Around the world, and here in the UK too, learning institutions are re-embracing a mix of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known as STEM subjects), often with the arts included (STEAM), emphasising project-based activities, actually making and creating things, all usually in technology-rich learning spaces.
Those new ‘maker spaces’ house equipment ranging from 3D printers and scanners, through laser cutters and etchers, to knitting machines and computer-driven embroidery. Materials include the detritus of dismantled ‘last year’s’ gadgets alongside the new resources of conductive play-dough or PLA filament. They are messy, unpredictable, busy, inspirational and seductive.
Inside them, students seem to have escaped the boxes of traditional learning to mash-up ingenious re- uses of components, to invent, create and collaborate. Anyone close to this excitement is typically bowled over by it. Formally, the 2013 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development paper Sparking Innovation in STEM Education with Technology and Collaboration noted a host of researched outcomes including enhanced higher-order skills and improved learning, all with better student interaction, engagement and motivation. Informally, teachers speak of unstoppable learning happening at weekends, outside of traditional hours and during holidays.
But all this comes at a time when education is facing a crossroads. On the one hand, nations are encouraging project-based work, with Finland in 2015 replacing all discrete school subjects with ‘topics’, while industry is crying out for 21st-century skills – CEOs last year put collaboration (50 per cent), honesty (27 per cent) and vision (25 per cent) ahead of knowledge (19 per cent) as essentials for success. On the other hand, the English Baccalaureate school performance measure comprises a tiny core of discrete subjects without that rich overlap: English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language. More are expected to be added, but the list seems to exclude pretty much anything where students work standing up, debate, create or actively collaborate: practical science, music, drama, sport, art and much more are missing.
The EBacc sprang from a not unreasonable wish to improve learning efficiency. However, not all desirable learning is measured with a multiple choice test score or a written examination. It is often said that while not everything that can be counted counts, not everything that counts can be counted. The creative and arts sector is rich with reliable and trusted ways to judge outcomes, from the architectural crit to practice-based PhDs in sculpture. The BAFTAs are not criterion referenced, but we trust the judgments made. Celebration, exhibition, peer evaluation, scholarship, narrative… all play a part, but if the sector doesn’t stand up tall and shout loudly for the quality of these judgments, we end up with a dismal reductionist curriculum of tested retention and rehearsed written answers. And we would run out of STEAM, in every sense.
Standing inside Tate Modern, with the Turbine Hall below, looking out across the bridge to St Paul’s, drinking in the vista of British ingenuity, of arts and applied engineering, of inventive science and playfulness, of collaboration and creativity, it is impossible not to see the importance of this new STEAM world of learning.
The environment in which we live is increasingly filled with the unexpected. Surprises are ever bigger, from volcanic ash clouds and economic collapse to mass migration and climate change. STEAM activity designedly presents learners with unpredictable challenges that test their application of knowledge and understanding, rather than their ability to replicate or regurgitate it. Our future will be vouchsafed by people who, facing unforeseen problems, can produce ingenious solutions, can astonish their peers, and can gratify their mentors. Curiously, the various Tates are filled by the outputs of precisely such people. Bringing their ingenuity into the maker spaces of the new STEAM age can literally transform the world in the way the last steam age did. But for that to happen, the messiness, the unpredictability, the 24/7 busyness, the inspiration of STEAM has to be valued, accredited and placed at the centre of our schools and our education system. And consequently the creative and arts communities will need to offer a valid alternative way to measure the creative learning outcomes of education. Surely, together we have the imagination and cohesion to do just that?