Is America Undergoing a Creativity Crisis? Part 1

Stephen DeAngelis

August 16, 2010

An article in Newsweek claims that “for the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining” [“The Creativity Crisis,” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, 10 July 2010]. Bronson and Merryman examine “what went wrong—and how we can fix it.” They write:

“Back in 1958, Ted Schwarzrock was an 8-year-old third grader when he became one of the ‘Torrance kids,’ a group of nearly 400 Minneapolis children who completed a series of creativity tasks newly designed by professor E. Paul Torrance. Schwarzrock still vividly remembers the moment when a psychologist handed him a fire truck and asked, ‘How could you improve this toy to make it better and more fun to play with?’ He recalls the psychologist being excited by his answers. In fact, the psychologist’s session notes indicate Schwarzrock rattled off 25 improvements, such as adding a removable ladder and springs to the wheels. That wasn’t the only time he impressed the scholars, who judged Schwarzrock to have ‘unusual visual perspective’ and ‘an ability to synthesize diverse elements into meaningful products.’ The accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful, and that’s what’s reflected in the tests. There is never one right answer. To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result). In the 50 years since Schwarzrock and the others took their tests, scholars—first led by Torrance, now his colleague, Garnet Millar—have been tracking the children, recording every patent earned, every business founded, every research paper published, and every grant awarded. They tallied the books, dances, radio shows, art exhibitions, software programs, advertising campaigns, hardware innovations, music compositions, public policies (written or implemented), leadership positions, invited lectures, and buildings designed.”

I was looking for some kind of results scorecard from Bronson and Merryman; but they provided only generalities by noting that even though Torrance’s tests don’t “measure creativity perfectly” they were incredibly successful in predicting which children would achieve the most “creative accomplishments as adults.” They continue:

“Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers. Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University recently reanalyzed Torrance’s data. The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.”

I found that to be a fascinating conclusion. We’ve all known brilliant, but dull and sometimes socially awkward, people. My guess is that most of those smart people end up working for someone with a lower IQ but a higher CQ. The problem, Bronson and Merryman report, is that we seem to be focused on raising IQs but ignoring CQs. They continue:

“There is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling. Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores 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.’ The potential consequences are sweeping.”

Researchers indicate that it is “too early to determine conclusively why U.S. creativity scores are declining. One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools.” Bronson and Merryman continue:

“The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future. Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others.”

What seems to bother Bronson and Merryman most is that this negative CQ trend is not mirrored in other developed countries. They continue:

“Around the world, though, other countries are making creativity development a national priority. In 2008 British secondary-school curricula—from science to foreign language—was revamped to emphasize idea generation, and pilot programs have begun using Torrance’s test to assess their progress. The European Union designated 2009 as the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, holding conferences on the neuroscience of creativity, financing teacher training, and instituting problem-based learning programs—curricula driven by real-world inquiry—for both children and adults. In China there has been widespread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach.”

I predict that “drill-and-kill” or rote learning methods that have been historically popular throughout Asia will inevitably give way to problem-solving methods of learning. Countries that don’t take a problem-based learning approach will never quite reach the tipping point of prosperity that lies tantalizingly in their view. The irony in all of this, Bronson and Merryman report, is that American education is currently focusing “on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing.” If things continue as they are, the world might have to help America with a “no country left behind” program of educational assistance. Bronson and Merryman note that making U.S. educational curricula more creative doesn’t mean emphasizing arts over sciences. If the U.S. is to remain a leader in the world, most business people insist that it needs even greater stress on math and science in its schools. Although artists and musicians can be highly creative, so can engineers, mathematicians, and scientists. Bronson and Merryman continue:

“The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening—ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly. Researchers say creativity should be taken out of the art room and put into homeroom. The argument that we can’t teach creativity because kids already have too much to learn is a false trade-off. Creativity isn’t about freedom from concrete facts. Rather, fact-finding and deep research are vital stages in the creative process. Scholars argue that current curriculum standards can still be met, if taught in a different way.”

To understand the best methods of education, Bronson and Merryman insist that one must first understand “the new story emerging from neuroscience.” Neuroscience has debunked the old notion that creative people are right-minded and left-handed. Bronson and Merryman explain:

“We now know that if you tried to be creative using only the right side of your brain, it’d be like living with ideas perpetually at the tip of your tongue, just beyond reach. When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions. Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with. Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.”

The $64,000 question that Bronson and Merryman examine next is: “Is this learnable?” The simple answer, they write, is “yes.” But they also note that certain people will always have advantages over others (just like tall basketball players have certain advantages over shorter ones). They continue:

“There are certain innate features of the brain that make some people naturally prone to divergent thinking. But convergent thinking and focused attention are necessary, too, and those require different neural gifts. Crucially, rapidly shifting between these modes is a top-down function under your mental control. University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung has concluded that those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better. A lifetime of consistent habits gradually changes the neurological pattern.”

I think this helps explain why groups are often more creative than individuals. Some members of groups are likely to have greater strengths in divergent thinking and their ideas can be catalysts for analysis and problem-solving for those whose principal strength is convergent thinking. Combining ideas is at the heart of creative thinking. Divergent and convergent thinking are only two of the activities that individuals and groups must participate in to achieve success. Divergent thinking (the creation of number of ideas) should be followed by idea organization (so that relationships can be identified and understanding enhanced). Next comes evaluation. Ideas are not all created equal. They need to be evaluated so that the most time is spent pursuing the most promising ideas. Once the evaluation is underway or complete, convergent thinking plays a vital winnowing role. During the convergent thinking phase, shared meaning between ideas (and, if applicable, participants), is fostered. Finally, consensus through agreement and mutual commitment is built through consolidation.

One of things that characterizes truly creative people, according to Bronson and Merryman, is their ability to concentrate. Tests have shown that creative musicians have a way of turning off part of the brain that “reads incoming stimuli, sorting the stream for relevance.” Turning that portion of the brain off permits musicians to block out all distraction.” According to Bronson and Merryman, “They hit an extra gear of concentration, allowing them to work with the notes and create music spontaneously.” This ability to concentrate and formulate creative activity appears also to be true for dancers and athletes as well as musicians. Bronson and Merryman continue:

“The good news is that creativity training that aligns with the new science works surprisingly well. The University of Oklahoma, the University of Georgia, and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University each independently conducted a large-scale analysis of such programs. All three teams of scholars concluded that creativity training can have a strong effect. ‘Creativity can be taught,’ says James C. Kaufman, professor at California State University, San Bernardino. What’s common about successful programs is they alternate maximum divergent thinking with bouts of intense convergent thinking, through several stages. Real improvement doesn’t happen in a weekend workshop. But when applied to the everyday process of work or school, brain function improves.”

That brings Bronson and Merryman back to how we can fix education in America. They write:

“The key is in how kids work through the vast catalog of information. Consider the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron, Ohio. Mindful of Ohio’s curriculum requirements, the school’s teachers came up with a project for the fifth graders: figure out how to reduce the noise in the library. Its windows faced a public space and, even when closed, let through too much noise. The students had four weeks to design proposals. Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding—anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall? A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes? Then teams developed a plan of action. They built scale models and chose fabric samples. They realized they’d need to persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation. Teams persuaded others to support them—sometimes so well, teams decided to combine projects. Finally, they presented designs to teachers, parents, and Jim West, inventor of the electric microphone. Along the way, kids demonstrated the very definition of creativity: alternating between divergent and convergent thinking, they arrived at original and useful ideas. And they’d unwittingly mastered Ohio’s required fifth-grade curriculum—from understanding sound waves to per-unit cost calculations to the art of persuasive writing.”

Admit it — that’s a great story. Bronson and Merryman obviously believe there are lessons to be learned from it. Although the students appeared to have a good time learning, what about the teachers? “You never see our kids saying, ‘I’ll never use this so I don’t need to learn it,”‘ says school administrator Maryann Wolowiec. “Instead, kids ask, ‘Do we have to leave school now?'” By the way, when the school’s standardized raw test scores were received, it was one of the top three schools in the Akron area “despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.” Bronson and Merryman continue:

“Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions. Having studied the childhoods of highly creative people for decades, Claremont Graduate University’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and University of Northern Iowa’s Gary G. Gute found highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness, yet provided stability. They were highly responsive to kids’ needs, yet challenged kids to develop skills. This resulted in a sort of adaptability: in times of anxiousness, clear rules could reduce chaos—yet when kids were bored, they could seek change, too. In the space between anxiety and boredom was where creativity flourished.”

I’ve noted in past posts about innovation that creative people are always asking questions about the things they see around them. Whereas most people accept things as they are, creative people ask why things can’t be different. One of the interesting things that those studying creativity have discovered is that “highly creative adults frequently grew up with hardship.” It’s easy to understand how someone living in harsh conditions could find themselves asking “why” over and over again. But asking “why” isn’t all that makes those living in tough conditions creative. Bronson and Merryman explain:

“Hardship by itself doesn’t lead to creativity, but it does force kids to become more flexible—and flexibility helps with creativity. In early childhood, distinct types of free play are associated with high creativity. Preschoolers who spend more time in role-play (acting out characters) have higher measures of creativity: voicing someone else’s point of view helps develop their ability to analyze situations from different perspectives. When playing alone, highly creative first graders may act out strong negative emotions: they’ll be angry, hostile, anguished. The hypothesis is that play is a safe harbor to work through forbidden thoughts and emotions. In middle childhood, kids sometimes create paracosms—fantasies of entire alternative worlds. Kids revisit their paracosms repeatedly, sometimes for months, and even create languages spoken there. This type of play peaks at age 9 or 10, and it’s a very strong sign of future creativity.”

To become useful members of society, creative people need to move from the world of fantasy to the world of reality without losing the imaginative edge that made them creative in the first place. Bronson and Merryman note that many of the MacArthur “genius award” recipients created fantasy worlds as children. They also note that moving from fantasy to reality can be challenging.

“From fourth grade on, creativity no longer occurs in a vacuum; researching and studying become an integral part of coming up with useful solutions. But this transition isn’t easy. As school stuffs more complex information into their heads, kids get overloaded, and creativity suffers. When creative children have a supportive teacher—someone tolerant of unconventional answers, occasional disruptions, or detours of curiosity—they tend to excel. When they don’t, they tend to underperform and drop out of high school or don’t finish college at high rates. They’re quitting because they’re discouraged and bored, not because they’re dark, depressed, anxious, or neurotic. It’s a myth that creative people have these traits. … Rather, creative people, for the most part, exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.”

I suspect that a lot of creative people were accused of daydreaming or not paying attention when they were young. I wonder how many children would have been pushed to become more creative had teachers asked them about what they were thinking instead of chiding them for not paying attention? “The new view,” according to Bronson and Merryman, “is that creativity is part of normal brain function. Some scholars go further, arguing that lack of creativity—not having loads of it—is the real risk factor.” Creative people excel both at problem-finding and problem-solving.

“In his research, [University of Georgia’s Mark] Runco [has discovered that] those who do better in both problem-finding and problem-solving have better relationships. They are more able to handle stress and overcome the bumps life throws in their way. A similar study of 1,500 middle schoolers found that those high in creative self-efficacy had more confidence about their future and ability to succeed. They were sure that their ability to come up with alternatives would aid them, no matter what problems would arise.”

Remember Ted Schwarzrock, the 8-year-old subject with whom Bronson and Merryman began their article? Before concluding their article, they bring us to date with his story:

“When he was 30 years old, Ted Schwarzrock was looking for an alternative. He was hardly on track to becoming the prototype of Torrance’s longitudinal study. He wasn’t artistic when young, and his family didn’t recognize his creativity or nurture it. The son of a dentist and a speech pathologist, he had been pushed into medical school, where he felt stifled and commonly had run-ins with professors and bosses. But eventually, he found a way to combine his creativity and medical expertise: inventing new medical technologies. Today, Schwarzrock is independently wealthy—he founded and sold three medical-products companies and was a partner in three more. His innovations in health care have been wide ranging, from a portable respiratory oxygen device to skin-absorbing anti-inflammatories to insights into how bacteria become antibiotic-resistant. His latest project could bring down the cost of spine-surgery implants 50 percent.”

I don’t necessarily believe that all creative people are going to end up independently wealthy; but, encouraged to use their gifts, I believe they will be positive contributors to society. Bronson and Merryman conclude:

“Creativity has always been prized in American society, but it’s never really been understood. While our creativity scores decline unchecked, the current national strategy for creativity consists of little more than praying for a Greek muse to drop by our houses. The problems we face now, and in the future, simply demand that we do more than just hope for inspiration to strike. Fortunately, the science can help: we know the steps to lead that elusive muse right to our doors.”

In the second of this two-part post, I talk about some of the techniques that people have come up with to help increase our natural creative capabilities. Tune in tomorrow.