How is creativity killed?

019 characterIf teaching students to be creative is one of the highest goals of education, we have a problem. The United States as a nation is becoming less, not  more creative according to the assessments. That’s right, the scores on are getting lower on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. Initially after this measurement gained wide spread usage in schools test scores rose in similar manner to the Flynn effect on IQ test. (IQ test have to be standardized repeatedly or else the general population scores slowly increase.) The scores for creativity increased in a fairly linear manner until the 1990’s. Then, they started to decline, with the biggest decrease in elaboration, the ability to expand and add details to a creative concept.[1]

What exactly is the reason for this decline?  Increasing electronic communication has been blamed. According to Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University , the constant checking of phone texts and social media provides a connection that has lost the innovation required to deal with face to face interaction. The student who sees a response to a status changes gets a dopamine boost that reduces anxiety. However, the constant multitasking required to stay connected decreases creativity. Rosen believes the fact mobile phone usage soared at the same time that the scores on  Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking fell sharply in 1998 for younger students is no coincidence. [2]

Even early in his work  E.P. Torrance (1963) found other reasons that creativity might be discouraged. People who come up with original ideas are characteristically absorbed in their work, and do not take the time or effort to be polite. They often refuse to take no for an answer, and level criticism at others. Creative children have a lot of the same traits, which can be viewed as “obnoxious” by teachers. Torrance warned educators  that they needed to deal with these negative aspects of students’ personalities without discouraging  creativity.[3] However, part of the decline may be the due to the students attempts to get along with other students.

In later studies Myers and Torrance (1980) uncovered the fact that some teachers said they were rewarding creativity when they were actually punishing it.[4] Westby and Dawson (1995) proposed that creativity is being discouraged, unintentionally, by educators who do not actually recognize it. When they tested college students to find out which characteristics they thought correlated with creativity and non-creativity, their answers matched past psychologists’ findings about 95% of the time. However, when a group of teachers in grade school were asked about the same traits, the correlation was about 50%. They thought students who were not creative if they were:

  •   emotional
  •   impulsive
  •   non-conformists
  •   making up rules as they went along
  •   trying to do the impossible
  •   not fond of working with others when making new things

Even though all the above traits are those that correlate with higher levels of creative thinking, many teachers did not see this. They claimed they liked creative students, but they warped the definition to match students that were easier to control in class. [5]

I recall sitting in an advanced education class a few years ago. One of the teachers had brought a collection of poems her students had written that she wanted to make into a book. Many of the other teachers were trying to suggest more original ways to illustrate the poems than by using unimaginative clip art. This teacher’s favorite poem was a set of stanzas with perfect spelling and rigid rhymes; the words fell pretty much as expected. The professor pointed out a different and compelling piece in which the young poet described her own struggles and inability to meet expectations. However, her teacher failed to see this second poem was a more creative work because she did not particularly like the student that wrote it.

In the end, we have to be able to learn to recognize creativity, even if we do not like what we see in the creative personality.

Art by S.L. Listman

[1] Bronson, Po, and Merryman, Ashley (2010) The Creativity Crisis, Newsweek.
[2] Joel Stein, Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation
[3] Myers, R.E. and Torrance, E.P. (1961) Can teachers encourage creative thinking? Educational Leadership 19, 156-159
[4] Torrance, E.Paul ‎(1963) The Creative Personality And The Ideal Pupil. Teachers College Record, 65, 220-226
[5] Westby, Erik.L. and Dawson,V.L. (1995) Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom? Creativity Research Journal.  Vol 8, No 1, 1-10
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