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Losing Our Edge

In 1992 I decided to write my masters thesis on creativity.  My thesis advisors protested against the topic arguing that assessing creativity was difficult if not impossible.  I proceeded anyway because I felt that the single most important component of an educational curriculum needed to be the inclusion of creative problem solving skills and the development of divergent thinking.  Eighteen years later, Newsweek magazine seems to agree.  In July of this year, they published an article titled “The Creativity Crisis”- a look at the decline of creative thought in America.  

In 1958 a group of almost 400 school children in Minneapolis participated in a creativity study designed by professor E. Paul Torrance.  The study was designed to measure divergent thinking skills by noting how many solutions the children could generate for a single problem, or how many ways they would improve on a single item to make it better, more enjoyable etc.  Torrance took the test results and in the fifty years since, scholars and Torrance’s colleague Garnet Millar, have been tracking the former children recording every creative endeavor, leadership position, award and achievement earned by the former students.  Not only had Torrance’s creativity tests measured creative ability accurately, but his predictive index accurately forecast the kids’ creative accomplishments as adults.  The kids who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s creativity test grew up to be community leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, authors, soft ware developers.  The data indicated that “the correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.

In the generations that followed, scores of children have taken the Torrance series of creativity tests which are administered by a psychologist and involve a ninety minute series of tasks.

This past May, researchers at the college of William and Mary discovered that between 1958 and 1990 creativity scores had been rising steadily.  From 1990 until today, however,the scores have steadily and significantly declined.  The decline is seen most seriously in the scores of younger children, from Kindergarten through grade six.

Although there is no conclusive evidence to determine why the scores are falling, there are several theories; too much time in front of the television or playing video games, and the lack of creative development in the American public school system.  I would add an over-emphasis on standardized testing in schools and misguided demand for quantitative results.  How much creativity does it take to bubble in an answer sheet?

With our school system designed to encourage convergent thinking only, we live in an world where the need for divergent thinking is growing day by day.  Creative thinking skills are not just reserved for academic doctrines and innovation, we depend on creative solutions for personal,  national and global problems.  Creative solutions emerge only when people are encouraged to share and hear the ideas of others.  

American schools are not structured to encourage the development of creativity.  Too many educators relegate the nurturing of creative thought to the arts classes, but when scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering and music majors, their scores were almost identical indicating the same high averages and standard deviations.  Researchers support what I have been advocating since writing my thesis; creativity is not just about what happens in art rooms,it is cross curricular and needs to be an intrinsic component of all disciplines.  Teachers argue that because they have to address state standards they have no time to include creativity in their lessons.  But the development of creative thinking and problem solving skills is not so much a separate concept as a it is a method of delivering instruction.  

Around the globe other countries are making creative development a priority.  In 2008 secondary school curricula in Britian was redesigned to emphasize idea generation.  The European Union designated 2009 as the European Year of Creativity and Innovation- holding conferences, financing teacher training and instituting problem based learning programs for children and adults. Even Asian countries such as China are moving towards reform of drill based learning to a more problem based approach.  

American education continues to grapple with the issue of a national achievement gap using mandates like No Child Left Behind or the latest national carrot, Race to the Top to fix the problem.  My biggest concern with these federal fixes is not so much that they are rote, standardized and assessment based, but that the thought that went into each solution shows no creative thinking at all.  If those who are supposed to be in charge of education are not creative thinkers and idea generators, than what hope do we have to instill such skills in future generations?  Creativity levels all playing fields.  There would be no achievement gap if we changed the way we teach. We are sure to fall significantly behind our European and Asian neighbors by following the current path that we are on. We cannot continue to just prize creativity as a society, we must make a commitment to keep it alive by implementing the steps necessary to instill it in future generations.

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