Since the 1990s, advancing technologies and increasing globalisation have been changing the face of the modern-day workplace. Throughout the process, four specialisms emerged as vital components for success. But something was missing. By Simon Stanley and Lorcan Lovett. Photos by Vinh Dao.

At the turn of the millenium, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) were touted by many as the golden ticket to a future of successful, skilled workers – and a successful economy.

Like acronyms, times change: STEM has exposed its flaws and gained an A for Art (STEAM), while Asia has become the largest market for international education, partly driven by demand from middle-class Asian families who have benefited from the region’s booming economy.

The Time for Creativity
In his 2006 TED Talk entitled Do Schools Kill Creativity?, educationalist Sir Ken Robinson argued that the conventional model of public education was failing to meet the needs of the new millennium.

“Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth for a particular commodity.

“Creativity is now as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status,” he said, his speech now the most viewed TED Talk on YouTube.

John Maeda, then president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), later moulded this standpoint into STEAM, calling for a holistic, real-world approach to education.

“The goal is to foster the true innovation that comes with combining the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer,” reads RISD’s website.

British film producer and educator Lord Puttnam describes the separation of STEM and the arts as “nonsense”.

“It is when (they) advance in harmony that you’ve got success,” he says. “I think that sooner or later, educationalists the world over will (realise) that we have spent far too many years creating bored generalists, (rather) than trying to find inspired geniuses.”

Watch the Lord Putnam interview on YouTube

The majority of Vietnam’s 95 international schools have embraced the STEAM  approach to education, which recognises the importance of creativity when aiming for success in technical fields.

This is a step away from the traditional model of rote learning combined with Confucian ethics of education and hard work that has come to define Vietnam’s national school system.

Despite any perceived shortcomings of the latter system, such as a redundancy in encouraging independent, critical thinking, it has still come a long way since the 1990s.

In 2012 an international assessment by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked Vietnam in 8th place for mathematics and science; the US lagged 20 places behind. Yet this has not stopped an intense, domestic demand for international education.

The appetite to be taught in English is slated to further increase – it’s the official language of the recently established ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) – but students will be leaving with more than a new language.

Schools in HCMC such as ABC International School, the International School of HCMC, British International School and Saigon South International School are at the forefront of the STEAM movement, merging the five subjects like never before.

The International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC)
Of course, creativity is an innate skill built into our genes from birth. But, as Robinson pointed out a decade ago, it’s a trait that relies on trial and error, the latter being something most of us quickly taught to fear and avoid. “We’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst things you can make,” he said. “We’re educating people out of their creative capacities.”

This is not the case at ISHCMC. From its pre-school classrooms, right up to the International Baccalaureate (IB), creative, imaginative and inspired thinking is encouraged in every subject, in every way.

The Arts in Education“The traditional classroom is thrown right out of the window here,” says Frank Hua, the school’s IT integration specialist and middle-school design teacher. “We’re trying to teach the students that it’s okay to fail, to learn from what you did, then improve. It’s an ongoing cycle.”

The innovation at ISHCMC goes far beyond incorporating art into, say, a design and technology lesson – a rather obvious leap. Instead, particularly in the earlier years, subjects appear to have no boundaries, with creativity and technology at the forefront in every class.

As students mature and begin to look towards university applications and higher education courses, some subjects are chosen over others, arts often taking second place alongside more traditionally ‘high-value’ disciplines.

Paul Gordon, ISHCMC’s college counsellor and careers and university advisor, says the school sees a lot of students strongly focused on mathematics and science.

“There is still a stereotype; this idea that universities will somehow value a student taking two sciences versus having an arts,” he says. “We, as a school and as a counselling team, discourage that pretty strongly.”

Much of ISHCMC’s work concentrates on developing real-world knowledge, utilising industry-standard software suites, for example, and encouraging students to employ the range of skills one would require in the workplace.

“Employers are looking for students who can think creatively in a team setting a lot more than coming out with a degree in science and engineering,” says Gordon. “At a university level they’re also encouraging that, redesigning their classrooms to encourage hands-on, interactive learning and teamwork – not just having a big auditorium with rows of seats.”

British International School – A Nord Anglia Education School
AsiaLIFE meets Richard Harper, Head of Art, Catherine Sargent, Head of Drama, and Ian Alexander, Director of Music, to discuss the arts at BIS.

AL: Do you still see a reluctancy among parents or students to embrace the arts?

RH: This is one of the biggest problems; this myth that the only career-path is to become a famous artist.

CS: Or actor.

IA: Or musician.

RH: It’s been well documented that the creative industries in the UK are some of the fastest growing.

CS: According to the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the creative industries made £71.4 billion (US$107.2 billion) for the British economy in 2012.

AL: So how does BIS put the ‘A’ into STEM?

RH: Right now we’re in the middle of a Nord Anglia global challenge which focusses on the principles of STEAM. It’s a Rube Goldberg competition, to create a silly machine that is overly engineered but highly creative. We’ve done one in art, we’ve done one in drama where we used people; science have built one, PE… It’s highly collaborative.

CS: Also the Key-Stage 3 show next term will be all about STEAM. We’ll be showing mathematical equations through dance, for example, and explaining DNA and the stories of scientists’ lives through physical theatre.

AL: The BIS arts programme recently received a glowing review from the Juilliard School. What makes a strong arts department?

IA: In music, I think it is the inclusivity, so everyone can get involved, whether you’re interested in chamber music or drumming. There are opportunities for everyone.

RH: In art we have the same kind of ideology. We’re giving students the freedom to explore what they want to study.

CS: It’s about students taking ownership; being able to say ‘this is my idea’ and not, ‘my teacher has taught me this and now I’ve replicated it’.

AL: Is there a risk that the pursuit of creativity might overshadow fundamental knowledge?

RH: If you’re talking about learning facts by rote, it’s completely meaningless unless you know what to do with those facts. If you’re just blindly absorbing what’s fed to you, then you’re not being educated. That’s not learning.

CS: It’s a much more skills-based education. There’s the idea of ‘future-proofing’; the idea that there are industries that we don’t even know about yet, so in all of our subjects we’re teaching students how to think for themselves, how to be independent, how to analyse and research things and ask questions.

RH: It doesn’t matter how well trained you are as an engineer, for example. If you really want to design the next amazing thing, you’ve got to think outside of the box, think beyond what has been developed already, and create something new. And you can only do that if you can think creatively.

Saigon South International School (SSIS)
“Computer screens have become a new easel,” says Alfredo Papaseit, the elementary school technology coach at SSIS.

His words are supported by a recent World Economic Forum report that asked chief human-resources and strategy officers from leading global employers about what the current shifts in employment mean.

In the report’s top 10 skills, creativity ranked at 10 for 2015. By 2020, it’s forecast to be the third most essential skill, and with the current advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this prediction is entwined with technology.

The Arts in Education“What skills do you need when 15 percent of your workforce are robots?” asks Robert Appino, the middle school’s technology coach. The answer is implied: imagination.

“(Creativity) is something we have to nurture in schools,” he says. “Our kids are bombarded with all kinds of advertisements everyday. Part of being a critical thinker is being able to break down media. So more than ever, when we’re looking at STEM or STEAM, it has to include that artistic element, it has to include the creativity end of things.”

Appino has seen first-hand how art can help students develop. He uses the example of a teenager in Grade 12 who he began teaching in Grade 6.

“She is a very introverted learner and communicator, but the way she can communicate through art – and with a bunch of different people – is very different to how she communicates verbally. It gives kids access to another means of communication.”

Both Appino and Papaseit encourage the 955 students aged from three to 18 at SSIS to think more creatively and critically.

Papaseit says their main goal is to “get kids to believe they can be astronauts, engineers, computer scientists” and that this mindset “needs to start in elementary school”.

A glance at the future of education demands that the typical childhood dream of becoming an astronaut will not be achieved without artistic thinking.

“In the past we tended to think about art as something more like expressing your feelings,” he says. “We’ve reached that point where art is actual real work, is real money.”

Papaseit sees students’ interaction with technology as an opportunity to create rather than consume. Funding is becoming less of a problem for schools with fewer resources, he says, because the tools are becoming cheaper. For instance, a small computer called Raspberry Pi costs just $25.

“It’s really important we use tools like computers to help kids understand the concept behind STEAM,” adds Appino.

“But if you are a low-income school, if you have got the right teachers and some cardboard, you could easily create a STEAM project that hits all those same levels.

“It would be a good starting point. Part of the thinking behind STEAM is to be able to rapidly produce different things and watch them fail. You can do that with cardboard and have physical computing.”