INTRODUCTION: The Decline of Creativity
In the middle of grocery shopping with his five-year-old son last November, Alec Couros made a startling discovery about creativity.
As he and his son approached the fruit section, his son asked, "Do bananas grow with tips up or with tips down?" Since there aren't a lot of banana plants in Regina, Seskatchewan, Couros didn't actually know off-hand. But, being the connected father that he is, he pulled out his iPhone, Googled it, and in less than 30 seconds, the two of them were looking at photos of banana plants and no longer had to wonder.
No longer had to wonder.
"I did that entirely wrong," Couros, professor of educational technology and media at the University of Regina, writes in a blog post about the experience. "At the very least, I could have asked my boy, ‘Well, which do you think, son?' perhaps followed by ‘So, why do you think that?' But I didn't. And because I didn't, I messed up a great learning opportunity."
"Instead of providing my boy with an extended opportunity to be curious, to imagine deeply and to think creatively, I reinforced one of the worst habits of our generation.
I demonstrated to my boy that you can solve a problem without thinking. And I won't do that again."
As the natural progression of the brain would have it, when we are presented with a question, we spend time mulling over potential answers to that question before arriving at an answer. In today's digitally advanced society, however, we are presented with an answer—the answer— right away, if we want it. What's more, this kind of instantaneous knowledge eliminates the risk of being wrong.
In the field intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect: Each generation, IQ scores increase about 10 points, indicating that enriched environments are making kids smarter. But in the neighboring field of creativity, a reverse trend has been observed in recent years: scores are dropping.
In 2010 Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William and Mary discovered, after analyzing almost 300,000 scores of American children and adults, that creativity had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. "It's very clear, and the decrease is very significant," Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is "most serious."
According to Kim's analyses, which employed the famous Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, scores at all grade levels began to decline in the United States somewhere between 1984 and 1990, and have continued to do so ever since. The drops in scores are highly significant statistically and in some cases very large. In Kim's words, the data indicate that "children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle."
According to Kim's research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT, for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984.
There are several reasons to doubt Kim's study, the most apparent of which is that it assumes creativity can be measured at all. On top of that, many experts say the Torrance Tests are outdated and even irrelevant given recent advancements in the fields of neuroscience and psychology. More than a few educators simply haven't noticed the trend at all in the twenty-five-plus years they've been teaching.
But what about the most famous TED Talk of all time, Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity? Is saying schools kill creativity really that different from saying creativity is declining in students? Isn't one just the cause of the other? While the majority of creativity experts and education specialists we interview at the end of this book deny the existence of a creativity crisis, per se, most of them agree that schools could do more to provide a climate that fosters creativity.