The art of innovation and Australia’s education misfire
Surprise! According to recent research published in the international OECD survey, arts graduates are as likely as graduates in engineering and computing to hold a commercial and industrial sector job in product innovation. But perhaps most surprising is that arts students are statistically more likely to work in these types of roles than graduates in sciences and maths, business, health, social sciences, agriculture, architecture, humanities or education, with law graduates being the least successful. That is perhaps unexpected, given lawyers’ reputation for inventiveness, but there’s a flash of irony here, given the push for “innovation” from our lawyer-heavy Federal Parliament.
“Innovation” has become one of the Government’s favourite buzzwords. It’s a catch-all title for 21st-century business minds, proffering bold new ideas and recession busting concepts to counter the economic backslide that has ebbed and flowed about the globe since 2007. If dusty, old school economics pushed the world into the GFC, then “innovation” is the blue-sky thinking intended to push it out.
Sadly the Government’s zeal for outside-of-the-box thinking isn’t reflected in its education strategy. As has been widely reported, Australia’s international “PISA” ranking in student achievement in reading, maths and science have slipped from 5th to 19th place. The decline in Australia’s ranking has coincided with the rise of NAPLAN; with that has come a disastrous narrowing of the curriculum, with school principals dropping subjects like music to give more class time to NAPLAN drilling – killer of creative invention, dead weight on motivation.
It happens that the nations that are most in advance of Australia in these subjects also are far superior in their teaching of music – in both teacher quality and the amount of classroom time. There are official Australian music curriculums but in most primary school classrooms the teachers cannot teach them. The national average time given to undergraduate preparation of classroom teachers for teaching music was 17 hours in 2009; that’s to teach for seven years K-6. Anecdotal evidence says it’s got worse since. Corresponding preparation in Korea, 160 hours; in Finland, 350 hours. In other PISA winners, specialist music teachers.
Decades of research have shown that a disciplined music education not only delivers musical skills and enjoyment but improved academic results, higher IQ, self-confidence and overall, a list of benefits of almost embarrassing length. But these are outcomes that are mostly ignored by the school systems and governments.
Given the research, it is even possible that music is one cause for the success of our PISA superiors. So, given the national emphasis on innovative thinking, are we looking in the right corner? The PM has announced enthusiastically that Australia will be the innovation nation, but his proposals are all top down.
Here’s a proposition. Enrich the soil everywhere, not just a few pot plants on the balcony. A truly innovative nation will not depend for its innovations only on a small group of high flyers. Far better that the whole country is well disposed towards inventiveness. Everyone will admire new ideas, will feel close to a process that expands possibilities and will have a personal experience of being creative.
What will be the nature and source of that experience? It could be in anything, but if we are thinking about how to make the experience available to nearly everyone, would it not be found most easily – and even deeply – in music-making or drawing or writing or acting or dancing or photography? Any of these creative outlets nurtures a mentality that has direct links to the kinds of minds the Government is so passionately searching for.
Through creative expression, we can experience making something where nothing existed. Taking something and inventing ways to make it more beautiful or work better is immersive and intrinsic: we are making the best possible tune, the best possible drawing, and other considerations are secondary. That is a very good place from which to begin mobile app or software innovation or explore the market gaps where this kind of insightful “innovation” can translate into economic success. And what’s more, access to this training can be implemented immediately, offered to everyone through schools, beginning in the early developmental years.
The Australian approach to education and the development of this highly-prized innovative thinking is inclined to be too narrow, too literal minded. Perhaps it is a relic of pioneer days when resourceful but uneducated people found simple solutions. In these matters, taking the shortest route may not produce the best results.
Einstein was the product of a well-rounded education that very much included the arts and humanities. It’s little known that Einstein was an accomplished violinist, who once said, “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”
It is pretty clear that the NAPLAN educational model that requires, not invention, but the regurgitation of volumes of facts, is unlikely to produce the type of innovative culture that’s being called for. But it is not even meeting its own objectives.
The OECD report suggests that at the industry level, innovation is fostered by diversity, by inviting input from people of many disciplines who can offer fresh perspectives. Often, solutions are found by regarding a problem from outside its discipline – from another vantage point altogether. What’s more, from that vantage point, totally new problems or possibilities may be discovered. One interesting case in point: Australian composer, David Worrall, contributed to research on insider trading on the stock market by ‘sonifying’ the data flow of share prices. With a musician’s ear, he aims to detect the sounds of skulduggery.