Transforming Childrens Learning to Address Americas Creativity Crisis

In today’s difficult job market, which candidate is most appealing, the one who received a perfect SAT score, or the one that can offer the most creative solutions to a complex problem, such as stopping the spread of oil along the Gulf Coast?   The July 10 Newsweek magazine cover story, “The Creativity Crisis” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman, featured new evidence that American creativity has been in significant decline over the past two decades. These findings come at a time when creativity and innovation have become more important than ever for solving real-world challenges and staying competitive in the global economy. In an IBM poll of over 1,500 CEOs, creativity was ranked the #1 leadership competency for successful companies of tomorrow. Other countries in the EU and China have already taken note and are experimenting with school curriculum to prioritize creative skills. Meanwhile the American education system has renewed its focus on more rigorous curriculum standards and national testing in an effort to improve our global competitiveness.  In doing so, are we missing something essential?

Bronson and Merryman suspect the number of hours kids spend watching TV and playing video games are partly to blame for the decline in U.S. creativity, and also point to a dearth of creative activities offered in American schools. However, a number of experts believe that technology-supported tools carry vast potential to provide children with opportunities to learn and create. And with children older than 8 spending an average of about 10.5 hours a day using media outside school, we must meet children where they are in order to convert couch time at home, and seat time at school, into creative learning time.

Defining creativity is still like trying to define art: it is in the eye of the beholder. But if creativity becomes a desired outcome in children’s learning, it will be increasingly important to define what it is, what it looks like, and which practices will best foster its development. Newsweek authors defined creativity as the “production of something original and useful…to be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).” Not surprisingly, teaching and measuring creativity is a difficult endeavor. The level of variation inherent in creative output does not fit neatly into standardized testing and curriculum standards. Additionally, as Bronson and Merryman point out, creative skills have long lived in the arts education silo even though creative skills are essential in all types of learning domains from engineering to language arts. In order for America to compete globally, we need an integrative approach to fostering creativity wherever children learn and play.

The field of research on creativity is beginning to mature. One of the field’s most reliable tools to measure creativity has been Professor E. Paul Torrance’s creativity index. Since 1958, the “Torrance score” or “CQ”, has been used to measure children’s creativity through a series of 25 creative activities. Interestingly and not surprisingly, there is a strong connection to childhood creativity and one’s creative output as an adult. Childhood CQ’s correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment is three times stronger than childhood IQ. A recent analysis of over 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults by researcher Kyung Hee Kim shows that American CQ scores steadily rose until the 1990s, and since then have been trending downward, particularly among elementary-school aged children.

Kim’s research calls attention to the importance of the critical developmental period known as “middle childhood” in children’s overall development as lifelong learners. It is the same period during which many children develop a sense of self and deepen their interests and passions, as well as strengths and limitations, their academic selves begin to take root at this time, and as they compare themselves to their classmates, children who feel inferior experience a major drop in self-esteem and academic performance.   Many children in underserved communities struggle with what academic experts call the “fourth grade reading slump” during this age. Middle childhood is also when children begin to spend an increasing amount of time with digital media such as games, and where many children transition from playing casual games to more sophisticated console games. At the intersection of the creative slump, the reading slump, and the digital explosion, middle childhood should be a prime focus in efforts to reverse America’s creative decline.  High-quality technology-supported learning opportunities should be part of the solution.

To devise these solutions, we need a better understanding of the types of activities which foster children’s creativity, which features of their creative process demonstrate learning, and which features of digital media are best suited to deliver those experiences. Without a clear consensus on the skills needed to promote creativity, let’s turn to fields in which creativity is paramount, such as creative services and design firms, for insights. “Design-thinking,” advanced by proponents such as Tim Brown of IDEO, has emerged across many of these professions as a possible well-spring for creativity. It is loosely defined as a multidisciplinary approach that applies tools often used by designers (user observations, brainstorming, rapid prototyping, storytelling, and scenario building), to identify problems and craft solutions.

In response to the IBM CEO survey, the design firm Behance recently posted “The Top 5 Qualities of Productive Creatives (and How to Identify Them)“:

  • – Communication skills: Ability to communicate clearly and concisely; capacity to efficiently manage communication channels (email, social media) to collaborate and influence others
  • – Pro-Activeness: Ability and willingness to act, take initiative to set an idea in motion
  • – Problem-solving skills: Ability to arrive at new solutions by looking beyond obvious or traditional approaches
  • – Curiosity: Ability to ask the right questions that lead to solutions
  • – Risk-taking: Being open to risk (and thus failure); openness to trying something new

Although they have traditionally been associated with the creative industry, design-thinking and lessons from the creative economy provide sign posts that can help educators and parents address what some observers are calling a “national creativity crisis.” This challenge is undoubtedly intertwined with those we face in teaching basic skills (reading, STEM), and critical “new” skills (such as systems thinking and collaboration). If we are to prepare children to be lifelong learners, we should investigate the potential benefits of applying these professional and pedagogical approaches together.

In my next post, I will consider how creative processes, such as design-thinking, relate to theories of children’s learning with respect to the development of technology-supported creativity activities for kids.


Other blogs in this series:

Learning Across Silos: An Integrated Approach to the Creativity Crisis 

Tech Supported Tools to Foster Kids’ Creativity


Ann My Thai is the Assistant Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. She is also the lead author of the Center’s report on digital games and children’s health and learning, Game Changer. Many thanks to Lori Takeuchi and Benjamin Stokes for their generous help with this post.

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