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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