“Every child is an artist; the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.”
– Pablo Picasso
As the U.S. presidential election approaches, voters are being bombarded with messages from both sides of the aisle reminding us of how exceptional our country is: A land of the free! A home of the brave! The greatest nation on Earth!
And to a large extent, those messages are true. The U.S. is a pretty exceptional place. Just not in the traditional ways that come to mind. After all, we’re no longer the healthiest (that would be Iceland) or the wealthiest (Qatar) of the world’s nations and we’re downright middling when our kids’ test scores are compared to those of other countries in the developed world, despite our current obsession with standardized testing.
But you know what we’ve always been good at, really good at? Creativity. Innovation. Ingenuity.
Americans receive more patents than citizens of any other country and our scientists lead the world in research. Since World War II, we have dominated the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics. (If you’re looking for a tangible piece of “American ingenuity,” look no further than the Curiosity rover currently rambling over Mars.) And our universities continue to attract scholars from all of the world in record numbers.
But, according to a recent post at Psychology Today, American creativity is in decline among schoolchildren. New research from College of William and Mary education professor Kyung Hee Kim shows that the scores of American K12 students on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking have been in constant decline over the past two to three decades. According to Kim, the study shows that “children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.” Especially upsetting was Kim’s finding that the biggest decline in aspects of creativity was in “Creative Elaboration,” which measures a child’s ability to expand on a given idea in a unique way.
Peter Gray, Boston College psychology research professor and the author of the blog post, suggests that the Torrance Tests, in which “people are presented with various kinds of stimuli and are asked to do something with them that is interesting and novel—that is, creative,” may be “the best predictor of lifetime achievement that has yet been invented,” more accurate than IQ tests, high school grades, and peer predictions. Gray agrees with Kim that the precipitous decline on these tests by American school kids represents nothing short of a “creativity crisis.”
On what does Gray blame this precipitous decline in our kids’ creativity? Well, us. And schools. And the society we have created together. (Sound familiar? I think Madeline Levine was onto something.) Gray writes:
Well, surprise, surprise. For several decades we as a society have been suppressing children’s freedom to ever-greater extents, and now we find that their creativity is declining.
Creativity is nurtured by freedom and stifled by the continuous monitoring, evaluation, adult-direction, and pressure to conform that restrict children’s lives today. In the real world few questions have one right answer, few problems have one right solution; that’s why creativity is crucial to success in the real world. But more and more we are subjecting children to an educational system that assumes one right answer to every question and one correct solution to every problem, a system that punishes children (and their teachers too) for daring to try different routes. We are also…increasingly depriving children of free time outside of school to play, explore, be bored, overcome boredom, fail, overcome failure—that is, to do all that they must do in order to develop their full creative potential.
I don’t have to look much farther than my local schools to see the evidence of this trend and how it might begin once kids enter full-time school. My boys are both in preschool. Their few classroom hours each week are spent listening to and talking about books, playing in open-ended centers, and running around outside. Compare that to their little friends who are in elementary school. According to one mom I know, her daughter’s kindergarten class only has recess once a week. Another complained that her son’s homework, which consists of repetitive exercises in a test prep workbook, takes up much of his waking hours after the school day.
If we continue to condone a school culture that prioritizes rote memorization and teaching to the test over curiosity and genuine understanding, do we really expect to remain a center of global creativity? Do we truly believe that our current system is going to nurture the minds of the girl who could one day figure out how to reverse global warming and the boy who might grow up to figure out a cure for cancer?
To paraphrase Picasso, our kids are born with all the creativity they need. It’s our job – perhaps more than ever – to make sure they get a chance to keep it.
Do you feel like your child’s school does a good job of fostering creativity? What do you do at home to help keep your kid’s eyes wide?