The better bet

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Let’s assume that you are an educational policymaker and you are trying to solve the following problem: How can we ensure that the education system supports the development of creative innovators and problem solvers, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in order to cope with the unprecedented demands of an uncertain future?

Yes, we could question the assumptions underpinning such a question. Innovation is sexy but maintenance is at least as important and is often overlooked. If we want to keep our great machines running well into the future, our utilities, factories, supply chains and so on, our education system needs to deliver on that objective too.

And are the demands of the future really unprecedented? We have seen rapid technical change occur regularly over the past few hundred years, from the agricultural revolution to the first industrial revolution, to the petrochemical revolution to the information revolution.

The problem also assumes a fairly narrow economic role for education, as politicians often tend to do. Solving such a problem is not incompatible with other aims, such as the ethical life, the aesthetic life and the fulfilling life, but it is incompatible if education is conceived solely in relation to such problems.

Nevertheless, let’s address this problem on its own terms. There seems to be two ways of tackling it.

The first solution is the fashionable solution. We should teach creativity. We should teach problem solving. We should teach critical thinking. We should teach integrated STEM lessons in which kids make cars powered by rubber bands and the like. Maybe we could add in some art too and call it STEAM.

Is this a good bet? I don’t think so. I have argued before that creativity, problem solving and critical thinking are not generic skills and they cannot be divorced from domain knowledge. Yet if we step back a little, still more questions arise. Humanity has managed to have an agricultural revolution and three industrial revolutions without the wide-scale adoption of such approaches, so why do we need them now? And if you look into the assessment of generic skills such as creativity, you find a vacuum. This is despite a great deal of effort spent developing instruments to do this. So if you adopt an approach where you try to teach these things, you will have few valid ways of measuring your success.

The second solution is to see creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and similar constructs as facets of expert performance within a particular domain. Schools receive mathematical and scientific novices with the aim of moving these novices further along the novice-to-expert continuum. This is an incremental process which involves students gaining specific knowledge and skills at each stage, a process that sometimes fails or that students opt-out of when they start to make their own decisions about what to study. It is these foundations that students then draw upon as they become more expert, a process that necessarily takes a long time.

For instance, a student who has learnt to read and write in early primary school may go on to study basic science where she learns about electric circuits, and mathematics where she studies algebra. As her expertise grows, she may elect to study subjects such as chemistry and physics at the high school level, all supported by her earlier acquisition of literacy, mathematics and more basic science. She may then go on to university where she extends this knowledge into the study of materials science and engineering before, finally, creating a new type of rechargeable battery that revolutionises the storage of electricity generated by domestic solar panels.

To support this second solution, policymakers would need to invest in high quality conventional teaching by attracting good graduates into the profession and ensuring they are equipped with evidence-informed curricula and teaching strategies.

If you examine these two solutions – attempting to develop creativity, problem solving etc. directly versus seeing such abilities as a facet of expertise – you can see why the first solution is so attractive. It short-circuits a lot of drudgery and involves students in doing fun stuff that certainly looks a lot like learning. The second solution seems far more prosaic by comparison. In fact, the main thing that the second solution has going for it is that it actually works.

4 thoughts on “The better bet

  1. You are right. I doubt that creativity can even be taught. Creativity is making something new out of what you already have. The needs of mankind will in turn be served because we are continually interacting with and adapting to our environment.

    1. The argument is that creativity is an emergent property that is largely domain specific. It can most certainly be taught it’s just better to focus on rich, well structured domain knowledge while encouraging creative practice within that same domain. We have to be careful because if the argument is represented as creativity can’t be taught it can then be easily dismissed.

  2. An alternative proposal.
    Assume we are living in the actual 21st century and worried about the skills needed today. Assume skills that are needed today and in short supply are paid for accordingly. So you might find experts in fluid mechanics are in high demand as they can solve problems related to energy efficiency of automotive or jet engineers or the cars and planes powered by these.

    Now look at what is required to become an expert in these areas. Eg. an advanced math, physics, or engineering degree. Determine if the shortage is due to a lack of skill in those entering these studies (e.g. too many drop out or not enough high school graduates meet the entrance requirements.) If you determine it is then look at what would increase the number of high school graduates with that can get through these university degrees. Mostly likely in this case this involves pushing higher standards and more rigorous instruction and practice in math down through each grade all the way from 12 to 3. Where the problem is grade 3 is only how to better prepare students for grade 4 ( likely the class next door) not to worry about details of innovating in fluid mechanics.

    Perhaps my example is wrong and what is needed is better artistic design of the logo for fuel efficient cars or better marketing websites for some university programs.

    But the assumption that we can tell what is needed based on something other than what current employers need to pay seems flawed. That is because employers trying to solve problems like more efficient jet engines fund research programs with up to decade long lead times. Similarly for programs funded by government research someone knows whether there is a shortage of people to do this work.

    It is fine for someone to argue that both enterprise and central government spending are going to be imperfect indicators but to assume their better answer is all that is needed seems like a lot of hubris.

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