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.