Education needs to change its approach if the UK is to reap the benefits of creativity
by Anthony Hilton FCSI(Hon)
At a conference in Prague a couple of years ago, one of the speakers startled his audience of largely middle-aged men by saying, "Knowledge is so 20th century; what we need now is imagination. Google will bring you most of what is known, but Google
will not bring you what is not there yet."
Once they got over their initial shock, the audience realised the speaker had a point. Since the days of the British Empire, schools have taught as much knowledge as teachers can usefully cram into their pupils. Universities have followed suit. They have
encouraged students to read more and think for themselves but everything has been knowledge-based – and is even more so now, given many universities are under pressure to become degree factories, churning out only what is in the standard textbooks.
The chief economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, touched on this in a speech in 2018 titled 'The creative economy'.
He said that knowledge and imagination are two different things: "To have knowledge is to know about things that exist. To have imagination is to conceive of things that don't yet exist. Knowledge is vital for school exams and pub quizzes.
Imagination is vital for ideas and innovation."
Knowledge inculcated by universities served its purpose for work in management and administration when there were rule books that had to be obeyed, and when there were not, then people had the background to manage anyway. It worked elsewhere too. As the
economy developed, it did so in a conventional way. Most people were happy with doing what they had to do. Even when new machines replaced the old, most knew roughly how these machines would work, even if they did not always like the results.
Creative breakthroughs are often a result of innovators straddling disciplines
But the world has changed. The First Industrial Revolution was built on the steam engine, the spinning jenny and the water frame from the late 18th century. The Second Industrial Revolution was born of sanitation, electricity and the combustion engine
around the 1880s. The third turning point was the advent of computer power in the 1960s. All these revolutions, even computers, took a long time to get established, but they then had longevity.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution – with its trappings such as the iPhone, machine learning, big data, biotechnologies and artificial intelligence – is now upon us, but it is moving much faster than anything seen before. People – and
companies – will find it hard to adjust. Some academics and several respected consultancy firms, including McKinsey and PwC, say that millions of jobs will be lost because of these innovations. They hope new jobs will be created to make up for
the old. But if these new jobs are to come about, people will not need knowledge of the old ways of doing things. They will need the imagination to envisage and work with the new.
Haldane suggests that, between now and 2030, demand for creativity as a key skill could increase by between 30% and 40%. Nesta, a UK-based global innovation foundation, puts the number of people currently in creative professions at between a fifth and
a quarter, but Haldane estimates that by 2030 this could increase to more than a third.
Education needs to change if Britain is to reap the benefits. The knowledge-based factories producing knowledge-based students will have to go. Instead of producing people who can get from A to Z, we want people who can navigate anywhere. Universities
need to get away from being narrowly subject-based, because creative breakthroughs are often a result of innovators straddling disciplines. Equally, Haldane says, universities should recognise subjects like creativity and digital literacy, emotional
intelligence and empathy, entrepreneurship and design. In short, what is needed is a creative workforce producing creative economies.
We need to realise too that imagination and creativity can be taught, at least in part. Creativity rarely constitutes a random flash of inspiration. Instead, it is about creating the right environment for lightning to strike in the first place. We don't
necessarily need an apple to fall on the head of a genius, but we do require an environment where non-geniuses can discover things too. But schools (and increasingly universities) tend to teach creativity out of children, not into them.
Unfortunately, we do not seem to recognise this. People say the UK's school system needs improvement – and as 16% of adults in England have very poor literacy skills, according to the National Literacy Trust, they have a point. But politicians
and others tend to look back with rose-tinted spectacles at the days when they were taught. Their changes, therefore, try to make today's schools an idealised version of what they had then. This is wrong. We need to look forward, not back.
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