INTRODUCTION: The Decline of Creativity

Creative Brain

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.

The Adobe Survey and What It Says

So could society, argues teaching mentor and creativity consultant Jeffrey Davis. "Schools don't exist inside a cultural vacuum," he says. "You could assign blame to schools for being test-happy and measuring everything, thus stifling creativity, but the reason schools measure everything is because our culture is obsessed with measuring!"

You could also argue that the "crisis" lies in the fact that greater human creativity is required in today's society in order to compete in the job market.

"Need a job? Invent it," writes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. The high-wage, middle-skill job is being replaced by the high-wage, high-skill job, and unless you have the adaptability and ingenuity to keep up with the rapidly shifting landscape, you'll be left behind.

Another possibility is that we have created a real crisis by believing in a false one. After Kim came out with her study and Newsweek published their disruptive article entitled "The Creativity Crisis" in 2010, we fell headlong into political chaos, pointing fingers and distorting the scale of the issue.

In times of crisis, it often helps to see whether other nations are experiencing the same issues and, if so, what they are doing about them. Curiously, there is very little evidence of a worldwide creativity crisis, even in countries with education systems similar to that of the United States, where "teaching to the test" appears to be the biggest deterrent.

In April 2012, ADOBE released a report on the global state of creativity, which showed a decline in all five participating countries—the US, the UK, Germany, France, and Japan. 50% of respondents believed there is a decline in original creation in their nation, and 60% said that their current education system is stifling creativity. But these results are suspect, since ADOBE draws its profit largely from helping clients be more creative.
Richard Florida came out with the Global Creativity Index in 2011 which placed Sweden at the top and the United States in second. In his report, Florida defines creativity as the three T's (Technology, Talent, and Tolerance) that drive a country's long-term economic prosperity. Sweden, the United States, Finland, Denmark, and Australia have the highest Global Creativity Indices, all three T's considered. Individually, the story is slightly different. Finland is top in technology, and Japan and Israel show up in the top five. For talent, Finland is first again, followed by other Scandinavian countries, and Singapore and New Zealand make appearances in the top ten. And for tolerance, Canada ranks first, followed by Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia. The Scandinavian nations and the U.S. round out the top ten alongside Spain, Uruguay, and the United Kingdom.

But this report has little to do with schooling. More likely than not, Finland is top in technology not because its schools have outstanding STEM programs but because it's the home of Nokia, the world's second-largest mobile phone manufacturer. Japan doesn't boast a high Global Creativity Index, but that's because Japan doesn't boast.

According to the aforementioned ADOBE survey, Japan lives in the shadow of its own success: While Germany, France, and the UK all see Japan as the most creative nation, Japanese respondents overwhelmingly believe that creativity is still reserved for artistic (78%) and elite (52%) communities, and that age is a major deterrent to creative output.The extent of the "creativity crisis," therefore, depends on who's holding the measuring stick.

But we all know that we could be doing better, and that creativity is becoming an increasingly important quality in a world where innovation is the new knowledge.

"Today," says Tony Wagner, an education specialist at Harvard, "the capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge.
"Every young person will continue to need basic knowledge, of course. But they will need skills and motivation even more. Of these three education goals, motivation is the most critical. Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously. They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear."

Not everyone will create brilliant, "disruptive" products—products that transform a market as, say, Steve Jobs has done. But many young people, given the right encouragement, can bring something extra to whatever they do—that spark of imagination and curiosity which can lead to the creation of better products, services, and ideas.

Our schools need to address this reality, and education policy must be transformed accordingly. We will certainly face challenges—including time, resources, and training— but the truth is, we have little choice in the matter. Creativity is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

"Today's students will need such tools to tackle the problems they stand to inherit," wrote Dan Berrett for The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year. "Climate change, income inequality, and escalating health-care costs cannot be remedied by technocratic solutions alone, say advocates of teaching creativity. Knowledge will need to be combined across disciplines, and juxtaposed in unorthodox ways."

Regardless of the instantaneousness of information in today's world, as long as we continue to use that information in creative ways, challenge assumptions presented to us as "right" answers, and embrace the possibility of being wrong, we will retain our creative skills. "If students can gain some facility with creative thinking now, colleges reason, perhaps they will be more adaptable both as employees and citizens in an uncertain future."

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