Education, like many other things in our society, has always been influenced and driven by the current state of our economy. Every shift in the ways we built our education systems relied on some form of revolution or boom — standardized universal education only came into the picture after the industrial revolution, and the tech boom led to the emergence of the STEM-centric education, as it was what was important in the era of new scientific and technological innovations.
However, the focus we place on standardization and STEM education may end up killing creativity entirely. As most governments concentrate and invest in STEM education and its counterpart industries, alternative paths are almost dismissed and looked down upon as being not as prosperous. Countless times have creative majors been regarded as less than its STEM counterparts. This is so as people fail to recognize that design thinking and creativity are essential ingredients for innovation — the very thing that made STEM thrive in the first place. Creativity is needed to allow individuals to think outside of the box, to propose new ideas that can later be transformed into innovative solutions. While STEM explicitly focuses on scientific knowledge, the integration of arts in STEM (STEAM) focuses more on the holistic approach towards STEM.This can be done by incorporating strains of design thinking in the approach of exploring and utilizing scientific knowledge.
Even though we acknowledge the importance of creativity, many are still kept under the impression that it is not for everyone. Instilled from a very young age, our lack of appreciation for the Arts comes from the lack of creative education that is incorporated into our education systems worldwide. While pre-school and kindergarten still promotes learning through play, it’s inherent that this approach to learning has been completely cut out the moment we leave kindergarten. While kindergarten education might seem trivial in comparison to high schools and universities, they somehow stand as a model for learning and creative education. Traditional kindergarten activities such as storytelling and craft projects foster a learning process that develops students’ abilities to think creatively and work collaboratively through their creations — this is exactly what we need to achieve novel innovations in the 21st century.
A study done by Adobe showed that around 65% of their study recipients (taken from 5 countries) felt that creativity is being stifled by their educational system. With a creativity gap being prevalent in 1 in 4 people, it is evident that creativity needs to be better addressed within schools.
The forerunners in the new wave of revolutionized education
While the majority of schools still adhere and follow traditional education systems that are mainly focused on testing and academic excellence, there exist a few ground-up initiatives across different education levels that strive to lead the forefront in the next wave of creative education.
Blue School Dynamically Balanced Education Model
Blue School, New York City
The Blue School in NYC not only strives for academic mastery, but its educational model also places an equal emphasis on creative thinking, and self & social intelligence.
The school’s focus on creativity stems from the founders itself as they were all a part of the Blue Man Group, an American performance art company. What started out as a playgroup for their children soon evolved into an established school, for kindergarteners up to middle school, that is renowned for its unique and research-driven approach to holistic education.
While still adhering to education standards, the Blue School incorporates their unique learning approaches to the common core subjects. Within Maths & Sciences, students follow an inquiry-based learning approach. Instead of just breezing through concepts after concepts, students indulge in creative mathematical and scientific explorations that involve the real-world, so students can first-hand observe these concepts in action — to see the world through a mathematical and scientific lens. With a more unique approach to Social Studies, students embark on a Big Study: a deep, thoughtful, and responsive study that develops over the course of a year. These Big Studies are not confined by any curriculum but instead shift yearly based on the interests of the class. Examples of these include the study of storytelling, immigration laws, and even studies revolving Activism.
Taken by Tat Leong, our CTO, during his visit to Blue School
Green School, Bali
Founded in Bali, the Green School’s curriculum is built on the basis of education for sustainability.
“Green School isn’t just a school, its a global movement to raise changemakers — because our world needs us now”
- John & Cynthia Hardy, Green School Co-founders
The Green School employs similar inquiry-based learning to the Blue School; both these holistic education systems employ hands-on learning for the core subjects. For Maths, their High School curriculum is built around the learning outcomes of Singapore’s Maths curriculum. However, instead of these objectives being met yearly as per grade level, Green School advocates for their students to opt for classes based on their skill levels. This allows students the autonomy to create their own curriculum based on their personal interests and strengths — a form of flexibility that is prominent in holistic education. They also incorporate learning beyond the classrooms: while this might refer to field trips for most countries, being located in Ubud means exploring the jungles and nature surrounding their campus. One of their outdoor projects involves constructing a real, cable-and-bamboo, footbridge across the Ayung River; all the calculations and construction were done by the students themselves. In Middle School Maths, classes tend to be approached in a gamified manner, as such Fun Fridays were created, where concepts are taught strictly via games that build on their mathematical abilities.
Bamboo Bridge over the Ayung River
Their final year project, referred to as the Greenstone project, counts as one of the key requirements for graduation. In their respective passion projects, students are to lead this 6–7 month-long project independently, which includes various forms of research and presentation. While this may seem like a simple school project, the Greenstone project has birthed many innovative initiatives that help its surrounding communities; one of which is the Mountain Mamas, a social enterprise with a circular system empowering village women to produce alternative bags from recycled material.
Mountain Mamas with Founder, Melati Wijsen
On the extreme side of holistic education, Agora in the Netherlands is a school that took upon the challenge of creating an education system that opposes almost everything we find in traditional schools. Instead of a classroom setting, rooms were described to look like a co-working space, and students almost felt like they were working independently instead of attending a class. Following inquiry-based learning, Agora’s classes are formatted in a manner that resembles a workspace: including pitching their ideas and creating a scrum board for themselves, all revolving questions that they are intrigued in investigating. Students will come up with their study plan for the day (based on what they individually want to learn) and will create a list of tasks for the day. After they are approved, students are then free to explore and complete their set-out objectives. Teachers are there not to teach, but to simply coach them in the acquisition of new knowledge independently. Read more about their school here.
Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore
Similarly, at the tertiary level, Singapore University of Technology & Design (SUTD) has incorporated strains of STEAM and Design Thinking throughout their curriculum. Even with being a predominantly engineering school, the institute provides an interdisciplinary and well-rounded pedagogy as students are required to take Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences (HASS) throughout the course of their programs — highlighting the importance of the Arts in STEAM.
How can we learn from these schools?
While these schools have successfully created a holistic system that allows for broad-based learning and focuses not only on academic rigor, how can these values be transferable to public education systems that are accessible to all?
1. Integrate different approaches to learning
As seen through the given examples, all these schools employ a more holistic approach to education — the structured form of traditional education we own now will not succeed in cultivating creativity within schools.
Inquiry-based learning is a popular alternative to the traditional approach in education that has been employed by all of the schools above. Instead of relying on teachers to purely convey new knowledge, this approach creates an emphasis on the student’s role in the acquisition of new knowledge. It involves students being active in classrooms and engaging in inquiry and investigation towards a problem. This allows for students to gain independence and initiative in their own learning process, which tends to lead in a deeper understanding of the content as they have independently explored the concepts. This approach can be accompanied with the Design Thinking methodology to further improve the educational experience. Read more about Design Thinking here!
Here are some different levels of incorporating inquiry-based learning in classrooms:
- Confirmation Inquiry
Students are provided with all the elements of an inquiry — they have the question, methodology, and answers. They just have to reinforce the given information
- Structured Inquiry
Students are given the question and methodology. Their task is to go through the investigation themselves.
- Guided Inquiry
Students are only given a question as a starting point. The process of identifying a methodology, and carrying out their investigation is up to them.
- Open Inquiry
Students are tasked to create the whole process of inquiry independently — they’ll form their own questions, methodology, and present their final findings.
This can be done as a gradual process going from Confirmation to Open Inquiry, to slowly guide students into an inquiry-based learning approach.
2. Creating a classroom culture that encourages creativity
In order to make students employ creativity, we need to first create a classroom that appreciates and recognizes creativity that exists outside of the Arts as well. We can focus on the ‘create’ aspect of creativity that can be incorporated across various subjects. One way to do this is through engaging students in design-centric STEM projects — after all, all those STEM innovations do require some form of design in them. This can take the form of creating a physical prototype of simple STEM products such as Aquaponic systems.
As mentioned previously, Kindergartens can be the role model for how our educational reform should take form. Moving away from simply filling out worksheets and tests, education should move towards learning through play. While kindergarteners can simply do this through crafts, storytelling, and building with lego blocks, it’s a bit different for higher education as more advanced learning outcomes and objectives need to be reached; calculus can’t be learned the same way colors can be learned through painting. So how can we introduce creative education for advanced education? The solution lies in the hands of technology. Educational technology aids in providing a gamified or rather more fun and engaging way of teaching. A prominent example of this can be seen through Scratch: a block-based programming tool that allows users to create simple coding projects including interactive stories, games, and animations — all amidst teaching them fundamental computer science concepts.
3. Capstone projects
Greenstone has not been the only successful example of capstone projects in holistic education. Even the Blue School employs capstone projects for the final year of Primary school. This is the same for SUTD, their capstone project takes in the form of a year-long project that incorporates elements of STEAM education in their final year.
Capstone projects that reflect on the student’s personal interests are a fundamental step to allow each student to participate in the exploration of their own creative interests. While final year projects are common throughout tertiary education, it has yet to be fully integrated or normalized within K-12; this is something that could easily be changed and will provide a great impact on student’s ability to explore and engage in independent learning.
As creativity and learn through play decrease over the course of our K-12 education, it seems like a capstone project implemented in Middle School and High School will serve the purpose to rejuvenate creativity and independent learning within these times.
While a full-on reformation to our education system to the likes of Agora may seem unattainable and perhaps too extreme, it is the small steps towards the right direction that matters. As we slowly cultivate creativity into a more holistic education system, we can slowly move away from a system that only highlights academic excellence to a more well-rounded education system.
Further reading on our education systems: