Creativity is on the decline just when we need it most

This is bad news. We have just entered the age of crowdsourcing, consumer generated content, and plethora social media tools and technology that enable consumers and spectators to become creators and broadcasters and it turns out this transformational moment coincides with a measurable decline in creativity.

You know what that means? I do. If there aren’t already enough bad TV spots on air, heinous videos on YouTube and insufferable online ads popping up to take over our screens we can now expect the next generation to produce even more. Egads, the last thing we need is less creativity just when we’ve all become content creators.

But according to Newsweek – and some real research – this is exactly what’s happening.  IQ scores are up. Creativity is down.

The findings are based on tests that have been in use for over 50 years.  Pioneered by E. Paul Torrance in 1958, the evaluation system, while not perfect, has accurately predicted kids’ creative accomplishments as adults with enough reliability to remain the de facto standard to this day.

Historically those who’ve done well as children have grown up to become entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, software developers, and, of course, creative directors.  Between 1958 and 1990 creativity scores went up; but for the last 18 years they’ve inched downward year after year.

No one knows why this is happening, exactly, but if you have kids in public school, especially those that emphasize standardized testing, you know that we’re not doing much to encourage creativity and problem solving compared to the efforts put into rote memorization.

Interestingly the solution isn’t about teaching more music or art or creative writing necessarily.  It’s about problem solving. Neuroscience now informs us that the relationship between the left side of the brain (concentrating on facts and what you know) and the right side (scanning distant memories for relevance) is what yields that aha sensation. And there are exercises and educational approaches that can both stimulate and encourage that catalytic moment.

What should educators and parents do?

1.  Emphasize project-based learning.  Develop curricula that call for fact finding, idea generation, solution evaluation and implementation.

2.  Encourage role playing at a young age. Seeing alternative views and perspectives helps creativity.

3.  Don’t answer your kids’ questions; make them explore possible answers on their own.

4.  Mate with an opposite: families that celebrate uniqueness enhance flexibility and adaptability.

5.  Diligently practice creative activities and problem solving.

Got any other ideas? Besides turning the schools over to Tim Brown and Sir Ken? Please share.

26 comments
Linda DuChene
Linda DuChene

Recently there's been a huge push for greater US innovation and creativity. In the rush to prevent losing our edge to Asia and Europe,the cry has gone out, from both industry and educational circles, "our kids need more math and science in order to compete!" There are even federal funds to enhance these programs.

My feeling is that you can deep dive into math and science all you want, but until creative thinking and problem solving skills are taught and embedded into these programs, innovative solutions will have a hard time surfacing. We need federal funds to teach creativity as well.

Jim Conrad
Jim Conrad

What is learning? Thinking. What is thinking? Asking questions. Who currently asks questions? Authors of textbooks. Who should learn and ask questions? Students.

Jeff Shattuck
Jeff Shattuck

Randy,

Totally fair, but don't you think standardized testing could be done better if there were a willingness to invest in a more costly and possibly more subjective grading process which would enable better test questions?

Also, just to be clear, I know nothing! I don't have kids (yet!) and mostly I am best as an armchair quarterback. Put me in the game and I would probably get myself killed, plus a few bystanders.

Jeff

Jeff Shattuck
Jeff Shattuck

So, it just occurred to me...

I first read this post, left a comment, then came back to it a few times to see what others were saying. I'm surprised -- and a little bummed -- about two things:

1) No one, not a single soul is questioning the results of one test (creativity) while everyone is questioning the results of another (standardized).
I mean, how can it be that the results of the creativity test should spur us to action while the results of standardized tests make skeptics of all all?

2) No one is talking about methodology! Argh! I think the creativity test actually sounds quite good, but my guess is that it takes awhile to grade. This is KEY, I believe. The only reason standardized tests are so rote is that to grade anything but a list of true/false/multiple choice questions is too hard for our wildly inefficient blame game government. Remember the victim society? Well, I think we are all crying about being victims of tests without having the energy and will to improve the tests. Pretty pathetic, I think.

Harumph.

David Lee
David Lee

Edward,

Great post. I'd add one more to this list...bosses. Clearly educators and parents have a role but as I have seen during 24 years of service in the Army that technology has allowed bosses to have the ability to be more involved in decisions that once they couldn't. Inversely, technology has allowed the younger generations to seek approval from peers and bosses before they make decisions for themselves. We MUST resist this urge and do as you suggested...make them make their own decisions.

A few years ago I had a young officer approach me and say "Sir, I need 2 minutes of your time to get an answer from you." 15 minutes later and nothing but questions from me he realized that I wasn't going to answer him and the questions I asked he should have asked himself.

Cell phone, social media, etc have given our youth the ability to collaborate which has become a crutch for some. Since we know this data above we can't just wait for teachers and parents to fix the problem in the future, we must mentor those already beginning careers to help them learn the things that lack. Because, lets face it...those same tools have made it easier for some bosses to avoid the face-to-face time needed to mentor others or at least an excuse why they don't.

We have 4 generations in the work place. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Time to work together and make ourselves a stronger country!

Jill Atkinson
Jill Atkinson

Hi Edward

Blame video games? Blame PCs? Blame the education system? Or should we blame society's love of the fast and easy, the instant, the get more for less attitudes that we advertisers have helped promote over the last 20 years? When was the last time we saw a product or service that promised consumers hard work, long hours, but great success if you stick with it? (Lord, I just described BBDO's creative department circa 1981) I think the decline in creativity has been caused by a number of things - and many of the people providing comments have hit the nail on the head. But top of the list for me is the way we have become more and more risk adverse as a society in North America. Without risk, without fear, people don't stick their creative necks out. The whole politically-charged arena that often congregates at the head of any successful venture eventually squeezes risk and fear out of its organization ... and creativity along with it.
I'm really glad you got a hold of that study ... I take the results for what they're worth, but refreshing to know that I'm not alone as I surf all the crap at YouTube wondering why finding ... or for that matter, creating, a great idea isn't as easy as heating a TV dinner, or downloading a book at the push of a button.

David Saxe
David Saxe

I'm sure that the school systems have plenty to do with it, but with 2 kids under 5, I'm Christmas shopping and am floored by the options. I appreciated Sarah's post earlier because I do everything I can to encourage my kids to play with blocks, draw on blank paper, build forts with anything they can find - but it's just so cool to push a button and watch Thomas the Train scoot along the floor.
This may be a bit overboard, but every time we buy them a toy, we ask the question, "does this toy tell them how to play with it or let them decide how they want to play with it." Most come with batteries and instructions.

Thom
Thom

4. Mate with an opposite: families that celebrate uniqueness enhance flexibility and adaptability.

In a Skinner box, one would hope.

Howie G
Howie G

BTW great 5 points at the end. I 100% support and agree with you!

Howie G
Howie G

I think some of this is that both Parents work now. And being tired they tend to use TV as a babysitter even more than in the past. I also wonder about all the poisons in the food system, environment and CPG's like soaps that affect hormones and brain function. I think we might of been greedy with progress for immediate $$ gains in return for paying the price later.

And we discussed via twitter the Sir Ken Robinson stuff. My father was an educator and I wonder if we have become afraid of changing the traditional input-outputs. I agree memorizing for testing gives so much less return that things like case studies or real life examples.

That all said the second part of your post is important. You get what you pay for. If Brands, Content Providers think crowd sourcing will give them the same quality vs when they paid more for professional creatives they are wrong. I dare one person to say Reality TV is superior to Creative Shows. I might be an ROI guy, but you have to spend money to make money. Cuttings costs won't make you money. It just means your cutting your costs. (See Toyota).

Randy Corke
Randy Corke

Edward - great discussion. Could it have to do with passion? Doesn't passion breed creativity? What I've found in talking with teachers is that having to teach to a standardized test limits their ability to teach their passion. The interesting stuff that really turned them on enough to become teachers isn't on the test, so they can't take the time to teach it. So, our kids are getting passion-less education and therefore not developing the passion themselves to be creative. What do you think?

N
N

Is this not a blessing in disguise for creatives? Creativity may be down but there's still an abundance of creatives. These people will just be more sought after, if this supposed decline is ever felt. Maybe creativity will be more valued in the future, and more rewarded.

Pamela Rosenthal
Pamela Rosenthal

Hi Edward,
Super interesting article. Thanks for sharing. I'd love to see the graph of the actual decline in the scores to get a sense of just how much we have declined.

In addition to the rise of video games, the personal computer became much more prevalent in the schools and workplaces in the 90s -- and more and more people used computers to accomplish tasks that may have needed creative thinking in the past. The everyone wins mentality in the schools, the overscheduled kids, and the variety and quantity of media they consume nearly 24/7 leaves little time for unstructured play, and unstructured thinking. This probably pertains to adults as well. If you're being bombarded all the time with messages when do you have a chance to really think deeply about anything or just let your brain wander or think for itself? Nowadays, people in the workplace (Millenials in particular) seem to settle for a quick resolution to a problem derived as the result of group think or superficial thinking vs. deeper, thoughtful problem solving and honest discussion of the options/possibilities. How much deep thinking can you spare when you've got your earphones on playing music while you're trying to work or study?

As much as I love my PC, I think we should all shut off our computers for extended amounts of time so that we can develop a variety of hobbies and tactile skills that use other parts of our brain, hopefully reconnecting the circuits that lead to creativity so that we can effectively solve (huge) problems like what to do about global warming, the Gulf oil spill or any variety of important problems that we're facing or will face in the future. Google doesn't have all the answers :-)

Sarah Wallace
Sarah Wallace

Perhaps creativity scores are declining because toys and media today are expecting our children to be a little too grown up - too soon, perhaps?

In 1996 I had the great opportunity to work with Fred Rogers in filming Mr. Rogers Neighborhood at WQED in Pittsburgh. If you watch the show today, it seems very simple when in reality it's age appropriate.

But, it seems that every generation is told it's lacking something compared to previous generations. I remember reading that I was part of Gen X and lazy when in reality some of the members of my generation have been innovative and created some of the platforms we use daily.

I do find these statistics to be interesting but all I can do as an individual is smile when my 7 year old make a castle with blocks and my 3 year old pretends a cardboard box is a boat and keep encouraging their creativity and know that every generation will have people that shine no matter what they've been told they are.

Jeff Shattuck
Jeff Shattuck

Great post.

I can't believe I'm about to write this, but I don't think standardized testing is bad. How else to measure learning in a quantifiable, practical way?

To me, the problem is one of emphasis, in that there is too much emphasis on standardized tests. We need a balanced approach, not the extreme one we're taking, but to get rid of standardized testing (which you're not suggesting, I know) would be a mistake.

We don't need to reinvent education, just refine it, but in politics it's a lot more fun to talk about fundamental change than incremental improvement, so swings of the pendulum will continue, I fear.

On the brain, here is a link to GREAT article on the "aha!" moment:

web.mit.edu/ekmiller/Public/.../Lehrer_Insight_New_Yorker.pdf

Jeff

Linda DuChene
Linda DuChene

Yes, and I believe that an understanding of the neurological development of the brain can offer some insight here.

As you know, the body is made up of an enormous network of nerve cells commanded by the brain. When you decide to learn a new task, juggling for instance, the brain, having never done this before, has no idea which nerve cells to fire up in order to accomplish this task. So it sends messages to all the nerve cells it thinks might possibly be required to juggle successfully. Signals go out to the feet, legs, arms and fingers As a result,your first attempts look clumsy. Your feet slide around; your legs lunge right and left and your arms fly in every direction in a desperate effort to keep the balls in the air. But eventually the brain learns that such wild flailing about isn't really necessary in order to juggle efficiently. So it stops sending messages to the gross motor muscles in the legs, feet and arms and begins signaling only the fine motor muscles in the forearms and fingers. Instead of broadcasting a wide signal, it has begun to refine its broadcast and send the message via only the most direct route to only the most necessary muscles. The more you practice, the faster the signals can travel along the route. Pretty soon, you're juggling like a pro. Your feet and legs never have to move, but your fingers are working non-stop. That signal is traveling at lightning speed, repeatedly along the same route, over and over again.

Well, it's kind of like that for a child. At first he is firing nerve cells like crazy and trying new connecting routes all over the place until he finds the best, most efficient learning route. (for which he is enthusiastically applauded and encouraged to repeat the same behavior!) As he grows up, and those same messages continue to travel along the identical routes over and over again; his thinking path never varies and his thinking gets stuck "in a rut". The brain never has to consider new alternatives or try other possibilities to accomplish its task.

Children are more creative because they haven't established those tried and true thinking routes yet. Many times their efforts yield surprising new results. The older they get, and the more often they use the same routes, the less likely they are to find a new and creative solution.

In effect, as we age our brains are working against our attempts to be creative. At this stage, we must purposely go out of our way to reroute and recombine those routes. Creative thinking tools are designed to do just that - and that's why so many adults find them helpful.

Jim Conrad
Jim Conrad

It's interesting how creative kids are when they enter school.

Randy Corke
Randy Corke

Jeff, some of us (me) aren't reacting only to this post and the creativity test it references. Some of us (me again - unfortunately) are old enough to have seen their kids start their schooling prior to the advent of standardized testing, and have witnessed the changes in the schools and the resulting education as it has been introduced. This post just re-enforces an already very strong perception that some of us have formed on our own over the years. (I'm speaking on behalf other parents I know who feel the same way).

edward boches
edward boches

Also good points. Legos used to come in a big box. Now they are simply designed to replicate an exact model created already by somebody else.

edward boches
edward boches

I think finding something to be passionate about is huge. Entire point of Sir Ken Robinson's The Element, Finding your Passion. Problem is that schools too often funnel toward one or two things. But yes, you are right.

N
N

We're doing both. I was thinking more about more pragmatic uses for creativity, particularly in digital content. And I felt this was overblown before... Ha. ;)

We've always had more uncreatives than creatives. An even less creative general population might result in even less creative output as a whole, but not necessarily less "aha" moments coming from the highest percentile. High-creativity will still potently exist and the most creative thinkers will bubble to the top in all fields with more inspiration than ever. Cancer still gets cured and the world doesn't end. Skeptical optimism!

edward boches
edward boches

Depends if you're competing against others or depending on them to solve your problems, fix the environment and cure you of cancer.

edward boches
edward boches

Pamela:
Yes and no. Some of the digital revolution allows for crowdsourcing and the recreation of the Invisible College which foster problem solving through connection and learning. Then again, Nicholas Carr is his new book The Shallows would agree with some of your comments. As in all things in life, balance. Thanks for stopping by and for your thoughtful comment.

edward boches
edward boches

Sarah:
Great stuff. Delay letting them get too screen crazy at a young age. Make them think about answers to their own questions. And if you haven't, read Sir Ken Robinson's the Element, about finding your passion. Great book.

william
william

There is a fantastic book by Elliott W. Eisner called "The Arts and the Creation of Mind" which I highly recommend.

On the subject of testing, Eisner mentions that yes some things can be certainly be measured by standardized testing, "not everything that is measured matters, and not everything that matters is measured"

Learning involves some very complex brain activity that just doesn't aways map well.

edward boches
edward boches

Thanks. I think tests have a place. But we don't teach real problem solving. Too much digital at young age. Too many answers already there. Not enough role playing, experimentation, etc. And parents aren't doing the job either. Also, there's a suggestion that hardship helps. Forces one to figure it out himself. And probably fast food hurts the brain, too. Just saying.

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