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.