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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Creativity and critical thinking and what it means for schools

Creativity is one of the most critical skills for the future. Without creativity, there would be no innovation. However, there is mixed evidence on how to develop it and whether it is transferable. OECD has done research with schools and teachers in 11 countries to develop and trial resources to develop creativity and critical thinking in primary and secondary education. At Nesta, we’d like to see the UK do more to engage with this community of innovative practice, and test the most promising solutions developed in other contexts.

An OECD event 24-25 September, where Nesta Chief Executive Geoff Mulgan was invited to speak, helped to share emerging answers to the question “How can creative thinking across all disciplines including the arts, sciences and humanities be supported by the current education system?”. There were lots of examples on how to foster and assess creativity and critical thinking. The upcoming Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2021 will have a creativity assessment.

Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at OECD said, “Memorisation is less useful as problems become more difficult.” In the data that he showed, in many countries, there seems to be a significant gap between what teachers report to be desirable pedagogies and what actually happens in classrooms. What was surprising was that UK has highest level of prevalence of memorisation in classrooms.

“The dilemma for educators is that routine academic knowledge (the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test) are exactly the skills that are also easiest to digitise"

Andreas Schleicher

“The dilemma for educators is that routine academic knowledge (the skills that are easiest to teach and easiest to test) are exactly the skills that are also easiest to digitise, automate and outsource. However, educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge creatively in novel situations, and about thinking across the boundaries of subject-matter disciplines.”

Creativity is not solely related to arts and culture. There is also the development of cross-disciplinary creative thinking skills (e.g. coming up with original & creative ideas in science). There is evidence that these skills give us an edge in a world driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and new technologies. We know that creative thinking is not sufficiently supported within the current curriculum in England. Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England spoke about the upcoming Durham Commision report. He mentioned the Manifesto for a Creative Britain created by young people back in 2008 but not a single recommendation has been implemented by the government.

Much of the development in this space is being driven on the international stage and by countries like the US and Australia. Promisingly, the Welsh government has included a focus on ‘creativity and innovation’ within its new curriculum. We would like to see similar changes in England.

How Nesta is moving the agenda forward

At Nesta, part of our work in Education is based on the belief that young people need a broader education so that everyone thrives in a fast changing world.

More recently we have been asking ourselves - what will be the long-term impact of the decline of arts in schools? Are creative careers and pursuits increasingly elitist? How will AI challenge our preconceptions around human creativity? How do we turn the tide and bridge the growing ‘creativity divide’?

Nesta’s research shows that creativity will become even more important to the growth of jobs between now and 2030. Based on analysis of 35 million job adverts, research from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre found that creative industries don’t have a monopoly on creativity.

We must use and apply this labour market research to education. What transferable skills are employers looking for and what are the most effective ways of giving young people the creative skills needed to thrive now and in the future.

We will be developing new partnerships and programmes to support this work. To date, we have researched and supported wider skills linked to creativity, including collaborative problem solving, social and emotional skills.

We are bringing business and education together to create new opportunities for learners. We are supporting innovative approaches to providing multidisciplinary, real-world learning and collaborative problem solving opportunities to young people. Some examples of work that we are doing include:

  • Maths Mission - working with Tata on the Cracking the Code challenge, where we have made links between problem-solving, maths and creativity. Secondary school students work in teams to design a maths game and present their idea combining maths, creativity and communication skills.
  • Longitude Explorer Prize - working on building AI skills, entrepreneurial and innovation skills in 11-16 year olds by getting them to solve problems they care about. This is in partnership with businesses and government to build future talent pipeline.
  • Future Ready Fund - supporting ten high-potential approaches to developing social and emotional skills in young people. We contributed to the manifesto on social and emotional skills and the setup of Karanga, a global alliance for social emotional learning and life skills.

Next Steps

With the Durham Commission launching their long-awaited report next month, we believe there is an opportunity to build a revitalised coalition and consensus on the importance of creativity - and move from talk to action. We will be developing new partnerships and programmes supporting high-potential approaches, building on our expertise in both the creative economy and education.

Despite recognition of the importance of these skills, funding, policy and provision in the UK has not yet caught up. We are commissioning new research on social and emotional skills to develop an understanding of ‘what works’ in building these skills, and we're exploring new approaches to bridge the gap between labour market demand and supply of skills. We are also funding low-cost, high-quality interventions which will support provision in schools.

We invite you to help us build the evidence for what works in developing creative skills that improve life outcomes, and campaign for reimagining education. Please get in touch at [email protected]


Joysy John

Joysy John

Joysy John

Director of Education

Joysy was the Director of Education and led Nesta's work in education across innovation programmes, research and investment.

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