For the past 25 years, creativity has been in decline. I’ve just started to look into it, so I won’t pretend to have an answer—but I do have a hunch. We’re trivializing creativity.

First the research. Kyung Hee Kim is a professor of creativity and innovation at The College of William & Mary. She’s found a couple of interesting things. One is that creativity and intelligence are only weakly correlated. The other is that although IQ scores have been rising throughout the last century, since 1990 creativity scores have gone down—and the most significant drop was for children in kindergarten through third grade.

Some people will assume that too much academic work has been pushed into the early grades. That’s possible, but it just doesn’t fit with my experience. In the relatively few early grades classrooms I’ve seen in which children are engaged in sophisticated academic topics, they enjoy learning “real stuff” about the world. I could buy that too many schools have pushed boring worksheets and test prep into the early grades, but I haven’t seen much of that before third grade.

As I learn more about creativity, I think part of the issue is that those of us in education—especially elementary education—don’t think about creativity the way researchers do. When I talk to elementary teachers (and parents) about children’s creativity, they focus on novel, wacky ideas. It falls in the kids-say-the-darndest-things category. But when researchers examine creativity, originality is not enough. The new tool, idea, artwork, etc. also has to be useful and worthwhile.

Kids do say the darndest things, but they are very rarely creative.

Kim’s research uses the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), which is very widely used and the best-available (although perhaps still not great) predictor of future creative achievement. The subscales on the measure are useful for thinking about what creativity involves:

  • Fluency: “ability to produce ideas.”
  • Originality: “ability to produce unique and unusual ideas.”
  • Elaboration: “ability to think in a detailed and reflective manner as well as … motivation.”
  • Abstractness of Titles: “abstract thinking ability and ability for synthesis and organization thinking processes and for capturing the essence of the information involved.”
  • Resistance to Premature Closure: “ability to be intellectually curious and to be open-minded.”

In short, creativity seems to be a mix of being able to think of new things and then being able and eager to analyze and improve on one’s thinking. When Ken Robinson touts kindergartners’ ability to think of new uses for paperclips—and then scolds schools for squashing their genius-level divergent thinking—he’s missing the boat on creativity. As Brent Silby wrote, “If I answer the question by suggesting that a paperclip stretching from here to the moon could be used as a road, would I be categorized a ‘genius’? It is possible that adults think of fewer answers to the question because they have the ability to filter out nonsense answers. This is a strength of education, not a weakness.”

Along these same lines, the very existence of art schools seems to indicate that fluency and originality are merely the starting places for creativity. Originality is the easy part—useful and worthwhile is the high bar. That takes knowledge, but knowledge itself is not sufficient either (as the minimal relationship between IQ and creativity indicates). Practice, reflection, and the drive to improve (including seeking out and acting on critiques) all seem essential.

So why is creativity in decline, especially among young children? Perhaps because our expectations are too low. Perhaps more academics—taught with interesting read-alouds, more challenging projects, and greater emphasis on feedback, reflection, and revision—would reverse the decline. I don’t know, but it’s worth trying.

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Was originality all that Van Gogh needed?

5 comments on “Why Is Creativity in Decline?”

  1. 1
    Diana Senechal on August 13, 2015

    Creativity is a vast concept; I doubt that creativity in engineering has all that much in common with creativity in poetry, except that both involve the ability to work with structures, imagine possibilities within them, draw on what has been done, and (as you point out) discard bad ideas. They both require considerable knowledge.

    I am skeptical of generic tests of creativity–even of relatively robust ones. Do the scores really predict future creativity across the fields–in music, art, theatre, math, science, engineering, literature, literary interpretation, philosophy, and so on? Kim’s article does not make this clear. In addition, it does not distinguish between interpretive creativity (involved in, say, the performance or analysis of a piece) and generative creativity (involved in the composition of a new piece).

    The artistic creative work need not be “useful”–in fact, attempts at making it useful can shortchange it. It should be worthwhile–but it isn’t immediately apparent what’s worthwhile and what isn’t. Undoubtedly it should be good. (Maybe its purpose is to be good.)

    The invention, in contrast, should usually serve a practical purpose–though sometimes that purpose may be simply to illustrate a failure or open up possibilities.

    The interpretive work should serve to convey something to an audience or readership in a new way. Creative literary interpretation opens up meanings in a literary work. A creative performance brings the performed work to life.

    None of these types of creativity is arbitrary or uninformed. All involve thorough knowledge of the working material and structures. Of course they involve more than knowledge–but the knowledge must be there.

    A strong curriculum can inspire and strengthen creativity by giving students something to work with. Discussions and well-designed assignments can challenge students to work fluidly and thoughtfully with the material. Students can develop the practice of toying with words and ideas–and making something out of the toying.

    I wrote about this a while ago:

  2. 2
    Josh Fisher on August 13, 2015

    I agree 100%. There is absolutely this disconnect between what “laypeople” *believe* creativity is and what rigorous, disinterested examination of the concept produces as a definition:

    _When I talk to elementary teachers (and parents) about children’s creativity, they focus on novel, wacky ideas. It falls in the kids-say-the-darndest-things category. But when researchers examine creativity, originality is not enough. The new tool, idea, artwork, etc. also has to be useful and worthwhile._

    And a conspicuous quality of this disparity is the missing “filter” (to use Silby’s term) in the lay definition. Stravinsky used the term “constraint”:

    _My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit._

  3. 3
    william j. eccleston on August 14, 2015

    Strong argument, I think, for the insight of Maria Montessori. I don’t mean Montessori to the exclusion Core Knowledge curricula, but rather for the enrichment of the curricula with activity. Activity, cognitive and physical, how can you have one without the other? What an awful, dull, soul and body deadening experience is our contemporary school day—is our day for children at home.

    I ride a bike for fitness and pleasure. Yesterday I rode 43 miles through rural northeast Connecticut and adjacent Massachusetts, traversing several rural villages and the substantial miniature urban town of Southbridge. I saw not a single child outdoors during the five hour tour. I passed numerous millponds and lazy streams—not a kid fishing. I passed a half dozen or more parks and playgrounds—deserted every one. I passed a few hundred homes of all types and their yards—deserted. I log my rides and this was my 28th of the summer. I don’t log child sightings, but perhaps I should because I cannot recall noticing a single child anywhere this summer on a field, in a yard, on a swing in a park, on a bridge fishing, or even sitting on a porch step. Moreover, this has been my experience summer after summer. I really do not remember when it was normal to see some kids outside playing on their own in the summertime. Tell me that this isn’t linked to the decline in child creativity! One of our questions should be, Why do our schools collude with this alarming change in the culture of childhood, in the child rearing practice of our society? Why is the school day like that of a factory? In the days of the factory economy—and I worked in factories here in New England—between entering school in the morning and leaving in the afternoon, kids, universally, got three periods of recess per day amounting to one and one half hours, (this included lunch time,) while in the mills their parents had a ten minute coffee break in the morning and twenty minutes to eat their lunch at mid-day. Today that mill schedule allowing 30 minutes total of free time is about what we allow kids in elementary school. In middle school we don’t even give them that 10 minute break in the morning, just the 20 minutes for lunch! Is it any wonder that the creatively of our children is suppressed?

  4. 4
    Ponderosa on August 14, 2015

    Common Core is increasing the dreariness exponentially. Egads –so many earnest, ignorant “team player” teachers wanting to please their superiors with fastidious adherence to the EngageNY modules. Never mind that this mutant curriculum was contrived by non-teachers and never tested in actual classroom settings. I read these things and think, “Pity the children!” Instead of feasting on great stories and juicy knowledge, kids are force-fed units on “contrasting the perspectives of two authors on the same topic”, writing dead dry analyses and answering opaque tortuous SBAC-style questions.

    I think creativity is largely a matter of mixing disparate items that reside in one’s brain in felicitous ways. A well-stocked brain can be creative; an empty brain cannot. An empty-brained person can Google stuff and mix it in random ways –not felicitous ways. One needs to KNOW the stuff to know how to mix it well and fittingly. Thus our schools’ abdication of teaching knowledge is an abdication of teaching creativity.

  5. 5
    Becca Martz on November 11, 2015

    Kids are not the same as they were twenty years ago. They don’t play outside. Instead, they stay indoors all day on computers or play with their iPhones. If they have a question about something they don’t ask their parents or talk about it with one another, they just ask Siri. As technology changes, so do our kids.

    There is also a rise in testing (states) and Common Core. All of these added pressures I feel eliminate creativity in schools. Our teachers are maxed out during the day trying to find time to cram in everything that the students need to know for their tests. There isn’t any extra time for kids to explore or be creative.

    There are many different reasons for the decline in creativity and it cannot be traced back to just one issue.

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