There is a lot of talk in educational circles and amongst employers about the need for the next generation of workers to have twenty first century skills. By this they usually mean that, in addition to mathematical and literacy skills, those leaving schools, colleges and universities should have knowledge and skills in design, teamwork, creative problem solving, critical thinking and an ability to leverage social networks and knowledge. They also need to be able to communicate effectively, both in person and in writing.
Of these skills, what we need most is creativity. We have problems that need solving –environmental challenges, social problems, problems with our health care system, problems of democracy – and its clear that our existing approaches to problem solving are not working. We also need creative people in all walks of life – creative leaders of non-profit organizations, creative designers of clothes, creative culinary technicians, and creative teachers.
The arts are also key to the vibrancy of our communities. Alberta has first class symphony orchestras, a world class ballet company, a very successful opera community and really powerful theatre sector, especially in Edmonton, and a strong visual arts community. In addition to providing pleasure to a great many people, the arts are also a major economic engine in the Province – they are a basis for a significant industry sector in their own right.
Creativity is not at the core of our school system – compliance is. In Grade 7 in Alberta there are over 1,300 objectives to be achieved by students, leaving very little room for creative exploration, real in depth project work or learners creating their own learning agenda. Teachers in high schools feel pressured by the volume of work they must complete so that students can achieve high performance on Provincial Achievement Tests and the High School Diploma. Universities and Colleges push schools each year to do more so as to ensure that students moving to post-secondary institutions have the required skills.
Creativity is also difficult for teachers in large classes – classes of thirty five to thirty five. Schools as physical locations are built for compliance and conformity. The notion of a “class” of students, versus a learning program for each student speaks to this challenge.
If we are serious about developing the creative skills of our learners at all levels then we need to change both what we ask these learners to work on and how we support that learning. In short, we need a transformative change which changes the context, structure and process of learning and change our support systems for teachers to enable this to happen.
This is not an option. To improve the competitiveness and productivity of Alberta firms, to sustain vibrant communities and to rethink our public services we need creative thinking, informed critical thinking and all the design skills we can muster.
A new organization, Creative Alberta, is focusing energy and capacity on making some of this change happen. What a true strategy for a Creative Alberta would be is for Minister Hon. Dave Hancock, Minister of Education, to implement the agenda for change outlined in Inspiring Education – reduce the scope and scale of the Provincial curriculum (teach less, learn more), free schools from many of the constraints under which they currently operate, downsize the role of Government and ehance the independence of schools, change the accountability regime and move to a public assurance model for accountability and invest in the professional development of teachers. There is also a need to create several different routes for the High School Diploma, only one of which should be focused on progression to post-secondary education.
Twenty first century skills require twenty first century schools. Its time we enabled them.