial to scientific development, and social progress as a whole.

“If you are going to discover or invent something and have it be useful in the world, you must understand the people who are going to use it,” he says.

Modern innovators like the late Steve Jobs have embraced a similar thought process, in line with their historical counterparts. Apple, Inc., Jobs’ multi-billion dollar tech company, began with him building computers in his basement. He incorporated the production process into the design of his techno-logy products – which always had the user in mind.

“I noted that Stanford and MIT now have to give engineering students what they call remedial play courses,” claims Root-Bernstein – implying that an arts-and-crafts based education would remedy this. “These brilliant students who can solve equations and run a computer simulation have never taken apart a bicycle and tried to fix it. They are trying to build things that they can’t actually handle.”

Like the other global experts, Root-Berstein calls for creativity and arts and crafts to be given a firm place on the curriculum. Though there is no single cohesive education strategy, Ken Robinson’s talk certainly doesn’t seem as bold as it did a decade ago.

And yet Root-Bernstein is also quick to caution us. “There is a dangerous side to creativity,” he says. “If everybody were creative all the time, we’d have chaos. Would you want your dentist trying to be creative every time he goes into your mouth?

“We need to understand when creativity is appropriate, and how best to use it.”

Though global education is certainly headed in the right direction, perhaps we should continue to blur the lines between disciplines, and allow the young to decide just how far they want to take their creative thinking.