The arts and twenty-first century skills

Ms Lorraine Thornquist, Director of Creative Arts

Creative ArtsFrom a place of being so often marginalised and undervalued as an academic discipline, from a position of deference and even fearfulness, the arts are increasingly being acknowledged in research as central to a considered set of ‘twenty-first century skills’ that students will need to live and work in the world. Advances in neuroscience and imaging technology are uncovering and mapping some of the brain’s complexities in action and are demonstrating the power of the arts to our thinking, feeling and decision-making. Business, industry, and government are all turning their eyes to the importance of the reasoning styles and processes that an arts education richly provides for our students, for both their educational experiences and for their future interactions in the world of work and relationships.

In April of this year, the Creative Arts Faculty of Brisbane Girls Grammar School hosted an inaugural public symposium for arts educators and students entitled Creative Futures. The forum explored how students of the arts might create future career pathways out of their arts education, using their skills as professional artists but also as participants in business and industry. Our keynote speaker, Adam Blake, National Manager, Design Integration Program, stressed to the audience that the critical skills formed and cultivated in arts-based learning will be the ‘must have’ assets for graduates entering the world of work (2013). Blake reported that the number of graduates in creative and design industries across the nation is now almost 300,000. The arts programmes at Brisbane Girls Grammar School are committed to a momentum that ensures our students connect and communicate with the world and become part of the new future.

Advances in neuroscience and imaging technology are uncovering and mapping some of the brain’s complexities in action and are demonstrating the power of the arts to our thinking, feeling and decision-making.

Gradually across the education spectrum, the essential elements that are arts skills are showing up in academic theory and in practices that go beyond schooling. What are some of the highlights of arts education theory and practice that are taking hold in these first decades of this century?

Some years ago the Harvard Graduate School of Education developed Artful Thinking as one of their Project Zero initiatives (n.d.). Artful Thinking is a programme used in schools, and now in some industries, to encourage different ways of perceiving, understanding and communicating. The artful thinking approach is not so much about ‘making’ in the arts. Rather, it is about experiencing the arts as a means of viewing questions and integrating content using the analytical skills and thinking strategies of the arts to work across all curriculum areas. The artful thinking approach uses what is termed a ‘thinking palette’ — six thinking dispositions to emphasise intellectual behaviours. These intellectual behaviours include making careful observations, exploring multiple viewpoints and reasoning with evidence. While they obviously have a skill focus, they also evoke a more affective and motivational element crucial to effective learning and good thinking: personal and purposeful engagement with learning.

STEM — science, technology, engineering and maths — has been another important focus for organising learning programmes in education. However, ultimately it was considered not comprehensive enough to translate into skilling students to lead with the necessary edge in an advancing economic society, especially where the economy is in difficulty. STEM has now become STEAM, adding the ‘A’ to integrate the thinking skills privileged in the arts. Even Sesame Street, the long-running, international, iconic educational television series, which had introduced STEM into their scripts and scenarios, transformed this to STEAM in their most recent season (Maeda, 2012).


Both the STEAM and artful thinking approaches are mining the common ground of what were considered diametrically opposed fields of learning and practice — with the arts seen as a luxury, the icing on the cake, and ‘real’ subjects like mathematics and science considered the heart of learning and the passport to industry. In a recent meeting of Creative Arts staff, Head of Chemistry Mr Keith Treschman presented a snapshot of Senior Chemistry in this School. It was clear from his presentation that contextual and conceptual thinking are shared high-profile skills formed in students in both the sciences and the arts. Even more important is the clear priority in both learning areas on focusing on posing questions — the nature of these questions and the drive for students to seek a resolution that is a resolved truth, but not necessarily any single, uniform pre-destined truth.

Another example is the list of words developed by Stephen Beal, President of the California College of the Arts, that he believes resonates for both sides of the stereotypical science-maths versus arts curriculum divide: ‘research, observation, experimentation, discovery, collaboration, and innovation’ (2013). He points out that both ‘the studio and the laboratory are learn-by-doing educational experiences’ (2013).

Companies and organisations that have traditionally looked to large research universities for talent are now looking for artists and designers — creative people who will bring to the workplace unique problem-solving skills, entrepreneurial spirit, and a deep understanding of the user experience. (Beal, 2013)

Quote - The arts promote the why of learning, not only how and what.Neuroscience and the arts is another active field of research that is affirming the dynamic nature of arts thinking. Neuroscience informs us about the affective workings of the brain and mind, revealing the centrality of motivation, value and pleasure in innovative thinking. The arts promote the why of learning, not only how and what. It is this affective bias that provides a different and vital edge to thinking and innovation, underpinned by values and culture.

Ellen Dissanayake, Affiliate Professor at the University of Washington’s School of Music, has written and spoken about the ways in which creative group activities contribute to the release of the powerful hormone oxytocin which not only suppresses stress but raises positive feelings (2013). James Zull, Professor of Biology and Director of the University Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Education at Case Western Reserve University, researches the connections between arts and neuroscience (2005). He also discusses the role of reward chemicals such as dopamine, which is released in the region of the brain that we use to create ideas, make decisions and plan our actions (Zull, 2005). Creating new ideas brings feelings of reward. Emotions may not necessarily problem-solve, but it seems that they are critical to reasoning and analysis and to the motivational elements that are indispensable to effective learning, problem-resolving and decision-making.

Creativity is part of the twenty-first century lexicon; and while we understand that this attribute is by no means the sole property of the arts, creativity in arts education is also importantly about innovation and conceptual thinking. Knowledge and information have very little power without a transformational platform. There is a growing realisation and recognition that the thinking, collaboration and productivity actively practised and honed in arts classrooms are intrinsic, both economically and socially, to the wellbeing of the workplace. These practices that are central to the creative industry domain and to design teams are now more and more part of government and business. These are natural destinations for not only the artists in our midst, but for those students who enter these spheres with a solid, long-term learning base in the arts.

The twenty-first century is a time and place of constant challenge, where new is better and new ways of doing are expected. Our students will work in environments where they will need to be adept and adaptable, fast-moving yet mindful. The arts thrive on questions, on exploring pathways known and unknown, on reflecting, editing, reshaping — all in response to resolving the questions, without necessarily forming a definitive answer. The truth in arts is not a single truth. Looking at the world through different prisms, as happens in the arts, opens the possibility to innovative, conceptual and emotional thinking — a skill set that is historically embedded in concrete practices and not merely as generic theory.

Looking at the world through different prisms, as happens in the arts, opens the possibility to innovative, conceptual and emotional thinking — a skill set that is historically embedded in concrete practices and not merely as generic theory.

It is exciting to see these thinking dispositions in our own arts programmes — in the composition work in Curriculum Music, in the diverse representations of the Visual Art students, and in the deep layers of theatre explored and practised in the Drama department, to name but a few. When Shari Tishman talks about the dispositions she envisages for good thinking, she not only uses words such as ‘strategic’ and ‘evaluate’ but also ‘wonder’ and ‘adventurous’ (n.d.). In venturing into the shifting sands of the future, our students will need as prerequisites a capacity for wonder and adventure in a framework of wisdom, integrity and imagination. The arts are here to help.


Beal, S. (2013, June 11). Turn STEM to STEAM: Why science needs the arts. The Huffington Post. Retrieved August 3, 2013, from

Blake, A. (2013, April 27). The creative renaissance. Lecture presented at Creative Futures Symposium, Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Brisbane.

Dissanayake, E. (Guest), & Williams, R. (Presenter). (2013, June 15). Why we have art and music. The Science Show. Radio National [Radio broadcast]. Sydney, NSW: Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Harvard Graduate School of Education. (n.d.). Project Zero: Artful thinking. Retrieved July 27, 2013, from

Maeda, J. (2012, October 2). STEM to STEAM: Art in K-12 is key to building a strong economy. Edutopia. Retrieved August 3, 2013, from

Tishman, S. (n.d.). Thinking dispositions. Retrieved August 8, 2013, from

Zull, J. (2005, March). School of Education at Johns Hopkins University – Graduate Education Programs: Arts, Neurosciences, and Learning. Retrieved August 8, 2013, from

Published 6 September 2013