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Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you. I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size. Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.

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The Creativity Crisis                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Aug/08/2010 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Education, Perspectives,

How Creative Are You?
For years America has bragged about its creativity. We have produced everything from the automatic coffee maker to the Ronco food chopper, and a million products in between. These products have created new industries, phenomenal wealth, and untold numbers of jobs. Along the way we have replaced radios with televisions and televisions with flat screen entertainment systems. With each new invention consumers go out and spend, industry retools and a new set of jobs replace the careers we thought would last forever. Boy am I glad I did not put too much effort into that class on vacuum tubes. All this innovation, change and new wealth has been driven by the creativity and out of the box thinking of a few very unique individuals.

I don’t care if you are talking about the safety elevator, the hula-hoop, the computer mouse, velcro or the paper clip; all these inventions and innovations required a special person who doesn’t see the world the way you or I might. Going beyond the way things are and reaching for something new and useful requires creativity. Even when we could not afford our own labor and moved our manufacturing overseas we bragged that we were still the home of much of the world’s creativity and innovation. I would have to say that I agree with this somewhat arrogant notion. If there is one constant in human behavior it is the creation of change, and now there are indications that the change is manifesting as a potential loss of the American creativity edge. There is actual research to back this scary notion up so it is time to talk a little about the history of creativity.

If you are thinking I am off my rocker, let me explain. Actually, I am talking about the ability to measure creativity which may sound just as strange to you. You are welcome to verify all this research since it lives in the public domain and is a fascinating read. Back in 1958 Professor E. Paul Torrance devised a testing standard for creativity and performed it on 400 children in the Minneapolis area. These children became known as the “Torrance Kids”.

The “Torrance Kids” were given a series of creativity tasks designed by Professor Torrance. An example of one of the tasks was when the child being evaluated was handed by a psychologist a fire truck and asked, “How could you improve this toy to make it better and more fun to play with?” As an example, one boy responded that he would make the ladder removable and add springs to the tires along with +20 other suggestions rifled off in short succession. I know, it sounds obvious to you here and now, but on your own would you have come up with similar options, more importantly…would you have done so at 8-years old? Nowadays we call this "thinking out-of-the-box", but that is just a newer way to say creativity.

The accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful, and that’s what was reflected in these 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).

This is the origin of the support bra, panty hose, digital watches, magnetic strips on credit cards and pocket calculators.

In the 50 years since these 400 children 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. This list of things tracked is really quite amazing, remember that the things you do today may not be identified as creative or relevant until social standards or opportunities for success arise so they tracked everything.

It is now widely accepted that the tasks Torrance’s gave his subjects have become the gold standard in creativity assessment and measuring creativity. What’s shocking is how incredibly well Torrance’s creativity index predicted those kids’ creative accomplishments as adults. 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. So being smart is not quite the same thing as being capable of doing something intelligent with your brain.

Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist. This test has now been taken by millions worldwide in 50 different languages. Yet 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 in science journals. It appears American creativity scores are falling.

Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May 2010, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily increasing, 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.”

What went wrong and how can we can fix it?

The potential consequences are immense. The need for ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. Creativity is not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All manner of national and international events scream out for creativity and creative solutions. Peace in Afghanistan, saving the Gulf of Mexico, delivering affordable healthcare are just a few of the places where we need original ideas and creative thinking besides marketplace advantage.

Yep, there are lots of people studying this, but it will be a long time before there are any conclusive decisions on why US scores are declining. Some people are already blaming TV and playing video games while others are expressing concern over our educational systems migration away from creative challenges. I am sure all of those are factors, but I am going to focus on one small example which I think is metaphoric of a spectrum of issue pushing creativity development in the wrong direction. When I was a child one of mine and my friend’s favorite toys was Lego buildings blocks. Lego’s are the little plastic snap together blocks that come in a variety of colors. I personally believe that despite SAAB and Volvo, Lego's are the best Swedish export ever. The sets I received as birthday and holiday gifts were just bins filled with a lot of Lego blocks. I used my imagination to turn the blocks into something. The first things I built were fairly simple little walls and building. Eventually my building efforts progressed to more complex things including bridges and windmills to name a few. Some of my building efforts succeeded, some failed, and some taught me not only what works, but what does not work. Because I wanted to build specific things I spent time alone, or with friends working out solutions and exploring possibilities. Many of the Lego sets available since roughly 1990 have been single purpose kits. The child using one of these single purpose kits gets to build something really exciting like a Star Wars fighter, but there is no challenge to the imagination, only the need to learn to follow complicated instructions precisely.

I am not saying that solving problems with Lego blocks makes you a creative person, but facing a challenge that has no predefined path, or exact solution helps to foster the skills that are fundamental to growing creativity where it might not otherwise bloom.

It is true that schools have cut back on art and music, but creativity can still be nurtured. Besides, I strongly believe that art and music are over rated as a means to foster creativity development. Non-standard science problems to build solutions with popsicle sticks and rubber bands are good. Group exercises at recreating scenes from classic plays and adding one extra meaning to the moment are good challenges. This list could go on and on, but one of the key factors is an allowance for an unconventional result including the possibility of failure. I know that our current educational system avoids failure scenarios with a passion for fear of bruising self esteem. I personally see failure as part of what needs to be taught, much like a game of ping-pong, regardless of how innocent the game may be, someone wins and someone loses. In sports we often teach that losing doesn’t mean you did bad, it only means the other person or team did better. Learning to cope with not coming in first is part of preparing for life.

Back to creativity; even in youth sports I have seen issues here. I am heavily involved in youth soccer. Good soccer is built around good technical soccer skills, stamina, fitness, and creativity, yep…creativity. I saw a team of 10-11 year old boys playing recently who were doing very well in their matches, but the coach was yelling out virtually everything the players needed to be doing and apparently he had coached his players to listen and to follow his detailed and continual instructions. During a late season match a referee got tired of the continual yelling from the coach and made him remain quiet for the remainder of the match. Not knowing how to think for themselves during active play, the game rapidly deteriorated for the players who had not learned to use their own creativity to solve problems during the match as opposed to their coaches instructions.

Around the world other countries are making creativity development a national priority. In 2008 the British secondary-school curricula from science to foreign language was redesigned 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 questions. In China there has been widespread education reform to move beyond the “drill-and-kill” teaching style. Chinese schools are now adopting a problem-based learning approach.

The actual inspiration for this essay was part of an interview I had read recently. Faculty from a major Chinese university were discussing education trends with an American educational specialist. When the Chinese asked the American to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. After the answer was translated, they (the Chinese) started laughing out loud. When asked why they said, “You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your old model of creativity as fast as we can.”

To reverse this trend before we go too far we need to look for opportunities to turn learning situations into creativity based challenges. I know, American teachers warn “there’s no room in the day for a creativity class.” Creativity is not about media, it is about the task. I saw a math class a little while ago where the teacher brought in a large and irregular shaped jar filled with jelly-beans. The teacher challenged the students to analyze the container and answer questions from how many beans total were in the jar to how many red beans were present. Rules included not being able to pick up the jar. Their write-ups needed to include a paragraph or two on their though process and the equations or methods they used. This is just one example of moving creativity from the art room to the home-room.

I don’t think it is important here to delve into the subtleties of right and left brain activity. What is important is to know that students need to be provided situations where either individually or as a group they pull these right and left side skills together and have that “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure even if the idea doesn’t ultimately work. As I tell my boys all the time, "how do you know if you don't try."

One of the better success stories I recently read in this vein comes from a 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 described as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding where they are supposed to anticipate all the 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 a special guest, 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. It should be noted that this school draws from a community where 42% of the families are living at or below the poverty level.

The bottom line is that creativity requires “free-play” and “challenges” to flourish. Please don’t read too much into this, not everyone will grow up to be a creative or out-of-the-box thinker. But creativity does require practicing certain skills early to encourage the right growth.

Creativity has always been prized in American society, but until recently it has not been very well understood. We know how to measure creativity and we definitely know the importance of creativity. We know that creativity (CQ) and IQ are not directly related, and we know how to encourage creativity. We have far too many important problems known and unknown in our future to solve. We need to be fostering all the creativity possible.

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Thomas Jefferson
I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.
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