Creativity Crisis

Quite an interesting article on the Newsweek site.

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.”

The “art bias” is a concept against which I will have to personally reexamine my own prejudices.

… But to scientists, this is a non sequitur, borne out of what University of Georgia’s Mark Runco calls “art bias.” The age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening—ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly.


wow, that is not an “interesting” article. To me this is something like a holy grail to
the upbringing of creative and strong children. Not only unraveled it some mysteries
about my own venture from childhood into a position of leading a creative team,
but also comes right on time for myself preparing to raise kids.

There are so many gems inside that article which helped me to reach more clarity about
the foundations ot “creativity” that I thought about myself for some time, but wasn’t able to back
up scientifically:

From fourth grade on, creativity no longer occurs in a vacuum; researching and studying become an integral part of coming up with useful solutions. But this transition isn’t easy. As school stuffs more complex information into their heads, kids get overloaded, and creativity suffers. When creative children have a supportive teacher—someone tolerant of unconventional answers, occasional disruptions, or detours of curiosity—they tend to excel. When they don’t, they tend to underperform and drop out of high school or don’t finish college at high rates.

Having studied the childhoods of highly creative people for decades, Claremont Graduate University’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and University of Northern Iowa’s Gary G. Gute found highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness, yet provided stability.

I found this one particularly true with my own parents, who often offered very different views and solutions to one
very problem, which showed me at young age, that there is no thing like “genuine truth”. Unfortunately the
stability factor was not that brilliant …(edit)., but that is a different matter altogether.

Preschoolers who spend more time in role-play (acting out characters) have higher measures of creativity: voicing someone else’s point of view helps develop their ability to analyze situations from different perspectives…
In middle childhood, kids sometimes create paracosms—fantasies of entire alternative worlds. Kids revisit their paracosms repeatedly, sometimes for months, and even create languages spoken there. This type of play peaks at age 9 or 10, and it’s a very strong sign of future creativity.

Could it be, that our preformulated alternative worlds, that are served to chidren of that very age do not nourish creativity, but block it? Is watching “star wars” as good as reading “perry rhodan”?

What did your paracosms look like? I know we playeds “orks and elves” which included a complicated set of rules
of what was acceptable and what was not…

Interested to see more valid information to pop up on creativity training for preschoolers.



Super interesting, thanks for posting.

What if “creativity training” is actually the thing that kills creativity? Maybe by trying to instill it,you actually kill it.

I always thought that when people grow up around objects that are well thought out and good design, they end up better off. Isn’t that why we are doing this? because peoples lives are enriched by objects and experiences that are designed well?

At the moment, there are two design related things I do with my boy, I make him help me fix things, like furniture, or toys, and I am trying to teaching him that letters come in various different typefaces but they are the same and when combined create words.

And if you figure it out, I have a 3 year old and a 3 month old, so let me know, I don’t want my kid to end up telling me something like “I’m sick of your rules dad, I’m going to get an MBA and be in mid level management at an insurance company whether you like it or not…” Needless to day, I would be devastated.


My girlfriend teaches at a pre-k school that utilizes the Reggio Emilia approach to teaching. It’s a pretty different way of teaching then the normal route that western societies emphasize. It’s more of a hands-on, let the children explore approach to education which seems to help the kids learn creativity at a young age. By allowing the children to explore and use their owns ideas it teaches the kids to think for themselves. The teachers help guide student initiated investigations in a variety of subjects.

As an example… The classroom that my girlfriend leads just finished up an investigation about apples. Since the kids were interested in apples she asked questions that helped the kids to think more in depth about them. This investigation lasted a few months with the kids doing different experiments and research into how apples look, the different variety of apples, how the trees grow etc… The children mentioned they wanted to create a book about what they learned, so materials were provided so the children could figure out how to make a book. I cut up some different thicknesses of plywood, cardboard, formica and a few others that the children got to touch and think about. Eventually they decided on using 1/8th inch plywood because it would really protect the book. The kids decided the best way to make the book would be to have it look like an apple. So they cut the plywood into an apple shape and created apple shaped pages. In the end they had this book that talked about what they learned and looked like an apple.

Overall it’s an interesting concept to help kids learn for themselves and to help their creative thinking. It could be something to check into for your children to keep them away from the MBA middle management route.

Loving the image of preschoolers using a bandsaw, haha.

Seriously though I went to a preschool that used the Reggio-Emilia technique and I give it partial credit for making me so rad. :sunglasses:

What happened in the 1980’s that lead to the decline when kids showed up in schools in the 1990’s? Two factors strike me. The rise of cable television with kid specific programming, and the start of the home videotape market, and the use of video as child pacification.

I remember each stage of saw that I got to use and the education and respect that it took, hacksaw, hand saw, jigsaw table, band saw, table saw. Jigsaw was pretty early, perhaps kindergarten age, as it could not do any damage.

The most structured creative environment I remember was first year at art school. Something called Freshman Foundation. For the first six months, we were not allowed to draw, or paint, or do any of the things that had made us self imagined rock stars in our specific technique in high school. All of the projects involved concepts and tasks with a time constraint and peer and group review at the end. The experience taught us that anything can be a material, concepts are far more important than technique, and that everything should be looked at from every angle. Everytime in my professional career I ran into production issues, material or process issues, I felt like I benefited from this perspective and method.

Two more possibilities: the advent of home video game consoles (and computers that were mostly used for games), and a sharp rise in standardized testing (which was ramped up far more in the last decade).

Kids aren’t allowed to just be kids when they’re at home, and public schools are now solely dedicated to teaching them how to take tests so they don’t get closed down and turned into a charter school. I’d like to see the raw data on those creativity tests. I would expect the drop has really accelerated in the last few years. A lot of kids can’t even ride in a car anymore without a f-ing video playing. Those poor bastards will never learn how to do anything but passively consume.

Thanks for posting this article. It makes me feel better about what we’re about to pay for non-public schooling.

I haven’t read the article yet but seeing this comment made me laugh…

“Having studied the childhoods of highly creative people for decades, Claremont Graduate University’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and University of Northern Iowa’s Gary G. Gute found highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness, yet provided stability.”

I think it’s fair to say that I’m creative and I do have creative parents that were ‘opposite’ - to the point that they divorced over their opposite views. Oh the fight over the soy sauce bottle design…

Wow, this dovetails into another thread on the same subject. Contains a link to a TED discussion on how schools kill creativity.

My parents met in art school, and the house was full of every material imaginable, so we grew up fabricating and playing. Clay, metal, paper, paint, plaster, wood and lots of encouragement to put things together and explain how things where made. My father’s quote, “everything has already be done” was at first disappointing because I wanted to be the first to think of something, then a challenge, then a realization that we are using building blocks of all that is available.

It seems to me the the less described something is, the more room for imagination. Words and reading are the ultimate “brief” for imagining and creativity, Jeff Noon, Neal Stephenson, Philip K. Dick are authors that had my mind full of the images of products from a different place.

Regarding play and creativity, for me they are locked together:
My childhood paracosms were mostly space, growing up in Apollo moon exploration era, space seemed possible. Lots of spaceship enclosures and turning car trips into Mars missions. Star Trek the tv series was rough enough and the images were fleeting enough that we had to sketch the parts of the show we liked and remember them. The physical realization of many fantasy images, I’m thinking of toys specifically did not exist. The images had to be carried around in one’s head and imagined. The commercial concrete representation of a “phaser” toy from the above mentioned tv show, for example, was always terribly disappointing. My brother and I had built mockups from balsa with multiple coatings of gesso and wet sanded to perfection, they seemed more “accurate”. Although we imagined that the toy versions that would ultimately be released would be perfection, imagine the disappointment when you saw the first light saber in a box, or the real movie prop. Sad. The current state of imagination / physical linkage in movies it to produce the toys from the same CAD files as the rendered characters from the movie, or scan actual actors to produce the items. The room for imagination becomes far less on the design side, maybe it becomes richer on the social interaction side, not sure.

This seems doubtful unless it is really heavy handed. Creativity is about the freedom to explore, and as long as one is not forced down a certain path, the exploration has to have a good outcome for whatever career or life application chosen. I feel a kind of neural pathway route that has been grooved into my thought process, a creative one that has lots of links and different ways to reach around obstacles and find solutions. I think that a creative education or training begins these alternate routes to solving a problem. My gut feeling is that this flash, which is described so clearly in the article, is common to many professions. Although the current crisis in the economy perhaps did not benefit from the creativity in creating financial instruments and schemes.

At first review, I thought that the video games in the 80’s were so much rougher that some imagination was required to fill in the blanks, upon further reflection, the video games were and still are, extremely limited in the puzzle approach. The outcomes are fixed, the potential for innovating inside a game is virtually non existent. I agree that video games are likely another strong factor in creative dulling. Although maybe it is a venue that could be tapped as a creativity builder with the right authoring intent.

I’m still processing this, but I do have a comment on video games. I used to play hockey on my Genesis. I used to “announce” the games at the same time as play them and interview myself during intermissions. Hey, I was an only child (psychologically). I do think it I was encouraged to see things from different perspectives, player, coach, fan, winner, loser. Maybe other kinds of games are more limited, but I’ve always found sports and racing games to be more interesting. Without some sort of story to solve (save the princess, etc), you can have a great time, learn and still lose. Maybe that’s the other lesson that helps in creativity. I remember being the only student in Uni that would start off design projects talking about doing a project to learn, even if it meant a bad portfolio piece (I hope no one here remembers my uni work…painful).

NPR’s On Point is cover the topic today (Tuesday 7-20-10).

It will be podcasted for download later.


Have you seen these?

School is creating creativity…They teach each kid to come up with the same solution. I’m having a hard time ‘unlearning’ my students that there is only one solution :wink:



I have another idea: should school be in charge of teaching creativity?

I remember a college physics teacher telling our class that the purpose of the general 101 entry level college classes was to create a critical mass of knowledge in students that they can reference later in making new connections. His analogy was the nuclear fission reaction. uranium doesn’t fission naturally, it has to be started by pumping particles in. As the uranium fissions, it releases particles that contribute to the reaction. The critical mass is the point where there is enough mass of uranium and it is releasing enough particles to continue the reaction.

From the sounds of the original article quoted in this post, it seems that play and available parents are the really important aspects of developing creativity in children. Neither of those things are what school is about.

Maybe we should leave play and parenting for home and creating a critical mass of knowledge at school. Thoughts?

I think the issue is that people learn differently.

With some folks, knowledge inspires creativity (ie here is how to use a table saw… boom, a bunch of cool furniture using only the table saw)
In others creativity leads to a search for knowledge (ie I want a piece of furniture that does/looks like this, the best way to make it is the table saw you say?.. boom a quest to learn how to use a table saw)

Schools don’t have these tracks, and if they did, they wouldn’t have the mechanism in place to identify which track a kid should potentially be on, nor do they have the budget to do so… most of our modern systems, from education to the DMV result from a bygone era, but they are too cash strapped or inefficiently run to investigate a ground up rethink, a classic “too busy driving around to bother to stop and get gas” situation… the problem is, at some point the car runs out of gas and you may be miles from a station.

Yes I think so, but don’t disregard this:

The problems with leaving it up to the parents:

  1. Most families are dual income and the parents are too busy to be bothered.
  2. The schools tend to pile on the homework to ensure that everyone can pass the standardized testing and keep the money flowing.
  3. Extracurricular activities take up whatever time is left.

There really isn’t much time left for most kids to be kids. Their time is scheduled away completely. Sad really. I played video games and watched too much TV as a kid, but I also remember having a lot of time to just take off and do whatever I wanted (most of it in the summer probably). At one point a friend and I built a cockpit for a flight simulator using scrap wood and his dad’s pneumatic nail gun (without any supervision, eye protection, or training). This was probably in 6th grade. I can’t imagine anyone handing a nail gun to a kid and walking away today.

We’ve got a daughter starting kindergarten in the fall, so this is a pressing issue for us. It used to be that a good teacher in a reasonably good school was all you needed, but even the good schools and good teachers have their hands tied now in the public schools.

Scott: I’m always weary of “the good old days” concept. On the other hand, good points that you bring up from the perspective of a parent, something that I’m not.

Nice tie in to this conversation from the C77 homepage impressing_creativity_upon_your_kids
And an older but relevant thread from Wired magazine, albeit centered on technology.
100 Things Your Kids May Never Know About To me, this is not a discussion about the good old days, it is about a comparison of existing and previous systems and the result on creativity. Especially in the tech side, none of it was better, it was all more actual and even mental work, but I would posit that mental effort is exercise that results in a more flexible brain. Maybe that is one way to define creativity, mental flexibility and agility.
As everything becomes more consumer tuned, easier, faster, more refined to the task, cuter, and target individual specific, the user effort is reduced. The users think less, synthesize less, which is arguably fine for the consumer group, which is the majority of the population, but for the creative group, I think we benefit from the exercise.