Arts education is vital to help foster creativity and innovation

By Susan Davis

I have a dream that this nation will achieve its full creative and economic potential and that Arts education will rightfully be seen as central to making this happen. It worries me that current thinking and policymaking around national innovation concentrates on increasing participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects while the teaching of the Arts (dance, drama, music, media arts and visual arts,) is rarely even on the innovation agenda.

It is not that I begrudge the attention STEM is getting, it is just that I believe if we want to be a truly innovative and creative nation we need to put the Arts, very firmly, back in the mix. We should be talking about STEAM in schools and universities with the Arts very much in the centre of it all.

There exists a popular narrative, used to drive the STEM education agenda in Australia (and elsewhere), that says there are significantly declining enrolments in the Sciences and other STEM disciplines. However I question this narrative as justification for major initiatives. I will come back to that later.

First up what are we talking about, when we talk about innovation and creativity?

Innovation and creativity

Creativity and innovation involves putting things together in new ways, it involves risk-taking, experimenting and refining, valuing the role of productive failure, it involves making and doing, and is often collaborative and co-creative. While creativity is about the capacity to putting things together in new, novel and different ways, innovation is often seen as putting them to work and out into the world so that they meet a need, want or interest.

However these capacities don’t get switched on when people hit the world of work, they need to be cultivated across the education lifespan in all subjects in as many ways as possible.

Unfortunately the nurturing of creativity and innovation often seems to be at odds with the direction of many current initiatives in education. I have concerns about mandated curriculum and standards and everyone doing the same thing, the same tests, meeting the same benchmarks. I am particularly concerned about certain subjects or areas of learning being valued as more essential or more important than others.

Why the Arts subjects are important when it comes to innovation and creativity

The focus on STEM, without similar focus being turned to the Arts and Humanities does not appear to be justified by recent research about the impact of technologies on our lives. It is hard to deny that all aspects of life and the world of work are undergoing rapid transformations, many brought about by developments in technologies across nearly all fields of endeavour. Recent research from Oxford University notes however, that while robots will assume the role of many people in many sectors, growth continues in those that rely on creative capacity and social interactions, people, services and experiences. They are not optional areas of focus for education, but essential for opening up future study and work opportunities.

The importance of valuing other areas of learning and related industry sectors is also evident when examining economic development within various industry sectors. Industry growth and projection reports identify that education itself is one of Australia’s major export industries. Other projected growth areas identified by the Reserve Bank include household and business services, food, arts and recreation.

A Deloitte report also identifies industry sectors such as agribusiness, tourism, international education and wealth management as ones that are growth sectors for the Australian economy.

To do well in these sectors may require knowledge and skills in some or all of the STEM areas, but also relies on understanding people, design, experience and communications: the Arts subjects.

Is there really a crisis in the uptake of STEM subjects?

A review of senior secondary enrolments in several states over the past 20 years reveals that in most cases all students have to/or tend to study an English and a Math subject. When it comes to the sciences, Biology is the top or near top elective subject and while there is some drop in the percentage of Physics and Chemistry enrolments it is not perhaps as extreme as we have been lead to believe, and in fact in recent times in Queensland, for example, there has been an increase in the numbers for Chemistry enrolments.

Enrolments in sciences have not been dropping more substantially than other subjects over the last 20 years using Queensland data as an example. While percentages of total year 12 enrolments might be 5-10% lower, this has to be considered in the context of increased subject choices including vocational training courses. It is clear that the pattern of enrolment of the Arts and Humanities also shows similar decreases in percentages too. When it comes to the most dramatic drop in enrolments over the past 20 years it is actually Accounting (20% to 7%) and Economics (19% to 5%) that have seen the most dramatic declines.

Similar trends can be identified in New South Wales and Victorian data, though the strength of Chemistry seen in Queensland is not necessarily reflected in other state data.

While there is no doubt that there are still issues with enrolments in STEM by different target groups, including girls and students from low SES backgrounds, regional areas and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, these are not new issues. However a focus on increased enrolments in STEM per se is not likely to change that. Other strategies that focus more on pedagogy, combining STEM and arts based approaches are more likely to have impact (and have been the basis for strategies in places such as Korea).

So what should we be doing?

It is important that capacity building in creativity and innovation be supported across the years of formal education (including early childhood, primary and secondary education) and tertiary study, including teacher education. This requires a shift beyond STEM and the ongoing focus on ‘basic skills’ in major educational drives, and to look at the cultivation of ideas and passions, calculated risk taking, how to work through failure, problem-finding and problem-solving and resolution of ideas into products and forms.

This requires an approach that recognizes that creativity and innovation can be cultivated across diverse learning and industry fields. If the current obsession with STEM is to continue, as I said previously, it should be converted to STEAM, with the Arts at its centre, at the very least, or perhaps ESTEAM to recognize the importance of Entrepreneurship as well.

Other key points

Here is my list of other key points and issues we need to tackle.

  • We need to see the arts, education and teacher education as being integral to a national innovation agenda
  • We should be specifically teaching teachers and children about innovation and creativity and to value the different knowledges and skills that can contribute to innovation
  • Include scope for more specialisations in primary education degrees, including in the arts and humanities
  • Recognise that there needs to be space for people to develop different interests, depth of knowledge and experience. Some of this can be supported through formal learning programs, but can also be supported through after school programs, partnerships and informal learning
  • Reduce the focus in educational agendas on NAPLAN and standardized test instruments and reports. We can’t mandate that everyone learns the same things in the same ways for 10 years of schooling and then expect them to do things ‘differently’. We need room for people to develop interests and expertise in diverse areas, so room for electives, special projects and enterprises.

If our governments recognize the importance of creativity and innovation for our future national prosperity (as the current parliamentary inquiry would indicate), attention must be paid to learning that promotes problem-solving and inventiveness, social innovation and entrepreneurship, and multiple forms of communication and expression. To do this effectively Australia needs to give just as much attention to the Arts as it is currently to the teaching of and participation in STEM. These areas are all fundamental to cultivating innovation for the future of our economy and our world.


Susan Davis is Deputy Dean Research for the School of Education & the Arts at CQ University, Australia. Her research has focused on drama, arts-education, engagement and  digital technologies. She is one of the Co-Convenors of the Arts Education Research SIG of AARE and a Board member for Drama Australia and the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance. Sue was previously a drama teacher and performing arts Head of Department and has created and managed many arts-based projects in collaboration with various education, arts industry and community groups. Susan was one of the convenors of a Creative Education Summit held at ACMI in 2016, with summit outcomes contributing to an Arts Education, Practice and Research group submission to the “The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy”. She was also invited to present further evidence at a roundtable for the inquiry. 

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7 thoughts on “Arts education is vital to help foster creativity and innovation

  1. Ania Lian says:

    Thank you Susan
    innovation and creativity are set in stone in the AC. Yet, one look at the ICT resources that schools use and it is all about templates: “This is how you do it” – kind of thing. I think “This is how you do it” -thing dominates our field. We are told to present to students, we ourselves know to “follow” the specifics of the dominant discourse, We even teach research methods to ensure that students follow what is. I still have to see a unit on research methods where innovation in research is being taught intentionally. So the subject of innovation is on time but innovation is a problematic theme: What if the innovator does not follow the majority? There are consequences. So yes arts is important and will be given proper status considering IT applications (video games, apps). But innovation as an issue goes way beyond this single aspect.
    thank you once again
    Ania Lian

  2. Sue Davis says:

    It is often the case Ania Lian. The words are included but not supported through action. It is also about providing the environments and tasks that both recognise the importance of skills and knowledge but provide room for experimentation, failure, revision and refinement. One of the things about creativity is that it is not ‘rule free’, creativity can thrive within constraints and parameters, but the rules should be about ‘direction’ rather than focussing entirely on ‘correction’ (there is one right way to do it).

  3. Susan, I tutor computing and engineering students undertaking projects. This does involve risk-taking, experimenting, refining and valuing productive failure. If arts subjects can help with that, I would welcome the contribution. However, this needs to be focused getting the student a job.

  4. Sue Davis says:

    Hi Tom,
    It’s not about either/or but different combinations and collaborations. What I am concerned about is that innovation agendas in education currently prioritise STEM learning without acknowledging the key contributions of arts based learning. I have even seen STEM programs advertised with guest speakers who are designers and creators who clearly draw on arts learning themselves in their work, but this contribution is not acknowledged.

    Arts learning experiences can contribute to cultivating a whole range of knowledges, skills an capabilities that may relate to a particular arts area but are also applicable well beyond the art form. There is a wide range of research which supports this. For example research that has considered the impact of drama for employment and post-school opportunities includes the European DICE project, which examined the relevance of drama for developing employability skills (Eriksson et al 2014). The DICE international research study was conducted across twelve countries and investigated the effects of educational theatre and drama on for achieving the Lisbon Key Competences (which identify employability skills). The findings indicated that educational theatre and drama had a significant and measurable impact on five of the eight key competences: Communication; Learning to learn; Interpersonal, intercultural and social competences, civic competence; Entrepreneurship and Cultural expression. There are many other studies from different countries including Australia that have found similar findings.

  5. Sue Inglis says:

    Many thanks Susan for your insightful article. Im also convinced that the ‘arts’ feeds the souls of our young students. Our education system needs to consider developing the emotional intelligence of our children. Then perhaps it is STREAM with resilience and the arts being included. Considering the rates of anxiety and depression in young people, we can’t ignore the parts of life that feeds people’s hearts and minds. That is when we produce school leavers with real holistic intelligence to face the world..

  6. Loreena says:

    As someone who was told to study ‘real’ subjects in highschool, rather than the creative subjects I wanted to; I can’t agree enough that there is a lack of appreciation and respect of Arts overall – and that was the attitude 20 years ago I can only imagine it’s much worse today.
    It took me until I was in my 30’s to finally be brave enough to go back to Uni to study writing, and finally my role is Copywriting Manager for a wonderful company! I wanted to be a writer way back then, and have always been great at it; but as an A grade student anything creative was seen as a waste sadly; hence my half finished business degree!!
    Of course the reaction of my adult friends and family to Arts many years later wasn’t much better when I returned to education to study an Arts Degree!!
    I wonder what people believe would keep our world moving beautifully if all the writers, designers and creatives didn’t exist?
    It never ceases to amaze me that society expects all children and adults to fit some standard, imagined measure – to all excel at every subject and be called out as a failure if we’re not able to achieve that? What a ridiculous notion!

  7. steveberry says:

    Great article !! Arts education aids students in skills needed in the workplace: flexibility, the ability to solve problems and communicate, the ability to learn new skills, to be creative and innovative, and to strive for excellence.

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