Can We Teach Kids To Be More Creative?

According to researchers, American children are getting smarter, but they are also getting less creative. Is there anything we can do about this crisis of creativity?

We tend to think of creativity as a gift, an innate ability that the lucky few are given in spades while the rest of us have to make do with logic and reason. Even though we revere the highly creative, allowing them vices and failings our culture typically rejects, we still don't know much about them. We tend to think of creativity as relegated to the realm of the arts. Creative children are those who display aptitude in music, art, dance, or writing. They are neurotic, anxious, dark and even depressed. These kids grow up to be geniuses, alcoholics, or both. They are flighty - but only because their artistic temperament makes them so. Creativity, it seems, is not just a positive trait, but an entire personality type.

Not so, says researchers. In America, we tend to think of creativity as belonging to the arts, but it is not confined there. Creativity is the mother of invention. It is necessary across all fields. And perhaps just as importantly, creativity does not make one depressed or neurotic, nor do these traits aid in innovation in any way. They actually stifle creativity, stopping the flow of thought and the linking process that is so vital to invention.

However, this limited view of the creative mind may help explain (at least in part) why researchers have noticed a decline in creativity among American children. Newsweek reports that although intelligence has been on the rise for several generations (there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect, where each generation shows a jump of about 10 points), creativity has stalled. For the past fifty years, researchers have used tests designed by E. Paul Torrance, which measure both divergent thinking and convergent thinking (both are essential for creativity), to track creativity. For decades, creativity was on the rise, but sometime in the past twenty years, things changed. Children today are scoring lower on the tests, according to Kyung Hee Kim from the College of William & Mary. "It's very clear, and the decrease is very significant," Kim says. And, unfortunately, it is the youngest children that are suffering the worst.

Who is to blame? Maybe television, or video games (notably, no one mentions the internet as a possible cause, probably because it tends to encourage engagement and activity, rather than passive participation). But the most significant failing is in our schools, claims Newsweek. Creativity can be taught, but not by blasting Bach. It requires a different sort of focus, a way of approaching learning that has little to do with reciting multiplication tables and memorizing dates.

Of course, this is not exactly a new idea. As a child, my parents enrolled me in an "alternative" elementary school, where we called our teachers by their first names, held democratic all-school meetings, learned in mixed-grade classrooms, and spent hours outside in "hands on," project-based learning. We had no tests, and no grades. Though it wasn't nearly as extreme (or probably as interesting) as the National Inventors Hall of Fame School in Akron, Ohio, the idea was similar. Everything was integrated into the curriculum - art and science weren't viewed as two separate blocks of time, but something that could be merged in a field trip to draw tide pools.

Researchers say that it is this type of integrated thinking that we need to promote. Instead of viewing creativity as something for alcoholics and artists, it's time to start seeing it as it is: the fruit of prolonged cross-pollination between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Teaching creativity can be as simple as encouraging more "why" questions and provided kids with more problem-solving opportunities. Though being naturally brilliant may help, like any other skill, creativity can be practiced and learned - so long as we're willing to view it that way. Muses not required.

The Creativity Crisis [Newsweek]