STEAM not just STEM: how can we encourage more creativity?

Creative ideas take time. They are often generated after an initial period of thinking deeply about the problem, considering different ways to frame the problem, and exploring different possible solutions. Sir James Dyson developed over 5,000 prototypes before he patented his vacuum cleaner. And Walt Disney animated cartoons for nearly two decades before his first big success, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

So how can we encourage more creativity? How can we help people, as Apple famously put it in 1997, to ‘think different’? One way is to go back and start at the beginning. With children in school. And by rewiring our educational system to focus on STEAM rather than STEM.

In recent years, as the United Kingdom has faced stiff economic and technological competition from China and other countries, there has been a surge of interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is clear that if we are to maintain our position as a global leader in innovation, we have to increase the emphasis on these four subjects in our schools.

Yet this is an area where we have lagged behind relative to other countries. We need to up our game dramatically. The UK ranks 16th out of 20 OECD countries for the proportion of people with technical qualifications. We have particular skills shortages in sectors of the economy that depend on STEM subjects. Nearly 40% of employers report difficulties recruiting staff with relevant STEM skills.

But STEM alone will not do it. We need to add an A for arts. Focusing only on the sciences is not enough to stretch the mind and encourage creativity.

Take a look at some of the most successful and innovative products produced in the last ten years. The iPhone is not simply a technological tool. It is a piece of art and a fantastic work of creative design. And the applications are more than mere products of programming. The best are feats of imagination.

The STEAM movement is already being championed in the United States, spearheaded by academics and students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). They argue that the US educational system (and, I think, the UK) is still functioning in the same way it did a hundred years ago. It has the same outdated systems, institutions and traditions.

We are trying to educate eight million children via an antiquated school system. Or as the academics at the RISD put it,

“Schools were, and still are, structured like the factories they were developed to serve. They treat education like an assembly line – you move from one task (class) to the next – day in and day out. There is little collaboration or interchange.”

The danger is that innovation will continue to wane. To become a more innovative economy requires the ability to seize new opportunities and adapt to change. But historically, the UK has not been as successful at commercialisation and development as we have been at basic research. We have often been slower than competitors to take up and deploy existing technologies.

Our education system tends to reward test scores and rote memorisation rather than creativity and problem solving. Our students are learning antiquated skills in a modern, and changing world. And that will be a recipe for disaster as the world continues to move towards greater connectivity, innovation and technological change.

Or, as the US secretary of education Richard Riley famously summed it up, “The jobs in the greatest demand in the future don’t yet exist and will require workers to use technologies that have not yet been invented to solve problems that we don’t yet even know are problems.”

What do you think? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.