Equipping Our Children to be Twenty-First Century Polymaths: The Impact of the Arts on Interdisciplinary Learning

10/01/2013 13:18 | Updated 12 March 2013
  • Rebecca Boyle Suh Founder of Artis, a social business dedicated to transforming education through the arts

Interdisciplinary learning is not a new concept, but is now needed in education more than ever as our economic, social, and cultural environments develop at accelerating speed. There have been countless interdisciplinary thinkers who saw no boundaries between subjects: Aristotle was a philosopher and polymath and wrote on everything from linguistics to zoology; Albert Einstein valued imagination over knowledge, considering himself an artist as well as a scientist; most famously Leonardo Da Vinci was a scientist, philosopher, and painter, who thought across disciplines to create important works and ideas that are still celebrated today.

Without the restrictions of subject boundaries, each of these individuals found a unique way of looking at the world, and in doing so had a significant impact on how the world was viewed. To have new thoughts in any field of research relies on being able to see things differently, to challenge knowledge, and to test supposed fictions in search of truth with fearless curiosity. It should be our prerogative to nurture independent, interdisciplinary thinking in our children so that they might grow to tackle problems with imagination and confidence. Why then does our education system tend toward conformity, with separate subjects such as Maths, Science and English, a focus on the 'academic', and standardised testing? Rather than equipping children with the tools essential to success in an ever-evolving world, we are in danger of teaching them not to think for themselves.

Trying to find an answer, Sir Ken Robinson argues that the public education system has not changed much since it was developed in the nineteenth century, then in response to the economic necessities of the industrial revolution. He says schools are "modelled on the interests of industrialisation and in the image of it... along factory lines" with "bells, separate facilities, separate subjects" and year groups. He acknowledges the trend toward conformity, particularly with the ever-increasing focus on standardised testing and curricula. That each child learns differently, often through collaboration, must be taken into account. Robinson makes the case that children increasingly lose the capacity to think divergently as they move through school, becoming less imaginative as they become 'educated'. Making the point that we must enliven the minds of children by removing subject boundaries, Robinson notes that the Arts largely suffer in a system geared toward the academic.

The arts provide the perfect platform for interdisciplinary learning from a young age, not only breaking down boundaries but providing children and teachers with a toolkit for developing creative, critical and lateral thought. Integrating the arts throughout the curriculum is a particularly effective method of raising standards, developing self-esteem and encouraging innovative thinking. Integration is distinct from 'arts education' - which valuably teaches the arts as standalone subjects - as it is a unique method of ensuring children are given the tools to explore and challenge the world around them.

In Canada, for example, the Learning Through the Arts® programme pioneered by The Royal Conservatory equips teachers with the skills to teach through the arts, in the process breaking down subject boundaries and bringing to life core-curriculum subjects for school children. Described as "a proven transformative educational program that uses arts-based activities to teach the core curriculum by providing teachers with creative tools to engage all students in math, science, language arts, social studies, and more", a three year Queen's University study concluded that "students in the Learning Through the Arts® programme scored an average of 11 percentile points higher in maths than their peers."

We should be creating opportunities for individual interdisciplinary thought from the outset in our schools, if we are to give the next generation the freedom to be innovative. In order to do this we need to learn from thinkers such as Aristotle and Einstein who saw no boundaries and were infinitely inquisitive. Education is as much about developing essential skills, confidence, and an imagination as it is about facts and knowledge. Very much in the spirit of Leonardo Da Vinci, by allowing our children to be curious and independent we equip them with the skills to think across boundaries instead of within them. Using the arts to spark this lifelong discovery can only have a positive impact for our children; as Professor Robin Alexander says "taught with rigour and flair, the arts don't only enrich children's minds and lives; the arts engage the disengaged and raise educational standards."

Rebecca Boyle Suh is Chief Executive of Artis, who this week launches Artis Impact in partnership with the Prince's Foundation for Children & the Arts. Artis Impact is an extensive professional development programme that raises standards through the arts - children compose songs about punctuation, act out habitats and dance geometry. Visit to find out more.