STEAM - the artful approach to creating a future-ready workforce

28 January 2020

Only 5% of South African schools provide art as a school-leaving subject, depriving children of the creativity needed to thrive in a digital future.

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The unrelenting advance of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) impacts every facet of modern life. While emerging technologies will fundamentally improve many aspects of our daily lives, digital-led disruption will also radically transform the way we work.
 
According to a World Economic Forum report, 65% of children who enter primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new jobs that don’t currently exist.
 
To prepare children for the future workplace, many private and public schools have introduced the STEM syllabus – science, technology, engineering and maths – which builds on the core skills already taught.
 
This curriculum integrates and applies meaningful and important mathematics and science content to help students solve engineering challenges and create technologies and solutions for real-world problems using an engineering design process. 

We need more “imagineers”

Due to the dynamic nature and unprecedented pace of digital disruption, students also need to augment these hard skills and knowledge with critical thinking, problem-solving and, importantly, creativity if they hope to remain relevant and contribute meaningfully in their future job roles.
 
In an Investec podcast, Nick Binedell, founding director of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), says that a mix between rationality and imagination is what’s needed for the future world of work. “We need imagineers - people with great creativity who also understand the practicalities.”
 
“It's this blend between the left and the right brain, the rational and the intuitive - most great innovators need that balance”, explains Nick.
 
Sameer Rawjee is the founder and CEO of O School that helps schools deliver a new curriculum centred on Human Purpose and the next wave of work. He concurs with Binedell and adds: "We all need to be artists, philosophers, and scientists at the same time, but with our own specialisation”.
Sameer Rawjee, Founder O School
 "We all need to be artists, philosophers, and scientists at the same time, but with our own specialisation”.

Sameer Rawjee, Founder, O School

From STEM to STEAM

Rawjee is an advocate of the STEAM syllabus – science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics. This is based on the idea that technology is just a tool that humans apply.
 
In an Investec Focus podcast he said: "You can only learn about humans through the arts and humanities. By adding the arts to our curricula, we are, in a sense, connecting all of these topics to determine how best to apply technology and layer this approach with new ideas."
 
For this reason, STEAM is increasingly touted as a vital step to craft digitally and technologically competent learners at primary and secondary school levels. 

When art and tech collide

Rick Treweek, a co-founder of Eden Labs Africa, also believes that technologically-proficient artists are a driving force behind digital innovation in many ways.
 
Eden Labs develops immersive experiences with artists to push the limits of emerging technologies, using a variety of mixed reality solutions and other digital media to tell captivating and interactive stories.
 
“Working with artists is a great way to innovate because they aren't constrained by the risk aversion that exists within the traditional corporate environment.”
 
“Artist always arrive curious but a little hesitant. However, after engaging with technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), 3D printing and software development, they leave emboldened with so many new ideas.”
 
Treweek also highlights the link between art innovation and the need to innovate in the way we apply industry 4.0 technologies.
 
“That's why combining art with STEM subjects is so fundamentally important. Everything about the fourth industrial revolution is about innovating, because there's no official handbook. Instilling values in learners such as curiosity, creative thinking, bravery to explore the unknown and an unconventional mindset towards development will drive innovation in the digital age, and teaching art at school is a fundamental bridge to get people tinkering in this manner.” 

Art is a human investment

As sponsor of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair and to highlight the importance of art in education, Investec commissioned an artist to create an artwork made entirely of stationery that will be disassembled and donated to three charities that recognise the importance of art in childhood development. 

Art in South African schools

Despite its importance and relevance, arts education in South Africa finds itself in a dire crisis, particularly within the public school system.
 
Figures from the Education Department shared by the non-profit Arts and Ubuntu Trust reveal that only 5% of schools provide art as a school-leaving subject.
 
Executive trustee, Bridget Thompson explains that arts and culture teachers generally teach up to grade 10, but most do so without any formal training in this subject. “Due to a lack of any training, these teachers generally flounder in teaching this subject,” she says.
 
As a consequence, they are generally unable to impart the transferable skills and creative thinking that will feed innovation and problem-solving thinking, which are absolute requirements in the fourth industrial revolution.
 
“While most teachers we engage with are desperate to upgrade their skills and capabilities, there is no funding available to assist them."
 
Bridget says it is a radically dysfunctional situation, which also means that 95% of school leavers cannot consider a career in visual arts, be it design-related jobs or architecture, because students require portfolios to gain acceptance into tertiary institutions.
 
In an attempt to fill the gaps, the Trust uses its experience, networks and resources to play a strategic role, weaving art education throughout all its activities, primarily targeting underprivileged communities in peri-urban and rural areas.
 
Beyond the way art imbues students with problem-solving capacities, thereby potentially impacting on our children's ability to navigate a complex future workplace, Bridget believes the lack of proper art education at schools is robbing South Africans of their heritage.
 
“South Africa is an art-rich society in both a western and traditional sense, with a rich tapestry of contrasting styles. Our artists are also doing exciting things internationally and much of our art innovation has deep historic roots, yet our education system is allowing that heritage to die.”

Parents need to shift their mindset towards art as a subject

Regardless of the rationale behind arts inclusion in the modern school syllabus, Bridget asserts that a fundamental shift in mindset is required to change the status quo.
 
“Parents are quick to pigeonhole art as a waste, but they must realise that art students aren't destined to become starving artists. Art training is fundamental to every element of design and can lead children down many different career paths, including fashion and architecture. We therefore do ourselves, our children and society a disservice by perpetuating these prejudices.”

As such, by incorporating the artistic and design-related skills and thinking processes into the STEM syllabus, we will create competent designers, engineers and technologists who are capable and brave enough to apply creativity in innovative ways. This will not only fundamentally reshape our future but will also ensure humans retain their relevance in an increasingly machine-dominated world.

As Pierre Lombart from the Southern African Foundation for Contemporary Art (SAFFCA) highlighted: “Education today is based on pure accumulation of knowledge. If you want knowledge, you can get the answer instantly from a machine. Art, music, teamwork and sport is what you need to teach to kids, because that’s what the machines won’t do. We have to adapt our way of thinking to what mankind at its core means.”

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