How should schools respond to the AI revolution in the workplace? Alex Soulsby calls for a greater focus on the arts to help students thrive by developing skills involving creativity, critical thinking, adaptability and emotional intelligence.
More than 20 years ago, the educational reformist Sir Ken Robinson shone a bright and powerful light on the importance of creativity in education with the publication of his book Out of our minds: learning to be creative. Robinson argued that creativity is as important as literacy and should be treated with the same status in education. He challenged the traditional system, suggesting that it was too focused on conformity and standardisation, and made a case for a more personalised approach to learning that encourages creativity and innovation.
A good 100 years before Robinson was calling for reform, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a Swiss educator, was emphasising the importance of arts and creativity in education, rightly believing that they were crucial for developing children's emotional and social wellbeing, as well as their cognitive abilities.
I am incredibly sympathetic to the positions of both Robinson and Pestalozzi, as a child who excelled in the arts in my schooling and yet struggled with the conformist and standardised nature of education. I’m still baffled as to why many schools fail to understand the value of an arts-rich curriculum and why most education systems insist on narrowing our understanding of intelligence to that of academic success.
Arts empowered education
A little over a decade ago, I was honoured to be invited to be project lead for a national campaign fronted by Robinson that touched on points similar to those raised in his book. Back then and now, 22 years after the publication of Out of our minds, there is still a need to raise awareness of the importance of arts engagement within education and, arguably, a need to shine even brighter and more powerful lights on the skills that are engendered in young people who have regular engagement with the arts.
It’s still only a minority of schools that recognise the importance of an arts-rich education and that understand the important skills that arts and cultural education nurture: empathy, collaboration and acquiescence to name but a few.
Educators are responsible for equipping students with the knowledge and skills required to navigate our ever-changing world. We would be foolish to not recognise that the current state of humanity is increasingly defined by the assimilation of powerful AI tools, accessible language models and other technological advancements that are becoming commonplace in most job sectors.
Sleepwalking arts out of the curriculum
This burgeoning development presents pressing and timely questions for the education sector, not least how schools should respond. Specifically, if we recognise the need to develop skills that AI has not yet replicated, such as emotional intelligence, creative thinking, and empathy, then doesn’t it become imperative to reassess the role of the arts within our schools? Indeed, the arts offer a unique opportunity to cultivate these essential human abilities. So why are we still demonstrably guilty of sleepwalking them out of the curriculum?
During the Industrial Revolution, education became focused on preparing children for factory work, which led to the arts being undervalued and, arguably, sidelined in favour of traditional academic subjects. As we enter a new revolution, with AI becoming increasingly prominent in society and the workforce, for many the emphasis on academic results will naturally and inevitably diminish, as employers focus on recruiting staff who excel in areas where humans still have the edge.
As it is, AI can confidently perform tasks that require memorisation, repetition, analysis and data-based decision-making, but struggles with creativity, empathy, collaboration and critical thinking. As it becomes more prevalent, schools must increase their focus on developing complex cognitive and socio-emotional skills in their students. Critical thinking, creativity, adaptability and emotional intelligence are already important, but they will be essential for success in a world where machines can replicate basic cognitive functions at an ever more mind-boggling pace.
Reality of the AI revolution
Creative thinking is crucial in preparing students for a future driven by technology and reliant on human collaboration. I’m sure Robinson and Pestalozzi would have agreed that, at this point in time, the sensible and obvious thing for schools is to reevaluate their relationship with the arts as a crucial step in adjusting to the reality of the AI revolution.
We require an emergency exit from traditional teaching methods, not just those that emphasise memorisation and rote learning but those that are obsessed with compartmentalising and standardising. As Robinson and many others have pointed out, the focus of education must be student-centred and the approaches must encourage exploration and experimentation.
As we strive towards a future where machines will doubtlessly surpass us in many aspects, let us not forget the essence of our humanity that sets us apart. We must encourage, perhaps even demand, that schools focus on nurturing the creative spark within each student, instilling in them a love of the arts, and equipping them with the tools to communicate, connect and empathise.
We must be mindful that we have a duty of care to our children and young people and a responsibility to create learning environments that foster creativity and encourage students to think outside the box. By doing so now, we can help shape a future in which innovation, empathy and imagination are valued as highly as technological proficiency, and in which the human spirit continues to thrive and evolve, aided by AI, rather than replaced by it.
Alex Soulsby is a creative education specialist and the founder of the developmental learning laboratory, Artist Residency Thailand. He is an advocate for the transformative role of the arts in education and has led projects and initiatives in this area both in the UK and internationally.
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