Two Cheers for STEM, Three Cheers for Creativity

Productivity means Innovation means STEM. That premise is looking increasingly irrefutable when it comes to building the nation’s future and the employability skills of the next generation. In other words, more investment in, and engagement with, science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in schools and universities will deliver both career opportunities and a secure economic future for the nation. In the paper that follows we make a case for re-thinking STEM as a means to securing our economic future. 

So strong has been the current fixation on STEM as an educational panacea, not just in Australia but on both sides of the Pacific, that the term “frenzy” has been deployed[i] to describe the phenomenon. “Restoring the focus on STEM subjects”, we are told in a recent Australian government report, “is about ensuring Australia’s young adults are equipped with the necessary skills for the economy of the future”[ii]. Prime Minister Turnbull recently underlined his enthusiastic support for this view, asserting that  “[w]e need a renewed focus not only on digital literacy, but on technology creation to ensure our children have the skills to not only consume ICT but the ability to leverage the technology to create it.”[iii]

Now it is tricky thing to express ambivalence about what seems to be an incontestable truth ie, that a high-tech future will demand high-tech skills, and that these skills are best accessed through a STEM-focused curriculum. So some throat-clearing seems unavoidable. No, we are not against science and technology’ per se, nor do we bemoan the down-grading of traditional educational ‘basics’. And yes, we do agree that young learners will be advantaged by the experience of the pleasure of the rigour of advanced mathematical calculation. But at the same time we do want to question what it means to add value to a high-tech future, and whether a myopic focus on STEM de-limits our capacity to imagine the fullness of the notion of ‘value-adding’.


If, as Tyler Cowen argues,[iv] the ‘winners’ in a highly computerised and automated world of economic productivity will be the small number of highly self-motivated individuals who are willing and able to ‘add value’ to such processes, then many individuals with ‘average’ or dated skills will be side-lined. Yet the ability to optimise the productivity of high-tech processes need not necessarily mean having high-end technological skills of one’s own. Ethical deliberation, for example, or aesthetic sensibility or communicative capability may well be ‘value-adding’ domains in such a world. The abilities of a practised speaker and/or script-writer working in a team with digital image technicians or remote sensing specialists, for example, may pay dividends when ‘translating’ such expertise in a way that can be easily access by ‘average’ consumers.


It is possible, then, that we are not yet open enough to the wide range of possible ‘value-adds’ in a highly automated future. Any over-stating the value of STEM could only exacerbate this problem. The following contribution by IT worker Laura Farrell to a blog debating “Thoughts on ‘The Frenzy About High-Tech Talent’ and a Call for Corporate Action[v] underlines this point:

My original degree was in Music. I’ve had to santize [sic] my CV of this fact due to the response of as much [sic] as 50% of employers, to whom it was akin to having announced that I had bubonic plague. In fact, it has been hugely advantageous, to the point where when I did take a second degree, I took it in Business rather than IT because I found IT much easier to learn on-the-job. It is a shame that there is such an accepted aura of outright discrimination against those without technology-specific backgrounds.[vi]

If having a Music degree was found by this worker to be “highly advantageous”, despite the fact that it was interpreted by employers as a weakness of ‘bubonic plague” proportions, then clearly there is a misalignment between the actual skills needed by some workers to be employed in high-tech-related areas and the skills some employers believe to be relevant. While such anecdotal evidence does not refute the fact that there are specialist skills needed in many high-tech areas from the get-go, the ability to learn, whether on or off the job, seems to count as the most important capacity in this case. As Elizabeth Jacobs asserts, learning about science and technology is important, but the capacity to learn more generally seems to be even more so:

High earners are taking ever more advantage of machine intelligence in data analysis and achieving ever-better results. Meanwhile, low earners who haven’t committed to learning … have poor prospects…[vii]


In other words, in the new generation of jobs the demand is for high levels of cognitive labour, higher indeed than many professional workers currently utilize in accessing and processing data.  Those who can’t produce original ideas and products which augment and enhance the value of automated and digitised processes will certainly be at risk when it comes to secure, well-remunerated employment. [viii] That ‘at risk’ group will doubtless include many who have taken on STEM subjects in the hope they will  ‘deliver’ a secure economic future. As Sue Halpern points out:


Even computer programmers, the people writing the algorithms that are taking on these [middle occupational]… tasks will not be immune. By [research] calculations, there is about a 50% chance that programming, too, will be outsourced to machines within the next two decades. In fact, this is already happening because programmers increasingly rely on “self-correcting code”, that is, code that debugs and re-writes itself … [ix]


As she goes on to say, the most recent iteration of self-designing robots “has been designed by the robots themselves”, with the implication that, in the not too distant future, even the most expert roboticists “may find themselves out of work”.[x]


Our point here is not that STEM skilling is unhelpful, merely that there may be educational strategies that are equally or more helpful in the long term.  We are referring in particular to pedagogical approaches that optimize young people’s capacity for imagination and creativity.


Taking creativity seriously as a means of optimising future employability does redressing at the outset its paradoxical location on the high ground of artistry and the swampland of superfluity. One of the myths that prevails about creativity is that it is terrific as arts education for toddlers’ growth and development, but a distraction for adults as mature social beings with serious responsibilities. It becomes garnish on the edge of the remuneration roast.


In educational circles, there has long been a strong advocacy of creative expression as the key to optimal social and emotional development.[xi] And there is no doubt about the value of aesthetic learning for young children. But this makes for a problem.  The fact that creativity is so closely identified with early years arts education is makes it difficult to take creativity seriously after primary school. The further we move away from the early years, the more likely it is that creativity (arts education for toddlers) becomes peripheral to ‘core’, high stakes subjects like English, Maths and Science. In most education-speak, the word ‘creative’ is invariably followed by the word ‘arts’, with arts being the ‘cute and flabby’ side of an arts/science binary. If and when it does re-appear, it is used as a means to re-engage those kids who are either school drop-outs or at risk of becoming so. Once again, this is laudable but it also puts creativity on the edge of the main game, not in the centre of it. It collapses it into remedial mess-making – right for risky adolescents but suspect for smart job aspirants.


This myth flies in the face of the growing amount of evidence that we have about the life-long and life-wide value of creativity as an observable and valuable component of all social and economic enterprise, from cradle to grave. It is not garnish to the productivity roast, but fundamental to the sort of complex, challenge-ridden and rapidly changing economic and social order in which our young are seeking a future place and meaningful identity. In the words of social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, creativity is “no longer a luxury for the few, but…a necessity for all”.[xii]


In recent years, we have seen economists and policymakers embracing creativity as fundamental to innovation, economic growth and social dynamism. So we would expect there would now be broad agreement outside education with the proposition that employability will be enhanced where creative capacity is in evidence. It is more problematic, however, to argue that creative capacity can be built (or, conversely blunted) through quite specific classroom pedagogical processes adopted across the full spectrum of subject choices, not just STEM. Indeed, there recent research into student feedback on their experience of STEM subjects would suggest that “indifferent teaching” is much more likely to be a feature of STEM-related courses than those in the liberal arts.[xiii]


It may help Australian teachers to imagine the sort of pedagogy that builds creative capacity by starting from the relatively simple idea of creativity as making a third ‘thing’ from two existing entities or ideas, rather than making something from nothing. In other words, creative capability is the ability to hold disparate and even incommensurate things together long enough to generate a new or third space or idea. As Norman Jackson puts it, creatives “move an idea from one state to another”.[xiv] This idea has its echo in the following reflections of well-known ‘creative’ workers:


“I’m interested in the moment when two objects collide and generate a third. The third object is where the interesting work is” (Bruce Mau, designer)


“[I want]…to perceive the relations between thoughts, or things or forms of expression that may seem utterly different and be able to combine them” (William Plomer, poet)


“New discoveries in science and mathematics often consist of the synthesis between theories or concepts which have hitherto been regarded as unconnected” (Anthony Storr, historian)


“You can take two substances, put them together and produce something powerfully different (table salt), sometimes even explosive (nitroglycerine)” (Diane Ackerman, writer)


In similar vein, Albert Einstein once explained creativity as a form of combinatorial play that connected concepts rarely combined. This demands an ability to hold large numbers of associations together in the mind, and then select the particular associations that offer interesting possibilities. As explained by psychologist Teresa Amabile:


It’s as if the mind is throwing a bunch of balls into the cognitive space, juggling them around until they collide in interesting ways. The process has a certain playful quality to it…. If associations are made between concepts that are rarely combined – that is, if the balls that don’t normally come near each other collide – the ultimate novelty of the situation will be greater.[xv]


Once ‘ultimate novelty’ is there for all to see, it is often mistaken for the outpouring of pure and unadulterated genius of one individual, when it is in fact the outcome of a number of persons and activities and disciplined deliberations that include the rejection of many alternative combinations.


This as true of artistic performance as it is of scientific and technological ‘breakthroughs’. Michael Jackson’s famous Moonwalk is a good example. According to one of his biographers, J. Randy Taraborrelli, the ‘genius’ was not that Jackson ‘invented’ it, but that he knew what to combine and how, drawing on performances (and discarded ideas) from the past and present:


Michael hadn’t invented any of these moves; the poses were modified versions of ‘locking’, a street dance form of the 1970s. The moonwalk was a move TV’s Soul Train dancers had discarded almost three years earlier. Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown and Jackie Wilson all used to execute that same spin, and going up on the toes is a touch Michael saw Fred Astaire use in his classic films of the 1930s. To combine all those moves, from all those eras – to take different styles and to make them his own – that’s Michael’s genius as a dancer and creator.[xvi]


So the capacity to appropriate the ideas of others takes nothing away from the exceptional talent of someone like Michael Jackson. It does not ‘expose’ such individuals as lesser than they are perceived to be because they derive and combine the ideas and behaviours of other individuals or groups. On the contrary, such individuals deserve recognition for their unique and exciting creative products.


They also deserve recognition for their sheer hard work. Original combinations of ideas, conversations, dance-steps, musical scores and artefacts that make original contributions to any realm of human activity are not things that can be bought at the shop. They are hard won, requiring from their designers a capacity both to reject a prototype acclaimed by others and to endorse a prototype rejected by others. How to make such judgments without being caught up on the brambles of self-congratulation or self-condemnation is demanding in what it asks of ‘creatives’ from one unique moment to next. So creatives are never ‘off the hook’ of the possibility of improvement.


Making ‘combinatorial play’ a pedagogical priority is not easily achieved in Australian schools and universities, given the weight of past teaching practice, the inflexibility of formal educational systems, and the experience-based expectations of peers, parents, and students. Yet, if futurist Pat Kane is right in predicting that play “will be to the 21st century what work was to 300 years of industrial society – our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value”,[xvii] then teachers at all levels need to re-imagine play. Far from being a trivial human action, play needs to be recast as one of a range of multi-literacies through which our students can be “energetic, imaginative and confident in the face of an unpredictable, contestive, emergent world”.[xviii]


‘Serious play’ takes traditional teaching into unfamiliar, transdisciplinary spaces. For example, a playful question such as ‘How would you explain plastics to Henry the Eighth?’ moves both the History teacher and the Science teacher away from their well-trodden disciplinary turf. It creates a space for imagining and creating as well as for investigating both the properties of plastics and Tudor times.  It is provocative not only because it is ‘Ungoogle-able’, but also because there is no one correct answer. However, some answers are better (more imaginative, more informed, more engaging) than others.


When teachers re-imagine the learning process as one in which students are entitled to experience the pleasure of the rigour of complex thinking through serious play, learning is enhanced by a richer educational scheme of curriculum and pedagogy. Kieran Egan, author of The Future of Education, provides a glimpse of what this richer education scheme might look like, as a combination of epistemological, psychological and emotional characteristics”.[xix] He offers “Ironic Understanding” as a tool for upgrading our understanding beyond theoretical or abstract thinking, in that irony allows us to recognise “not only that language can be used to mean the opposite of, or something radically different from, what is actually stated, but that there is always some difference between what we mean and what we can put into language”.[xx] To understand how Dylan Thomas might describe his child-self as “green and dying”, to get what is meant by “faith unfaithful kept him falsely true”, begin to grasp that “what enables also constrains”, all such ironic engagements allow access to the profound through the playful. They make it possible to think towards a third space of possibility rather than in simplistic binary categories. It makes it possible to maintain both curiosity and scepticism, to expect progressive ‘solutions’ to come wrapped in barbed wire, and to strive to move away from falsity rather than towards a singular and final Truth.


We have argued elsewhere that our highest achievers on standardised tests are not necessary our best learners, nor indeed, our most creative thinkers. If ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’ is the hallmark of the life-long learner for these times, then we need to look more closely at what we are asking young people to pay attention to in this brave new world. “It’s clear”, says Cowen, that the world “is demanding more in the way of credentials, more in the way of ability, and it is passing along most of the higher rewards to a relatively small cognitive elite”.[xxi]  While we would hope that more than a “relatively small” number of our young people will be the beneficiaries of a new work order, we want to stress the point that high levels of cognitive capacity are not synonymous with satisfactory results in STEM-based courses.


What will be at a premium, we suggest, is the ability to move at speed across disparate epistemological, geographical, virtual and socio-cultural landscapes. And this demands an enhanced cognitive capacity to learn, un-learn and re-learn, not just the ability to code. Those who will thrive are those who can think beyond blueprints or templates, while having sufficient cultural and epistemological agility to learn ‘on the run’. While familiarity with coding and algorithmic calculations will doubtless be advantageous when it comes to employability in this Conceptual Age, [xxii] it is the disposition to learn – to anticipate the pleasure of the rigour of complex, creative thinking – that is of most relevance.







[i] Hacker, A. (2015) The Frenzy About High-Tech Talent, New York Review of Books, Vol.LXII, No.12, July 9-Aug12, pp.33-35.

[ii] Australian Government Department of Education and Training Restoring the focus on STEM in schools initiative accessed 11 Dec, 2015.

[iii] Hunter, J. (2015) What would a 21st-century education look like under PM Turnbull? The Conversation, Sept 24 2015.

[iv] Cowen, T. (2013) Average is Over: Powering America beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.

[v] Barr, V. (2015) October 24, 2015 Communications of the ACM, BLOG@CACM, accessed 11 Dec., 2015

[vi] Laura Farrell, November 06, 2015 06:07.

[vii], accessed 8 May, 2015

[viii] ABC journalist Geraldine Doogue’s interviews with Michael Osborne, Oxford University and Michael Rosemann, QUT, in the podcast Robots V Workers,, accessed 4 July, 2015

[ix] Halpern, S. (2015) How Robots and Algorithms Are Taking Over, New York Review of Books, Vol LXII, No 6, April 2-12, p.24.

[x] ibid, p.24

[xi] See for example Robert Schirrmacher (2005) Art and Creative Development for Young Children. Albany, NY: Delmar Thomson Learning.

[xii] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2006). Foreward: Developing Creativity. In N. Jackson, M. Oliver, M. Shaw, J. Wisdom (Eds) Developing creativity in higher education: An imaginative curriculum. London: Routledge, page xviii.

[xiii] Hacker, A. (2015) The Frenzy About High-Tech Talent, New York Review of Books, op cit., page 34.

[xiv] Jackson, N. (2006) Imagining a Different World, in In N. Jackson, M. Oliver, M. Shaw, J. Wisdom (Eds) Developing creativity in higher education: An imaginative curriculum. London: Routledge, p. 8.

[xv] Amabile, T.A., Hadley, C.N., and Kramer, S.J. (2002) Creativity under the Gun, Harvard Business Review, August, 52-61.

[xvi] Taraborrelli, J.R. (2003) Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness. London: Pan Macmillan Ltd, p.240.

[xvii] Kane, P. (2004) The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living. London:  Macmillan.

[xviii] Ibid, page 63.

[xix] Egan, K. (2008) The Future of Education: Re-imagining Our Schools from the Ground Up. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p.84.

[xx] ibid, page 81.

[xxi] Cowen, op cit, page 40

[xxii] This is the term used by Daniel Pink to describe our times. See Pink, D.H. (2005). A whole new mind. New York: Penguin.

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