The changing nature of education: from Socrates to STEAM

The opening of any new building, particularly one as significant in size and cost as our Jubilee Building, is always a key milestone in the history and development of a school, and indeed any organisation. Stories about schools over the decades and centuries tend to revolve around long-serving characters in the staff room, notable alumni and buildings. Stories, of course, must simplify in order to appeal and endure.  

The more complex narrative on the changing nature of education is harder to get across, though, partly because it is multi-dimensional. Witness, for instance, the endless debates about slack modern behaviour standards, from the days of Socrates onwards “... children … have bad manners, contempt for authority; … disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They contradict their parents, … and tyrannise their teachers.” See also, the ways in which the learning environment has changed, for instance with the use of technology which has legions of supporters as well as armies of critics.  

In Edinburgh last October, at the annual gathering of HMC, The Head’s Conference group of leading independent schools, the Age of Enlightenment was the guiding theme, celebrating and reflecting on the contributions of great 18th century Scottish thinkers like David Hume, philosopher, historian and economist among other things. Looking back a bit earlier, to the European renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, we see another age of progress driven by the exchange of ideas and new thinking across disciplines in art, architecture, politics, science and literature. A common theme through these great periods of European development is that the most interesting ideas don’t belong neatly in one dimension or perspective - they can be developed and challenged through different academic, technical and cultural ‘lenses’. Filippo Brunelleschi's earlier development of linear perspective in his drawings, in order to render depth and space more realistically, is a good example of this. Of course the archetypal renaissance character is Leonardo Da Vinci, a man whose work knew almost no bounds as a painter, draughtsman, engineer, scientist, theorist, sculptor, and architect.  

Of course, teachers can wax lyrical about Leonardo until, well, the end of lesson bell. But, getting back to the point, he represents the quintessence of thinking and working beyond boundaries, beyond ‘silos’, to extraordinary effect. A modern day version might be Elon Musk, although he may have found his limits with Twitter.  

So how does the Jubilee Building advance our vision of education as working across disciplines, fusing ideas and thinking, examining challenges from different perspectives, and driving innovation and creativity? The answer is STEAM - with the letter A added to Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics - STEM - to represent the role of Art in STEAM. Why does art and creativity belong with science subjects? Why have a building that co-locates an extensive new art department and exhibition gallery with design technology, mathematics and sciences?  

You will find the answers on the walls:  STEAM.