Teaching creativity

While IQ scores rise over time, creativity scores are declining in the U.S., write Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in Newsweek. It’s not clear why, though Bronson and Merryman think passive TV watching and video game playing may be crowding out creative play.

Other nations are trying to encourage students to think creatively and solve problems, while U.S. schools often concentrate on teaching basic skills.  Creativity is seen as something that happens in art class. Here’s where the article got interesting for me:

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.

. . . Creativity isn’t about freedom from concrete facts. Rather, fact-finding and deep research are vital stages in the creative process. Scholars argue that current curriculum standards can still be met, if taught in a different way.

Problem solving requires using both sides of the brain, switching rapidly between convergent to divergent thinking, Bronson and Merryman write. The solver considers known facts and strategies, then scans “remote memories that could be vaguely relevant,” searching for  “unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.”  The brain locks on to a possible answer — aha! — then evaluates whether it’s worth pursing.

(Yesterday, my husband, an electrical engineer who holds many patents, told me his advice to a friend who’s working for an inventor with a divergent idea. “Try to impress the investors with your competence so they’ll recommend you for a job when this fails.”)

Creativity training helps students learn to solve problems, say researchers at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Georgia, and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron that admits students by lottery, teaches problem solving as part of its STEM mission. Fifth graders were given four weeks to design proposals for reducing noise in the library, which has windows looking out on a public space.

Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding — anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall? A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes?

Then teams developed a plan of action. They built scale models and chose fabric samples. They realized they’d need to persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation. Teams persuaded others to support them — sometimes so well, teams decided to combine projects. Finally, they presented designs to teachers, parents, and Jim West, inventor of the electric microphone.

Teachers had designed the project to meet Ohio’s curriculum standards. That was reflected in the school’s first-year test scores, which placed it third among Akron schools.

Sixth-grader Brandon Smith’s Hamster Cleaner 3000 made the finals of a local TV stations’ Coolest Creations contest, after competing at the Invention Convention at the Cleveland Great Lakes Science Center.

About Joanne


  1. Like critical thinking, I think that useful creativity must rest on a solid knowledge base in the appropriate field. Also, I just read something recently – can’t remember where – that said that creativity may be encouraged or discouraged but can’t be taught. There was an associated comment about the ed world’s love of things that can’t be objectively measured, as opposed to content knowledge, which can.

  2. It also may be that the current trend to “bubble wrap” children – to prevent them from being bored or sad or doing things that are at all dangerous – may play a role in lower creativity.

    I know as a kid, when I got “bored,” that was when I came up with crazy stuff – invented new card games, or tried to build stuff, things like that.

    I also see a lot of students who are apparently so afraid of failure or looking foolish that they shut down immediately if they can’t figure something out on the first go. I think part of creative problem-solving involves an element of persistence, of being able to step back and go, “Well, that didn’t work. What else can I try?”

  3. Hi, Joanne,

    Thanks very much for calling attention to our piece – I was interested to see your and your readers’ reaction. I’m particularly happy to see that you mentioned the National Inventors Hall of Fame School. To me, what is most intriguing there is that they are proving that it isn’t an either/or situation for mastering required curricula and creativity, but how material is dealt with.

    Just one point of clarification – it’s not our opinion – every scholar we interviewed is worried about kids’ use of TV and computer games detracting from the amount of time spent in creative play, and what the effects it may be having on creativity. And Elizabeth Vandewater of the Univ of TX, has done a study finding that for each hour kid watches tv, his time spent in other creative activities drops by roughly 10% (depending on the child’s age) – and she defined creative activity very broadly. Of course, this isn’t conclusive evidence, but as we said in the article – there isn’t conclusive proof at the moment. Instead, we mentioned what the scholars were concerned about as possible factors that are affecting kids’ creativity.

    Thanks again for sharing our piece with your readers!

    Ashley Merryman

  4. Oh pooh, Po. How do you score creativity? I think this is a fake trend, made up by a team that are always discovering something new and alarming about children and their parents.

  5. This statement–
    “Teachers had designed the project to meet Ohio’s curriculum standards. That was reflected in the school’s first-year test scores, which placed it third among Akron schools.”– is the answer to all those teachers who insist they can’t do anything creative until the standardized tests are over in March.

  6. SuperSub says:

    Kids aren’t as creative as before… why?

    Idea 1 – TV and videogames encourage passive participation.

    Idea 2 – Creativity requires a solid knowldge of content and schools are failing to provide it.

    Disregarding the merit of either argument, as a teacher I really can’t make much use of Idea 1. As much as I try (and I’ve tried), trying to change behavior at home is like spitting in the wind.
    As for Idea 2, although many teachers would say that trying to change current district and state curricula is also like spitting in the wind, we usually do have the ability to micromanage what happens in our classroom and can do our best to encourage creativity by providing a solid knowledge of content.

  7. I expect that much creativity was traditionally learned *outside* of school, via hobbies, projects around the house or farm, etc.

    Tom Wolfe observed that a high % of engineers on the space program (and I think also in the microelectronics industry) were farm kids, who learned cause-and-effect thinking and creative solution-finding via fixing stuff that *had* to be fixed.

    The idea that people only learn in schools is actually fairly bizarre. Has any previous society ever held this belief?

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    The Army taught–probably still does–problem-solving techniques.
    Briefly, that amounted to envisioning the end state (we have the hill under control, casualties evacuated, ammo resupplied and fighting positions completed), and back up from there, one step at a time. Planning backwards, iow.
    I suppose that could be considered teaching creativity, except that no one would accept it as “creative”. It’s just a job of work, noisier than most. Teaching problem-solving is teaching lower-level creativity.
    Real creativity would be thinking of new problems to solve.
    As in, what would a bored kid think of to get into trouble?
    There’s how do you solve the problem and how do you make the problem irrelevant?
    Don’t have a clue about teaching the latter.

  9. Cranberry says:

    I’m not convinced it’s possible to teach creativity. Perhaps, you can encourage students to be more intellectually flexible. Teaching creativity, however? It’s possible to fail creativity? The Newsweek slideshow of examples graded by experts just didn’t convince me. It seems to me to be highly dependent upon very subjective criteria.

    It’s possible to stifle creativity, though. Unlike some people, I do not blame the schools for a lack of creativity. Many of my children’s friends have every free moment scheduled and arranged into resume-building activities. There is no “down time.” There is no time to be bored, or to hang out with friends. My generation of parents has taken to heart the old saying, “idle hands are the devil’s playground.” Unfortunately, I believe that boredom is also the wellspring of creativity.

    If the researchers see a particular lack of creativity in the youngest children, I think it’s worthwhile to consider the effect toys have on development. In the decade spanning my children’s young childhoods, I witnessed a grave change in toys. It was much easier to find “push button” toys at the end of the decade. Push a button, and Elmo or Spongebob would do something predictable. Action and reaction were taken out of the young child’s control. If you want to foster creativity, simple toys are much more powerful. Empty cardboard boxes, pots and spoons, measuring cups, paper, crayons, watercolors, simple dolls and basic musical instruments (horns, whistles, drums and xylophones), in my opinion, foster open-ended, creative play. Making mudpies in the backyard is more creative than watching t.v. Books and the freedom from electronic entertainment also help children explore their creative sides.

  10. I agree with Cranberry that creativity can be encouraged (but not taught) and on the current crop of toys. My kids also span more than a decade and we accumulated storage bins full of Legos, which they all loved. Most were very generic pieces that could be assembled in many different ways. When I shopped for my toddler grandkids, I discovered that the current Legos don’t have that quality; pieces are specific to one use only. (didn’t buy) My kids didn’t have that many toys; Legos, puzzles, Matchbox cars, books,cards and games, some writing and coloring supplies and lots of outdoor/athletic stuff covered most of it. We had no cable TV and no video games.

    They climbed trees, dammed brooks, found and hatched frog eggs, tried to keep the crawfish they caught (the 4-year-old found they don’t do well in a hot tub), made birdhouses, gardened, did chores, ran and biked all over the neighborhood, made up games with their friends and played serious sports. Of course, they had poison ivy, various sutures, one broken collarbone and frequent minor stuff. In the current climate, kids aren’t allowed to do anything unsupervised that might result in any of the above; teachers and physicians might shout “child abuse!”


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