Make room for creativity;Platform;Opinion

8th October 1999 at 01:00
When today's children are forced to face the economic realities of the 21st century they will need to know how to think for themselves, an ability not served by the current national curriculum, argue Tom Bentley and Kim Seltzer.

SHAKURA Lake is only 12 years old but seems well prepared for the new economy. According to the Chase Manhattan Bank she and her pre-teen business partners have proved that they have what it takes to get the financing for her new restaurant, El Sabor Latino.

Over the summer, she's worked with management consultants, architects, accountants and interior designers to put together a detailed business plan for her restaurant. She's developed a complete budget as well as working out the likely expenses, advertisement budget and payroll. With her partners she's also worked with other (somewhat more experienced) restaurant owners and chefs to design an innovative menu; with architecture consultants to design a floor plan, and with business consultants to identify and develop contingency plans to cope with any unexpected economic downturns. Not bad for someone just entering junior high school.

You might have guessed that her plans to dominate the restaurant market are no more than a hypethetical - though realistic - game at the moment.

But the goal of the programme she's on is real: she now has skills which will boost her chances of success when she does leave school and enters the harsh realities of the 21st-century job market. The programme u Summer Quest u aims to use this kind of project-based learning to enrich the numeracy and literacy skills of its New York City pupils.

Shakura and her Harlem classmates have spent six weeks learning to. work as a team to gain the skills to design and market their enterprise, all without opening a single textbook. As one pupil explains; "The thing I liked most about Summer Quest, is that I learned the reason for learning."

This is why many people are seeing this project-based programme, and others like it, as potential models for how education has to look in the next century. More and more jobs are already demanding the kinds of creative problem-solving skills previously only required of white-collar workers. This means that only those who have the skills allowing them to adapt quickly to changing situations and apply their knowledge creatively are likely to thrive.

Faced with a deluge of undifferentiated information, some of it virtual, some of it traditional, children will need the skills to access and recognise the orighti information as well as to identify the mcot creative and effective ways of employing is in the real world.

These creative skills - where the emphasis has shifted away from what we know and onto what we do with that knowledge - are the survival kit for the new knowledge economy for work and home life and no pupil should leave school without it.

What binds all these skills together is the ability to be creative - to he able to find new problems to solve, rather than relying on others to provide them for us. Learning to be creative is all about being allowed to make mistakes and that means being given the right environment so work in. We must leam as much as we can from innovative schemes around the world like the Harlem Educational Activities Fund which runs Summer Quest.

For Britain, the trick will he to weave creativity into the curriculum in a way that works. It's hard to leam to be creative if you're trapped in the classroom - creativity's not a skill that can be performed on command, but rather a form of interaction between the leamer and real-world environments.

This means that we need a new kind of curriculum which provides students with opportunities to transfer what they know across a range of settings, a cumeulum which ts not focused too heavily on content at the expense of breadth of application. Teachers cannot be expected simultaneously to provide a whole new set of skills, cover all the content set out in the national curriculum and work with the rigid disciplinary and assessment structures that are currently in place, so the Government should aim to reduce the national curriculum by half over the next decade.

We can already see a widening gap between the skills required for real life and those provided by the national curriculum; in 10 years time, while Shakura's career will doubtless be flourishing, many young people will be finding themselves buffeted by the harsh winds of the new glohal economy unless the Govemment makes some radical - and risky - choices now. Risky, but worth it, because one thing's for certain, we'd all rather our children were planning their own chain of El Sabor Latinos than standing behind the counter at McDonalds.

Tom Bentley is director of the independent think tsnk Demos and Kim Seltzer is a Demos researcher. The Creative Age costs pound;9.95 and is available on 0181 986 5488. The report was financially supported by the Qualifications and Currciculum Authority and the Design Council.

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