creativity and innovation

Making space in our schools for children to develop their creativity

Nurturing creativity is a key focus of twenty-first century educational and employment discourses here and around the world. However we believe secondary school teachers in Australia are frustrated in their efforts to develop creative and critical thinkers who are ready for employment in the 21st century.

Crowded curriculums and high-stakes testing make it difficult for our teachers to nurture experimental dispositions in students that are so necessary for them to join creative and innovative endeavours.

In this blog post we look at what is happening and offer some strategies teachers might use to negotiate the complexities of teaching students to be creative and innovative in classrooms today.

We have good intentions in Australia

We aspire to nurturing creativity and critical thinking in our schools. The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, which states the goals agreed by all Australian Education Ministers back in 2008, describes successful learners as those who ‘are creative … and are able to solve problems’, and confident learners as those who ‘are enterprising, show initiative and use their creative abilities’.

The national Australian Curriculum identifies ‘Critical and creative thinking’ as one of seven general capabilities. In this document, the need for students to think creatively is a response ‘to the challenges of the twenty-first century’ – a context in which young people need ‘to be creative, innovative, enterprising and adaptable, with the motivation, confidence and skills to use critical and creative thinking purposefully’.

The national Australian Professional Standards for Teachers requires teachers at all levels to demonstrate the use of teaching strategies to develop student’s ‘knowledge, skills, problem solving and critical and creative thinking.’

The world needs creative thinkers

The focus on developing creative thinkers is not surprising when we look to the burgeoning demands of twenty-first century employers. The World Economic Forum reports that by 2020 creativity will be one of the top three skills employers will look for in potential job applicants. In this report, creativity is second to cognitive flexibility and ahead of logical reasoning and problem sensitivity.

Director of the OECD Education Directorate, Andreas Schleicher, noted that ‘educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations’. And in a LinkedIn survey of 291 hiring managers in the U.S economist, Guy Berger, reported that creativity is seventh in the list of the top ten most in-demand soft skills.

The twenty-first century has seen a distinct shift away from the hard-skills associated with a knowledge economy towards the soft-skills needed for a creative economy. There is a persistent and pervasive educational and social demand to develop twenty-first century students who are creative thinkers.

However, students and teachers often perceive engaging in creative endeavours as risky business.

Barriers to Risk-taking

We believe key barriers to nurturing experimental dispositions in students can be traced to high-stakes testing and the subsequent narrowing of the curriculum.

A survey of the literature sheds light on how high stakes external testing can challenge the ways schools situate learning. Some of these ways are potentially negative and attest to the ongoing impact of tests such as NAPLAN on teachers’ pedagogy. Stanford University Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond has written extensively on how low-quality testing regimes and test preparation in the USA have led to a narrow curriculum which is increasingly disconnected from the higher-order skills required for success in today’s world.

And it is happening here in Australia

There is strong evidence that Australian teachers, often in response to explicit or implied ‘advice’, likewise change their pedagogy to strategically prepare students for NAPLAN or HSC examinations. Many teachers are highly critical of the English NAPLAN test for example, as it assesses limited components of literacy, emphasises simple answers and includes material not relevant to the students’ lives. Despite this, researchers report that pedagogy aimed at NAPLAN success infiltrates everyday influences resource allocation, creates ‘data-based’ teaching and assessment, and involves significant emotional labour on the part of teachers.

Education Psychologist, David Berliner, also demonstrates, through evidence-based practice, that schools narrow the curriculum by increasing the lesson time of high stakes test content and skills. Data collected from surveys completed by a representative sample of almost 500 school districts in the US showed that ‘eighty percent of the school districts increased time in English/ language arts by at least 75 minutes a week … [and] sixty-three per cent of the districts reported they increased mathematics time by at least 75 minutes a week’.

This time has to come from somewhere in the school day. In the same survey, schools reported up to 35% of time previously devoted to subjects such as Social Studies, Physical education, Art and Music had been redirected to test preparation. Even recess was not sacrosanct with some schools removing recess from the daily routine and scheduling just one break of 20 minutes for lunch.  School-based decisions such as these favour delivery of content in preparation for external examinations and generate reduced opportunities for students to question or explore new ideas.

Creating space to think, experiment and take creative risks

Australian education researchers Mary Ryan and Georgina Barton suggest teachers create a ‘thirdspace’ to teach writing ‘within the competing and often contradictory spaces of high-stakes testing and the practices and priorities around writing pedagogy in diverse school communities’.  It is a space to resist, subvert and re-imagine everyday realities or wriggle room to negotiate government agendas, but at the same time, to attend to what is required for quality writing’.

Ryan and Barton base their ideas on the work of Henri Lefebvre, the French Philosopher who calls the first space the ‘perceived’ space. In a school, this space refers to daily routines and the design, delivery and practice of syllabus content requirements. The second space is the ‘conceived’ space, this is the ‘ideal’, according to those in power, of how a school or classroom should operate. For teachers in Australia this is the space occupied by the AITSLNational Professional Standards for teachers, NAPLAN testing, The New South Wales Education Standards Authority’s Higher School Certificate examination requirements, or similar requirements on other states and territories, government policy and even media reports. The ‘thirdspace’ is that ‘space to resist, subvert and re-imagine everyday realities’

Most teachers across their professional and personal life engage in all three spaces; however, many classrooms only interact in the first two spaces. As research coming out of the US has shown, in a context of high stakes testing (of which the NSW HSC is an example), teachers attend to the perceived space and deliver syllabus content pertinent to an external examination. They respond to the conceived space by meeting the demands of Professional teaching Standards, HSC examination requirements, reporting of HSC results in the media, and pressure at school level for more Band 6 results.

The attention required by the perceived and conceived (first and second) spaces often leaves no room for the thirdspace. But it is in the thirdspace that valuable critical and creative thinking – so important to twenty-first century schooling and employment – can take place and flourish. We need to actively and deliberately use the thirdspace to nurture students’ experimental disposition, to prepare them for life and employment in the twenty-first century.

Strategies for nurturing the experimental disposition of students

Here are some of our key suggestions for developing an experimental disposition in your students and thus nurture creativity in your classroom.

Create your own ‘thirdspace’ and name it

We were thinking of ‘The Bubble’ as the title of our thirdspace. Students could enter the thirdspace, hereon referred to as The Bubble, at any appropriate time of the lesson. This space could be a demarcated area of the classroom or a metaphorical space where students explore, experiment and problem solve. We also recommend allocating a set period of time for The Bubble each week. Furthermore, we recommend some guidelines for your Bubble such as, When you enter The Bubble expect to: experiment with forms and play with ideas; make small gains; make progress with nothing tangible to show!

Build an expectation that experimenting can be ordinary work

Provide problems not answers in The Bubble and build an expectation of the ‘ordinary’. Creative endeavour involves a lot of plodding; every idea and experiment will not be brilliant, insightful or evocative. But plodding along builds application to the experimental disposition that over time builds bodies of creative, critical works.

Encourage collaboration

Encourage collaboration in all problem-solving tasks. Most modern innovations are not the result of the isolated genius discovering a unique solution. As Professor in Educational Innovations at University of North Carolina, Keith Sawyer, notes, ‘most innovative companies are the ones that have successfully tapped in to team collaboration’. Set students collaborative problem-solving activities for The Bubble, and place importance on the process of problem-solving rather than the product. These types of activity prepare well the twenty-first century student for life beyond school.


Recently we presented a keynote address for secondary school teachers at the Art Gallery of NSW about the strategies we suggest for nurturing the creative and experimental disposition of students. Linda Morris, arts and books writer for The Sydney Morning Herald attended the address and an article ensued, Flipping teaching on its head. There has been much interest in how we can create space to develop student creative and critical thinking skills.


Dr Kim Wilson is a lecturer in Secondary History Education in the Department of EducationalStudies at Macquarie University. Her research into historical fiction for children and young adult readers identified a prevalent trend for re-visioning and rewriting the past according to modern social and political ideological assumptions. Her current research focusses on strategies to enable and measure growth in history student’s Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS). She is particularly interested in how technology can be used to facilitate the teaching of evaluative and critical thinking skills. 

 Kim has over twenty years’ experience in secondary school education with more than ten years of that experience in leadership positions. She is an expert practitioner with a strong track record of academic and professional publications that support and extend her teaching method and subject knowledge. Kim’s passion and commitment to education was acknowledged in 2005 with a Quality Teacher Award conferred by the NSW Minister for Education and Training and The Australian College of Educators.


Dr Janet Dutton is a Lecturer in Secondary English in the Department of Education Studies at Macquarie University. Janet has a passion for teaching that promotes creative pedagogy and has worked extensively with primary and secondary teachers in the use of identity texts and drama strategies to develop literacy. Janet has deep experience as a lecturer in teacher education, leader of teacher professional development and as Head Teacher, English in government and non-government schools. She has developed assessment and curriculum at national and state level organisations and was the Chief Examiner, English for the NSW Higher School Certificate, 2011-2016. Janet’s research interests include secondary English curriculum, the impact of high stakes testing, and teacher identity formation, motivation and retention.

Building creative futures from the powerful stories and voice of First Nations peoples

Australia Day this year was marked by thousands of people marching against holding our national celebration on 26th January. It is a day that represents the start of invasion, pain and dispossession for First Nations peoples. The pain was compounded this year by the refusal of the Australian Government to embrace the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ and its call for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the Australian Constitution.

So I believe it is important to share the stories of great creative work that celebrates partnerships with First Nations peoples. First Nation knowledge and creativity could be playing a vital role in helping educate our children and can help us achieve the productive futures we want, where innovation and creativity are basic to growing our national economy.

There are important stories to be told about how we can realise creative futures, where creative, technical and business skills combine, which can draw upon the most ancient of traditions of our First Nation peoples. These include approaches that value kinship and connections, and artforms that combine ancient stories and knowing with contemporary creative technologies and performance art.

First Nation remarkable heritage can be part of our innovation and creativity agenda

Whether it be examples of Aboriginal dances adapted and created to tell the stories of first sightings of ships or white man, to a breakthrough musical theatre production like Bran Nue Dae that disrupted popular stereotypes of Indigenous peoples to recent new works such as ‘My name is Jimi’ featuring Torres Strait Islander stories from Jimi Bani, and Nakkiah Lui’s ‘Black is the new white’, First Nation theatre and performances serve as performative acts of protest and agency. Such actions and work demonstrate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always had to devise, adapt, create and remake to achieve equal rights and recognition, and arts and creative forms have been important vehicles for this.

Recently at our national capital our Arts Education, Practice and Research group along with the AARE community of educational researchers acknowledged this remarkable heritage. It was especially pertinent with 2017 being the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, 25 years since the Mabo decision and the 20-year anniversary of the ‘Bringing them Home’ Report.

We heard from Traditional Owners such as Dr Matilda House and from Indigenous artists such as Dennis Golding and were inspired by First Nation voices, stories, resilience and creativity. Matilda House believes that “you must have stories of your country. If you don’t, you don’t belong, no matter where you come from’.

These stories, these histories and contemporary arts practices should be more appropriately recognised within various national innovation and creativity agendas. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contributions are rarely considered within the innovation agenda, apart from deficit discourse about Indigenous performance and outcomes. However, Indigenous creativity, endemic to traditional cultural practices, is also an inspiration to contemporary arts and innovation practice. As Noonuccal Nuugi director, writer Wesley Enoch said:

‘The facility for change is also built into Indigenous traditional meaning-making structures. A dance from Bathurst Island depicting the gunning turrets stationed on the islands during WWII shows interpretive traditional enacting as a more modern experience, or the creation of explanatory myth-like structured stories for the coming of alcohol or money or AIDS or the Nissan four-wheel drive bespeaks a flexibility to accept and explain environmental changes through a facility of ‘New Dreaming.’

Our research project

I am currently engaged in a new research project that reminds me of the power of story and voice for helping provide insight into the human experience, but also for enabling us to realise new visions and ‘New Dreamings’.

Working in partnership with JUTE Theatre in Cairns, our research with the ‘Dare to Dream’ project will seek to investigate the short and longer-term impacts of a participatory program whereby new theatre works are being created that tell Indigenous stories, that are also generated in collaboration with local Indigenous leaders and feature Indigenous artists as key creatives on the projects. Each year as well as the performance of the work in schools, a one week workshop program is conducted within 10 schools in far-North Queensland. During the week young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (from grades 6-10) participate in drama and storytelling workshops and at the end of the week they are invited to share what they have created with the community. The theatre and workshop experience provides direct contact for the young Indigenous people to positive professional role models and positive stories about a range of possible futures.

The first work of the series was ‘Proppa Solid’ by Steven Oliver (of ABC Black Comedy fame). The play begins with a great creative premise: in 2044 Australia has its first Aboriginal president of the republic. He has moved the centre of power (the Black House) to Brisbane and unlike his wife, the President Paul Toppy has little knowledge and connection to his country or people. Throughout the course of the play he comes to understand who he is, where he comes from and the importance of his kinship with family and country.

This week a creative development process is being hosted in Cairns which profiles the life of Henrietta Marrie, a Traditional Owner whose great-grandfather was known as ‘King Ye-i-nie’ of the Yidinji. Henrietta has been a tireless advocate for Aboriginal culture and heritage. This includes Henrietta’s work as the first Aboriginal Australian to work for the United Nations and draws attention to Australia’s obligations to its Indigenous communities under various UN Articles of the Convention of Biological Diversity.

The 2018 work being developed for the ‘Dare to Dream’ project is known as Bukal, named for Henrietta and also the black lawyer vine which grows in the rainforest and is used for weaving and other purposes. The goal for this new show is that it will inspire and educate young people, particularly young Indigenous women.


Nurturing an innovative and creative future through drama, theatre and arts education

This type of project and the related research is important for a number of reasons. It works in the short term to help Indigenous students feel valued and to see their cultures and stories represented on stage, but it also can have significant longer term benefits. For example, recent work from ANU reported on the Australian Council site reports:

‘One in ten First Nations people in remote Australia earn income from arts, “remote creative arts participation rates declined between 2008 and 2014-15 driven by declines in remote NT and Queensland – a concerning trend given the importance of First Nations arts to cultural and economic sustainability, and community wellbeing’.

Drama and theatre are often not regarded as particularly innovative art forms or crucial for realising ‘New Dreamings’ within digital worlds. However dramatic learning affirms the fact we still inhabit human bodies, which enable us to take action within the world. Through drama and performance players can learn. They are using dramatic forms of storytelling, but they are also bearing witness, inventing and affirming new voices and identities, and discovering new career pathways and life roles.

Through theatre we have seen the emergence of a strong body of work by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and writers. They have documented their experiences, perceptions and imaginings through embracing, adapting and innovating upon western theatre forms of performance and scriptwriting.

From the Kevin Gilbert in 1971 with the ‘Cherry Pickers’, Bob Maza, Robert Merritt’s ‘Cake Man’, Eva Johnson’s ‘Murras’, Jack Davis’ ‘The Dreamers’, to Enoch and Mailman’s ‘Seven Stages of Grieving”, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander playwrights have provided us with insights into what has often been hidden and not spoken about in the lives of Indigenous peoples.Women’s experiences have been shared through personal histories revealed in works by Lingali Lawford, Leah Purcell, Sally Morgan, and Jane Harrison. Different insights on major historical events have also been documented, including through works such as ‘Black Diggers’ which highlighted the experiences of Indigenous soldiers during WWI. These play texts contain great sources of insight that can be brought into any classroom, not only theatre or drama classes.

The contribution of the drama, theatre and arts education for cultivating the skills of communication and expression, of experimentation and innovation, reflection and creativity required for productive futures seems to be undervalued by the government bodies, even though in this past year they claimed to value the importance of creativity and innovation for our future national prosperity (see the 2017 House of Representatives Federal Parliamentary inquiry).

However projects such as the ‘Dare to Dream’ project are demonstrating that creative work and processes are able to generate innovative work and life options for young people and arts professionals. As Mark Sheppard, ‘Proppa Solid’ actor said in 2017:

‘I think what enables them to have that breakthrough is a different way of learning. There is no right or wrong, it’s actually about participating. … it can be empowering and give a different perspective about what is out there in a wider world… not only in being a performer, but that the tools of theatre and creating and creativity can bring to everyday life tools of empowerment, of feeling good about yourself, and hopefully we’re able to make an impact that way.’

So much more to be done

While it is early days for the program and research, so far students and teachers have all noted the positive outcomes of the program with reports of high levels of student engagement, increased levels of confidence and the young people having expanded notions of opportunities and life pathways. The actor/facilitators have spoken of how for many of the students, the experience has opened up their sense of what might be possible (beyond sport, teaching, nursing or in some communities the military). Plans for future work will also focus on ways to capitalise on the possible connections across the school and wider communities where the shows tour, and to firm up the strategies for building and extending learning through the kinship and connection networks.

It is time to recognise that creativity and innovation relies on people and very human forms of creativity and expression, it is also time to more fully recognise the contributions, strengths, creativity and innovations of our First Nations peoples, and that their ingenuity, resilience and creative endeavours are quite extraordinary and should be more explicitly celebrated in ways that are respectful and appropriate.


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. 



Harry Potter’s world: keeping spaces for magic making in our schools

If you are a Harry Potter fan you probably celebrated last month, the twentieth anniversary of the first Harry Potter book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Millions of us did, all around the world, and for me it gave rise to reflecting upon the economic and imaginative impact possible through creative works. I also wondered about how such creative writing is supported through our curriculum programs as my son set out to write yet another ‘analysis of aesthetic elements and conventions’ essay on a novel for year 12 English. In 18 months of assessment in English he has not once been asked to complete a piece of creative writing.

The recent report from the Parliamentary Inquiry into Innovation and Creativity yet again reinforced the privileging of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects as the key to prosperous economic futures. However while rare, it is clear that creative ‘inventions’ such as the Harry Potter series can have enormous economic impacts as well as social, creative and cultural.

The Harry Potter series is well and truly the biggest selling literary series of all time having sold over 500 millions copies. It is the second most popular film series as well (after The Marvel Cinematic Universe films). However this is a series that has also become part of the folk culture of a generation.

J.K Rowling didn’t just create a publishing phenomenon she created a cultural phenomenon. New readers then and now continue to connect with the familiarity of the characters, their trials and dilemmas but are also inspired by the fantasy and magic of the Harry Potter story world.

Powerful creative worlds where children are powerful

The creativity of the Harry Potter series has been both celebrated but also critiqued. Following in the league of such imaginative world creators as Tolkien with ‘Lord of the Rings’, George Lucas with ‘Star Wars’, Rowling drew upon ancient mythologies, character types and creatures with her creation. This highlights a key aspect of creative work and issues of using ‘originality’ as the mark of true creativity. We can see that in the Harry Potter books there is much that has been borrowed. There are familiar figures of warlocks, wizards and goblins but then there are the original creations. There are dementors – dark creatures that absorb the happiness of the creatures around them and the mysteries of the horcrux, hidden objects which contain the fragment of a split soul.

The series has borrowed, selected and combined many of the story tropes identified by those who’ve analysed the mythology of the eons, from Propp’s morphology of the folktale to Joseph Campbell analysis of the hero’s journey and Robert McKee’s principles of story in film. It’s a tale of good versus evil, the extraordinary existing within the ordinary, of jealousies, love and loss, of mythic searches and hard won triumphs.

Rowling’s gift was to combine all of this with her own inventiveness and creations to envision a new world of the imagination. This occurred at a time when young people were looking not for self identification in teen fiction that was just a reflection of their every day lives, but were ready for a new form of escape into the world of fantasy and magic. This is a world where a boy is bullied and confined to a bedroom under the stairs, but who is then able to defeat  ‘Voldemort, the Lord of darkness’. The resonances for children and young people are not so hard to understand. This is a world where children are powerful, can take life and death risks and become masters of not only their own destiny but their entire universe.

Creative inventions such as Muggles and Quidditch are now part of our lexicon

What is always so amazing with these kinds of inventions is that they begin as works of the imagination, but become actual touchstones and reference points for people’s real life worlds and experiences. Muggles as a word has passed into the common lexicon, there are actual sporting teams that now play a game called ‘Quidditch’ and characters from the series have inspired scientific names of organisms, including the the crab Harryplax severus.

But beyond that the events, creatures, and characters become shortcuts, similes and metaphors in people’s lives. Harry Potter references can be the means to describe and give relevance and meaning, the mixed identity and sense of not belonging of the half-blood child, the threat of a Voldemort, the wisdom of a Dumbledore.

The phenomenon of the participatory communities

What is also significant about the Harry Potter series is its emergence and development during the age of the Internet and the rise of participatory cultures. In his work Henry Jenkins has described the phenomenon of the participatory communities that coalesce around certain book and movie series, such as Harry Potter and Star Wars. Creative agency and self-expression is realised by many within these communities as they draw on aspects of the invented narratives, characters and storylines but elaborate upon such to extend, write and rewrite their own. Reporting on the rise of a fan fiction community of children and young people, Jenkins shows how Rowling’s work enabled many entry points for creative imaginings, from imagining themselves as key characters such as Harry or Hermione to minor figures, distant relations or agents.

Fan fiction as an entry point for creativity

The sparks for new creations and creativity can begin through such character identification and involvement in creative fan fiction communities and narrative worlds. These can provide the pivots and imaginative and conceptual tools to help initiate children and young people’ creativity, using borrowed tales to imitate, but then extend upon to create new work.

Creativity in schools

That brings me back to thinking about how the opportunities for new and inventive creative writing might currently be cultivated in our schools, and the concern I have for my son (and thousands of other young people).

Academics such as Sawyer, and Frawley have researched the teaching of English in schools in Australia and have identified the difficulties many teachers now face in developing student creative writing and creativity. The rise of increasingly high-stakes assessment environments and ‘atomised’ approaches to teaching textual features, grammatical conventions, devices, structures and genres often leads to highly prescriptive writing curricula.

Concerns about such were highlighted to me when I interviewed students as part of my doctoral studies and asked them about the subjects where they could be creative in schools. I was somewhat surprised when many students said they did more creative work, and creative writing as well, in Drama rather than English. They also bemoaned the fact that English (for them) was always about analysing and deconstructing. I acknowledge this was by no means a broad sample and that, as Gannon argues, many schools and teachers continue to negotiate the mandates to engage in exemplary pedagogy to support student practice.

We need to ensure that the spaces for creative writing and creative learning are not squeezed out of formal education and that the inspiration of Harry Potter and friends can continue to provide the means for young (and not so young people) to become immersed in real/non-real, familiar/strange and magical worlds that can become the gateway to new forms of creating understanding, being and becoming.


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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Arts education is vital to help foster creativity and innovation

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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