Conforming to divergency

punk_edited-2My first experience with Odyssey of the Mind, a creative problem solving competition, involved a group of rather ambitious second graders. Rather than opting for the easier non-competitive primary challenge they insisted on doing one of the more difficult structural ones. They spent a lot of time trying to build a structure that actually functioned and coming up with a plot to tie everything together. We largely ignored practicing for the spontaneous problem solving.

They performed well on the long term problem, better than teams 3 or 4 grades ahead of them. But scored last in the Spontaneous Competition, which turned out to be an  impromptu exercise in divergent thinking.  Afterwards we sat around and brainstormed on what went wrong.  The question was “What would you take on a trip to the moon?” Only one answer had been given more than the minimum point, and as they recalled only one answer had been completely “out there.” One girl wanted to bring a shopping mall.

Part of their lack of “creativity” in divergent thinking was lack of experience. Now that they understood what was expected of them, they could practice spontaneous problems. The next time their scores soared. But I noticed that two of the students refused to give up practical answers and therefore could not come up with as many possible solutions. Restricting the search to an answer that really would work seemed to be a personal choice.

All of this musing on past experience with children and creativity brings me to a notion currently made popular by Sir Ken Robinson.  The idea is that children are born creative and the school systems educate the creativity out of them. After all research shows that 98% of children age three to five are creative but only 2% of adults 25 year olds are. [1] Actually only one researcher showed this.  It was a 1968 study by George Lands described in Breaking Point and Beyond, published by Lands and Beth Jarman.

Most definitions of creativity include both originality and usefulness. Throwing usefulness out the window in a test of divergent thinking changes the results.  My second grade group learned how to increase their Spontaneous Competition scores not by being more creative, but by “conforming” to what the judges were seeking.  Children often respond the way that they think you want them to. If you want a large number of answers, they will readily “carpet bomb” without regard to usefulness.

Other researchers have not replicated this result of drastically reduced creativity in adults. A long term study of students who took the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking in the late fifties and early sixties found a significant correlation between children that scored high on the test and later real world creative achievement as adults (especially for  the males). [2] The creativity scores did show some fluctuation based on grade, but the percentage of creative younger students was not significantly greater than the percentage of older ones. Many of the younger students did not score as highly creative. One reason may be that the TTCT is not  just a one dimensional test of divergent thinking.

So if you’ve heard that research shows that children are born creative and it is educated out of them by society, think again. Society is made up of people, which includes children.  If creativity is the norm for young children, then that would be the predominate mode of society. But it isn’t. _________________________

Photo credits: Immanuel Giel,  Niko punkPuknáč, Quercusrobur  (CC by 3.0)
[1] From Glasgow, A conference in March, 2005, by the Scottish Book Trust,
[2] Mark A. Runco, Garnet Millar, Selcuk Acar, & Bonnie Cramond (2010) Torrance tests of creative thinking as predictors of personal and public achievement: A fifty-year follow-up.  Creativity Research Journal, 22, 361-368.
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