Are kids getting less creative?

By Felix Salmon
July 13, 2010
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman take to Newsweek to break the shocking news that creativity is on the decline:

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Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman take to Newsweek to break the shocking news that creativity is on the decline:

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.”…

It’s 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. In effect, it’s left to the luck of the draw who becomes creative: there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children.

There’s no link to Kim’s paper, which I suspect has not (yet) been peer-reviewed. But I’m inclined to take this finding with a very large pinch of salt.

For one thing, as Kim himself has demonstrated at some length, it’s hard to make apples-to-apples comparisons of Torrance scores as they change from decade to decade. Which makes sense, since conceptions of things like originality and elaboration are culturally determined and evolve over time; indeed, every so often the tests are “renormed” making long-time-series comparisons even harder.

The nature of creativity might be changing: children who grow up with videogames might be creative in different ways to children who spend more time with more traditional toys. And that change in creativity might well show up as a decline in a creativity test invented in 1966, renormings notwithstanding. I’d certainly be interested in what Steven Johnson thinks of Kim’s paper, if and when it’s released.

I’d also love to see statistical evidence that the decline in Torrance scores is significantly correlated with a decline in (rather than simple lack of) creativity development in schools. Bronson and Merryman spend a lot of time talking about how schools can and should teach creativity, but they never quite come out and say that schools were better at such things in the past than they are today.

I have no problem with creativity-based education being baked in to school curricula, and there’s a case to be made that such a change is desirable whether or not Torrance scores are declining. That said, the evidence in favor of innovative kinds of teaching is often based on looking at a handful of schools which have adopted such ideas enthusiastically, and those kind of findings tend not to scale when you try to adopt them across an entire school system. And if big changes to a national curriculum are being proposed as a solution to a given problem, the first thing to do is surely to check and double-check that the problem actually exists. So let’s hold off a minute, here, and look for reactions to Kim’s finding within pedagogical circles. A single paper from a single researcher shouldn’t be enough to spark widespread worries about our children’s creativity.


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I certainly agree with your caveats about the difficulty of quantizing creativity. But my school-teacher wife tells me that the influence of No Child Left Behind has been to make test-taking so important that teaching to the test has replaced many activities that would enhance creativity. Teaching children how to take multiple-choice exams does not help them be creative, and that is how the new incentives are structured. Any discussion of teaching creativity should include the influence of NCLB.

Posted by doncoop | Report as abusive

The key aspect of creativity is the mental flexibility to meet new problems with new solutions. This is in direct conflict with modern “standards based” educational practice in which the emphasis is on severely constrained objectives. I wouldn’t put the blame wholly on “No Child Left Behind” as we’ve been moving in this direction in education for at least fifteen years.

In the strongest form of education, you give students a problem and help walk them through one or more approaches to solve the problem. Along the way you discuss the logic guiding the solution, focusing always on the process.

Unfortunately you don’t see much of that these days, nor are most students prepared to learn with this approach.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

here are so many studies to find out what the problems are, but the studies will find what is already evident. A lot of the problems are also related to the those in test scores, which are the bread and butter for schools trying to keep up to get funding.

Rest assured doncoop above is correct. There is less imagination play, creative workshops, art, FUN and frivolity, music, which makes the brain active and keeps the blood flowing through the brain. Any children who are over active are not allowed to move, they are medicated and mind numbed. If children have a talent who is going to discover it and then Nurture it? Not even the child can if it becomes rote education numbing creative minds.

I will add some observation, and although I am Canadian, I know that many US schools are following the same paths. There is decreased focus on activity and Physical education (Even though it has been proven children who are active increase blood flow to the brain)

Poor nutrition in schools and at home (the food industry is to blame for processing the hell out of everything and fresh produce has too many toxins… bad for brain.
There was nary a tuna or salmon sandwich, which is known brain food, in sight due to allergies of one student. Ditto peanut butter, which would at least be nutritious. That makes for sluggish brains.)

A simple thing like having a water fountain near each group of 4 classrooms (The plastic scare meant parents aren’t sending in bottles of water, but are now sending sugar canned drinks. Less brain activity and increases risk of obesity and those problems we are seeing)

Less time outside playing at home and at school (TV is known to be a flat liner for brain activity. Less sunshine means less vitamin D, vital for brain and body function, fresh air and oxygen for the brain )

Even more parents are working or trying to find work. That means there is stress at home. Children can also feel depressed. Less time or energy left for the children, less thought to the child reading, playing, making play dates, helping them before school or with learning, less thought to nutrition and lunches. What I have seen in snacks and lunches is prepackaged sugar, carbs and junk as even the ‘food’ is processed with chemicals, as that is easy to pack and less time to ‘prepare.’ That will get worse as money gets tighter, people lose homes, money gets tighter.

The teachers are stressed. Teachers are burned out with time and curriculum constrants. (need I say more?)

The demands on the teacher mean they have no time to nurture creativity. It is also VERY likely that teachers who are kind and nurturing and who might be more inclined to discover the talents and creativity are bypassed for those teacher more inclined to strictness and academics.

So yes, the video games are a great target, and I am sure there will be 10 years of studies that will come up with the things I have thought of off the top of my head. Ask teachers, parents and kids and we will be happy to tell you why the scores are lower. All children have the capacity for innovation, have unrecognized creativity and talents. But, the curriculum doesn’t allow for recognizing or nurturing it.

Bottom line, everyone should be interested in education and not just teachers and hopefully it won’t take 10 years to see that the education system is being designed to stifle creativity, exercise, fun, learning how to succeed after failure and if you bring that back, …. creativity will return.

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

Po Bronson . . . I always wondered where really awful chroniclers of the dotcom boom went when their fifteen minutes of fame ended.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

If there’s such a thing as a good way of measuring creativity in children, I have yet to figure out what it might be.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

1) I don’t think its necessary to show that creativity development has declined in schools. Creativity development could have been something happening entirely in the home, which may not now be happening (I don’t agree that this is the case). One way to address that would be to bring creativity development into schools.

2) What would be far more compelling evidence, in my mind, is that similar declines are being seen in other countries with similar demographics and child behaviors. TV watching, video game playing and internet time wasting a cross-national trends. Are Canadian, British, French, and Swedish children also becoming less creative?

3) Even if 2 were true, still the most compelling explanation would be that the test is outdated, not that human capacity for creativity is declining.

Posted by timothyogden | Report as abusive

I’ve seen what’s popular on TV, in movies, and at the bookstores.

I’m easily swayed to believe creativity is on the decline.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

you’re all in denial

Posted by rjs0 | Report as abusive