Stuck in the past: the UK needs to produce creative thinkers not exam-passing machines


The UK is experiencing a new renaissance. The first Renaissance looked back to the Classical world of ancient Rome and Greece. It bridged the historical divide from the Middle Ages to modern history (at least from a European perspective). Yet we find ourselves in a still newer modern “age of technology” in which roboticsgene editing and other once-unthinkable realities are defining our existence.

To navigate and thrive in this new world, we need the new da Vincis and Michelangelos. We need individuals who are both scientist and artist: the creative visionaries. Instead, we are producing the very opposite.

Young people are still being taught how to become exam-passing machines, rather than develop their ingenuity. They specialise early and see art and science as binary educational and career choices. They see educational success as a consumer might view a must-have new product on the market. They appreciate the cost of something, but not necessarily its value. It’s not their fault, it’s ours, the generations that have come before them.

The education system is outmoded, outdated and not fit for purpose. It was designed for the Enlightenment, the age of European empires, when the workforce was comprised of those who gave orders and those who took them. This time has long since passed. It is a system that focuses on the 3Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic) and its success is judged by outcome (such as league tables or degree classification) and not the actual process which asks: how can I improve? What do I need to do to get better?

The perils of being an education consumer

Like many academics, I am often asked: “How do I get a first-class degree?” We have arrived at this point because students are considered to be consumers and the idea is to keep the customer happy, rather than encourage them to be challenged, to be critical, and unafraid to take risks and make mistakes. In fact, the only kind of learning in which mistakes are activity discouraged is Errorless Learning, which helps people with memory problems learn by providing cues and instructions which prevent them from making mistakes which they might otherwise have kept repeating.

Education needs to teach children how to think independently so that they can become creative problem solvers. Shutterstock

Most of us don’t have memory problems, so we learn by trial and error. Some of the greatest discoveries have come from trial and error, by accident rather than design. Take Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin when he was experimenting with the flu virus in 1928 and inadvertently created a mould which repelled bacteria.

In his book The Score Takes Care of Itself, Bill Walsh, former head coach of American Football team the San Francisco 49ers, applies this philosophy of focusing on process rather than outcome to leadership. So, for the first-class degree seeking student, perhaps the answer is “Your grade will take care of itself – stop trying to reverse engineer it.”

At the moment, we exist in an education culture in which the outcome has replaced a sense of wonder and opportunity; a chance to be challenged, to get better, to be fulfilled and reach our full potential – what American psychologist Abraham Maslow called self-actualisation.

The problem is that a first-class degree is no guarantee of success at postgraduate research level, in which the 3Cs (creativity, critical thinking and collaboration) are becoming increasingly important. Few modern academic endeavours don’t involve multi-, inter- or trans-disciplinary research – research that is at the edge of combined disciplinary understanding, in which creativity and collaboration are used to forge new inventions and discoveries.

The emerging field of socially assistive robots, for example, needs roboticists to provide their technical expertise, but also psychologists for theories about social interaction and research methods to help create robots for education, health and social care.

The need for creativity

The world is changing and fast and our education system is not equipping our children with the kind of minds they are going to need. But rather than finding a way to introduce greater creativity into children’s lives, the arts are being underfunded and pushed to the margins.

Minecraft is one of the world’s most successful computer games, a prime example of the collaboration between art and science. Minecraft

By contrast, in higher education, new programmes like masters degrees in human-robot interaction require this very creativity, critical thinking and collaboration in interdisciplinary research involving computer science, psychology and other subject areas.

I would go further and argue that those in the creative arts have the correct idea about learning. Guitarist John Williams said:

Good teaching in the end is about helping and inspiring people to go their own way. In a way that is creative, which might be totally different from you the teacher.

This illusory separation of art and science locks us into a two-track system that hinders discovery and stymies collaboration. German dramatist Berholt Brecht said that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape.” Cinema was the art form of the 20th century and computer gaming is the art form of the 21st century – it’s hard to think of a better example of the synthesis of science and art.

So, how are we going to create the right environment for the new renaissance women and men? How are we going to create the experts, the polymaths, the independent thinkers? Like everything else, education needs to respond, develop and adapt to the times we are living in. We need a profound change in the way we approach education in the 21st century, but first we need our politicians to have a rebirth of their own.

Author Bio: Thusha Rajendran is a Reader in Psychology at Heriot-Watt University