Fabulous article on creativity (and America's recent failure to cultivate it)

Treat yourself to a full read of this article on creativity. It’s worth it.

Here’s the main point:

In the 50 years since Schwarzrock and the others took [creativity] tests, scholars—first led by Torrance, now his colleague, Garnet Millar—have been tracking the children…

Nobody would argue that Torrance’s tasks, which have become the gold standard in creativity assessment, measure creativity perfectly. 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.

Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test—a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist—has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 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 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.”

Another key point is that the creative process can be taught:

[C]reativity training that aligns with the new science works surprisingly well. The University of Oklahoma, the University of Georgia, and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University each independently conducted a large-scale analysis of such programs. All three teams of scholars concluded that creativity training can have a strong effect. “Creativity can be taught,” says James C. Kaufman, professor at California State University, San Bernardino.

What’s common about successful programs is they alternate maximum divergent thinking with bouts of intense convergent thinking, through several stages. Real improvement doesn’t happen in a weekend workshop. But when applied to the everyday process of work or school, brain function improves.

Another point the article makes is that other countries — including Britain, the European Union, and China — are very consciously enhancing their educational systems' focus on fostering creativity, even as we have sucked creativity out of our system:

When faculty of a major Chinese university asked Plucker to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Plucker says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.’”

Though of less practical significance, I also liked this:

During improvisation, the highly trained music majors used their brains in a way the nonmusicians could not: they deactivated their right-temporoparietal junction. Normally, the r-TPJ reads incoming stimuli, sorting the stream for relevance. By turning that off, the musicians blocked out all distraction. They hit an extra gear of concentration, allowing them to work with the notes and create music spontaneously.

Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins has found a similar pattern with jazz musicians, and Austrian researchers observed it with professional dancers visualizing an improvised dance.

I witnessed this just days ago while vacationing in Boston. A young street musician was absolutely wailing away on an electric guitar in rapturous concentration, with eyelids practically glued together and accompanied by a little electronic box playing background drum and trumpet sounds. He was REALLY good, and I had my kids — who also loved listening to him — give him a few dollars. Two musicians came up at the same time, praised him to the sky and wanted to know his name and give him their cards. One said, “If my late husband were here, he would call you ‘stone-cold crazy,’ and that was his ultimate compliment!” We forced out of him that he was a student at Berklee College of Music, which I’ve just read is probably the #1 place in the world to study jazz guitar. So many street musicians are looking around hoping you’ll give them money. This guy, while playing, was in his own world, totally oblivious to the busy city around him. Positive psychologists call this state of complete concentration on task “flow,” and it’s something few kids experience in U.S. schools these days. But we can make it happen:

Consider the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new 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….

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. “You never see our kids saying, ‘I’ll never use this so I don’t need to learn it,’ ” says school administrator Maryann Wolowiec. “Instead, kids ask, ‘Do we have to leave school now?’ ” Two weeks ago, when the school received its results on the state’s achievement test, principal Traci Buckner was moved to tears. The raw scores indicate that, in its first year, the school has already become one of the top three schools in Akron, despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.

With as much as three fourths of each day spent in project-based learning, principal Buckner and her team actually work through required curricula, carefully figuring out how kids can learn it through the steps of Treffinger’s Creative Problem-Solving method and other creativity pedagogies. “The creative problem-solving program has the highest success in increasing children’s creativity,” observed William & Mary’s Kim.

Posted by James on Monday, July 12, 2010