Art in education is seen by many as a luxury—a privilege for those with access to the best schools, with progressive teaching methodologies and a focus on nurturing the whole child. This investment in creativity isn’t available to all, and that in itself is an issue we sorely need to address. But even for the privileged, art education drops away as students advance, giving way to specialized STEM curriculums in the best schools and the Common Core in the rest.
The standard curriculum taught in American schools originated out of a focus on developing the core cognitive competences (reading, writing, math, science). This curriculum was intended to prepare children with the foundational educational knowledge and skills needed for a broad array of careers. While the intention is well placed, the directive is out of sync with what we currently know are the types of skills students will need to be successful in their future careers.
Much of the current discourse around the future of education focuses on STEM subjects. We’ve all seen the statistics pointing to the United States’ lag behind other developed nations in math, science, and technology education. And we hear regularly that STEM skills will be a baseline requirement for the vast majority of jobs in the near future. The emphasis on STEM skill programs seeks to narrow this skill gap and prepare students with the more advanced technical skills they’ll need to enter the workforce.
But what is currently being largely overlooked is that the solution is not merely to teach these technical skills, but to teach kids the creativity and mental agility they will need to build upon those skills. Because advances in Artificial Intelligence and automation are evolving at a rapid pace, eliminating the need for human labor in a myriad of roles ranging from customer service to technology design.
This transformation, when it comes, will come fast. Far more rapidly than the industrial revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries that first displaced agricultural workers and then, with automation and mass production, displaced craftsmen. While each resulted in a seismic shift in value creation and its requisite skills, the transformations took place over several decades. Not so now. What has changed is the pace of innovation. The displacement of skilled knowledge workers by robots isn’t a far flung dystopic threat, it is already happening, and many of the jobs we are currently scrambling to prepare students for—such as data analytics—will be largely automated by the time these students graduate.
How does a Gen Zer, or a future Gen Alpha graduate, compete against a robot workforce?
By being good at the things robots aren’t: non-cognitive and reasoning skills, for example, which are necessary for managing interpersonal conflict; emotional intelligence and empathy, which are necessary for people management and sales; the ability to interpret information; critical thinking; and creativity.
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the prevalence of automation has created a growing demand for workers not only with technical backgrounds, but also with social and creative skills, those who can bring value in an era when machines do the rote tasks. “STEAM” is a new acronym bubbling up in some education circles, in recognition of the synergy between the creative arts and STEM learning.
Artificial intelligence solves problems methodically. But the best, most elegant solutions are often not at all logical – they are the result of leaps of imagination, intuition and creativity. The human brain is beautifully designed for nonlinear bursts of creative thinking, but learning to use the brain this way is a skill that, while for some is intuitive, for many must be taught and practiced. Which brings us back to the importance of integrating the creative arts all the way through secondary and university-level education curriculums.
When children learn to express themselves through creative arts, the skills they are developing are not the creative artifact itself, but mental and emotional agility, cognitive development, problem-solving abilities, critical thinking, risk taking, collaboration, executive function, and empathy. Arts education also helps children develop resilience and determination—that all important “grit” that is becoming recognized as a key factor for success in career and life.
Local school districts, faced with chronic underfunding, have opted to sacrifice art programs. With budget funding being tied to KPIs and standardized-test-based accountability, education policymakers argue they have to prioritize funding for tested subjects. But these arguments themselves lack creativity.
The solution begs a more holistic-minded approach, and it won’t be solved by policymakers alone. Nonprofits and private donors have long been the benefactors of the arts. To develop an integrated arts and STEM curriculum, at scale, and at the speed needed to keep pace with technological change, the private and public sectors will have to work together.
The very AI-based technologies that will obliterate jobs, can also be used to educate the workforce of the future. The computers we are currently using to teach kids to code can in turn be used to teach creativity. The tools exist, the funds exist, and the imagination exists—we just need to put it all together, and to empower the policymakers to be a little more creative.
As business leaders and innovators, it is our duty to take a hands-on role in ensuring we are cultivating the workforce we know we’ll need in the future.