As parents, we are bombarded with messages that our young people are living in an increasingly competitive world and that artificial intelligence, digital technology and augmented reality will feature heavily as the jobs of their futures.
It is absolutely the case that the digital world is moving fast and, as educators, we need to help prepare young people for the pace of this change and the world they will inhabit as young adults. The temptation for schools, however, can be to narrow or modify their curriculums in favour of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in a belief that this will facilitate students’ preparation for the business world more effectively. The result, although unintended, is potentially devastating for creative arts subjects: curriculum time is being reduced and investment in subjects cut.
There is no doubt that exposure to STEM subjects is of vital importance for the future, but it is my belief that all creative arts subjects – art, dance, design, drama, and music to name but a few – are of fundamental importance and benefit to the growth, development and academic progress of young people and should be intertwined with STEM subjects to effect the most benefit for pupils in their lives.
Without the study and immersion in creative arts subjects, young people are limited in their development of personal and collaborative creativity, the ability to express themselves, to develop their resilience and self-control. These are fundamental skills we absolutely need the next generation to harness and embrace. Why? Because business leaders are crying out for young adults to be digitally proficient, creative and adaptable, resilient, able to problem solve and be able to work well independently or as part of a team. Unfortunately, our current school leavers are data rich but skills poor so are not effectively equipped to manage the realities of the working world – a world in which the ability to critique and reflect upon work is vital.
It is clear, therefore, that educational opportunities at an early age to help develop individual creativity are of critical importance, not only in the development of the whole child, but in the development of their readiness for the world of work as adults. These skill areas sit beautifully in the realm of creative arts subjects. One might assume creative arts subjects are in some way ‘soft’; without the discipline and rigour of mathematics and science, for example. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s look at some examples.
Michelangelo is a good starting point. His scientific inventions were rooted in art and design, his paintings and sculptures utterly beautiful, yet mathematically proportioned. All individual disciplines he employed were inter-dependent and complimentary, resulting in breath-taking outcomes. Bach and Mozart were both mathematical and logical in their musical compositions. Their work is so skilful in its logical artistry in order to effect emotional resonance, yet connected innately to creativity and emotion – sometimes reducing those who listen to their music, hundreds of years later, to tears. Consider Shakespeare: a playwright full to the brim of artistic and creative flair, who combined literary and historical knowledge, grammatical and poetic skill, symmetry and logic, all to astounding effect in his works. His sonnets and plays will live forever in our canon because of his understanding of all disciplines and their perfect synthesis in order to understand and express in the written word, the intricacies of the human mind.
The United Kingdom is known for its creative output; however, not just its artistic, musical and dramatic prowess, but its design flair, too. Some of the greatest designers and architects of the modern day were educated in this country. Take David Chipperfield, for example, shortlisted for the Tate Modern Design award. He has received wide recognition for his services to architecture from Britain, Florence and Japan. His views on architecture are far from mathematical and logical. He wrote recently: ‘I think architecture should represent one’s ideas on life, it stands for the way that you are, the way that you live and behave. Architecture is a mediation between us and the world.’ This statement speaks volumes for me about the need for the melding together and balanced focus on all subjects and disciplines of study in order to create a rounded and balanced mind.
As a Head, I feel incredibly fortunate to have the influence to retain that breadth of educational focus, rather than feeling under pressure to narrow the curriculum in favour of the most recent initiative or directive. It is my fundamental belief that the education of prep school age children should be broad in its compass, ensuring the minds of pupils are expanded, stimulated, challenged and enriched in all areas. Education should provide pupils with valuable and regular opportunities to take risks, develop grit and determination, perform in front of their peers, express their creativity, their emotions, expand their understanding of symbolism, the human form and societal behaviour, as well as give them opportunity to develop their knowledge and skill in the core areas of the curriculum. Knowledge is a powerful tool, but without a broad and emotionally intelligent mind, knowledge is limited in its scope and efficacy. Furthermore, the development of balanced mental health requires an emotional connectivity and intelligence that mathematical and scientific reasoning simply cannot provide alone.
It is children’s innate curiosity and thirst for knowledge, particularly in the prep years, that provides a wonderful breeding ground for the development of these vital skill areas. Their minds are sponges; in a nurturing and warm environment they are unselfconscious, love the opportunity to explore and create. Not only that, but their mindset, from an early age, is compassed to embrace challenge, enjoy grappling with problems, collaborate to find solutions, critique and reflect upon their relative successes, and most importantly, pick themselves up and try another time when faced with the first failure.
There is no question that an inter-disciplinary approach, combining STEM subject work with opportunities to develop ability in the creative arts is the education of the future. In order to prepare young people for their futures, we must teach them to think across subjects, be innovative and apply their knowledge to diverse scenarios. No longer can we sustain the single subject, knowledge based approach to learning when we know, as adults, that in order to succeed, we have to draw upon all our skills in numerous ways to solve problems and find solutions.
Sally Weber-Spokes is Head of Yarrells School.