My partner and I were watching Armageddon the other night. As NASA raced to send Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck into space to prevent the impending collision of a planet-killing asteroid with Earth, my partner says, "You know that the American dream is alive again when kids start wanting to be astronauts." He's right: How many of us during the '70s and '80s grew up wanting to be the next member of the Space Shuttle program? And what is it that today's youth aspire to?
What we aspire to is very much informed by economics, and in turn, that is driven by how we educate our youth. During the industrial era, students in the country's largest districts were being schooled to work on a factory floor. As we shifted into a more knowledge- and service-based economy, we saw more and more kids being trained for middle management. We now find ourselves in a time where the economy has leapt ahead such that young entrepreneurs can bring a new product or service to a global market with the click of a trackpad. Now, the educational system is playing catch up for this new economic landscape. As Bruce Nussbaum argues in Creative Intelligence, we need to move past the financial capitalism that plunged us into the Great Recession towards an "indie capitalism" that honors the local maker-entrepreneur. And to do that we need to reframe the debate around 21st-century learning.
There is much in the media today about the need to invest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. President Obama has made STEM education a key component in his platform for 21st-century education. Google has its own science fair that encourages teens to develop world-changing innovations. A 19 year old has developed a design to have floating booms and arrays that capture the plastic that is polluting our oceans. We have more and more young entrepreneurs who are envisioning new technology start-ups that are redefining "innovation" in the United States.
In an age of digital media and connectedness, creativity and STEM are indispensable partners to each other. We need not choose science over art or vice versa. We can and should make investments in both. What happens is that we come up with a clever new design for safely landing a two-ton rover on the surface of Mars. Girl and Boy Scouts can start earning patches for new forms of making, such as designing their own video game, as much as they are for traditional forms of making, like sewing. And lest we forget the revolution in manufacturing that 3D (and now even, 4D) printing is making.
If it is indeed the case -- as award-winning Tiffany Shlain of the Moxie Institute makes in her film, Brain Power -- that the child's brain has more neural connections than the adult brain, an agenda for 21st-century learning needs to focus on both creative and analytical development. And we need to get past the ageist notion that adults "know better." Children, in fact, have a greater capacity to come up with new solutions, because they aren't limited by the same preconceptions of the world that adults are.
At the Children's Creativity Museum in San Francisco, we have successfully blended digital media and art through our innovative, design thinking-inspired "Imagine/Create/Share" educational approach. Kids are invited to imagine new solutions and possibilities, create prototypes and to share these concepts with others.
The museum's "Early Explorations in Science" (itself an innovation created by one of our Educators with a formal educational background in and passion for science) teaches toddlers and preschoolers about the basics of physics and chemistry by making their own materials from milk and flour. Kids are given the opportunity to experiment in a supportive environment where there are no wrong answers and where random connections -- social as well as cognitive -- are encouraged and celebrated. It is this same curiosity and serendipity that will give rise to the next Einstein, Edison or Steve Jobs.
Perhaps it will take a focus on sending human beings to Mars to reignite our imagination and have us prioritizing creativity as much as we do STEM. But I would like to think that solving the impossible here at home is enough for us to make creativity similar -- if not, equal -- to STEM as a focus for 21st-century learning.