Here's How Creativity Plays a Pivotal Role in STEM Education
In his famous Rede Lecture of 1959, chemist and novelist C P Snow spoke of the separation of science and the humanities, and the lack of respect and understanding that often exists between the fields. He argued that this was detrimental to the future success of the country as many creative breakthroughs come from the interaction between the two cultures. Snow put a large part of the blame on what he called “our fanatical belief in educational specialisation” and focusing on “producing a tiny elite educated in one academic skill”. Unfortunately, not much seems to have changed.
The World Economic Forum’s 2016 future of jobs report highlighted that most educational systems still “provide highly siloed training” with a “dichotomy between humanities and sciences”. But industry needs people who can take on cross-functional roles and have technical, social and analytic skills. The report went on to list complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity as the top three skills needed in the workforce by 2020.
One way to address these challenges in schools, colleges and universities is to make creativity a core part of the curriculum. We know creativity as the ability to come up with ideas or things that are new and valuable. But I would argue that creativity includes critical (or convergent) thinking as well as divergent thinking – that is, the exploration of a range of possible ideas or solutions.
A creative outlook
Creativity might traditionally be associated with the arts and humanities, but it is equally important for complex problem solving in science, technology, engineering and maths. Important creativity skills include listening, observation and empathy as well as experimentation, collaboration and analysis – skills from humanities and science.
Creativity is also driven by having a sense of purpose, of wanting to be better at something, and having the freedom to work in a flexible way. So it naturally demands and creates a bridge between the humanities and science.
It is not so common for a student to be an expert in both science and humanities, or even want to be – but this is not important. What is important is that students recognise the value of all subjects, and the role they can play in generating new ideas or things of value. Whether that value is for personal learning and growth, for communities or organisations, or for society as a whole.
There is a strong push currently to get more UK students to study STEM subjects. I am not against this effort, but I think it is also important to recognise that technology companies need workers who have skills in understanding people, society and culture. So subjects such as anthropology, business, history, psychology, marketing and design (to name but a few) are equally key.
So how can we embed creativity more fully into the curriculum? There are several approaches that could be considered. The first is to follow a more product- oriented learning approach. Advocated by Professor Yong Zhao, this sees students learning a subject by being creators rather than passive consumers.
Students are set projects that are perceived as relevant and important to them. Such an approach usually combines theory and practice and encourages use of some of the core creativity skills listed above. It can also involve collaboration with industry or community groups, or include ways of combining topics being covered in different subjects.
Another practical way of encouraging more creativity is by getting students to develop a range of possible ideas to address problems or challenges, rather than trying to get them to find the single right answer. The fear of failure is one of the biggest barriers to creativity. But one of the best ways of overcoming this is through play – playing with new materials, technologies, ideas or concepts, perhaps through physically making and testing prototypes.
Creativity can also be fostered by connecting students with other cultures, groups and organisations – both locally and globally – and getting out and about. Whether that is going to local care homes, connecting with schools and communities from around the world, understanding how to improve the environment, how new technology is being used to improve healthcare, how local farmers play a part in food production, or how new films and TV series are made – the possibilities are numerous.
This is not abstract thinking that will take years to embed into current school systems. In Wales, a new curriculum is being developed for schools, where these approaches are being explored. Based on the independent review by Professor Graham Donaldson, one of the core purposes of the new curriculum is to help students be “enterprising, creative contributors” with a shift in focus to a more connected curriculum with “areas of learning rather than discrete subjects”.
Though Snow’s comments are now almost 60 years old, and the separation of science and the humanities is still prevalent, the embedding of creativity in all levels of education is a way to bridge that divide.