Are Traditional Classrooms Killing Creativity?

14 May

From Steve Jobs’ legacy of innovation to Google’s crazy “Moonshots,” America prides itself as a country where anything can be possible.   Creativity is increasingly valued in the business world as well as the arts.  In a 2010 IBM poll, 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the best predictor of future success.

However, even as interest in creativity is rising, creativity in youth is dropping off. Kyung Hee Kim, a professor at the College or William and Mary, documented a continuous decline in creativity among American schoolchildren over the last two or three decades.*  According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity declined, but the biggest decline was in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way.**

What’s causing the decline?  The academic environment, far from fostering creativity, often squelches it.  Innovation thrives in open environment, without restrictions.  Time limitations, admonitions to “do it right,” and graded performances all drive students down a narrow path of performance.

Dr. Elad Segev shares how when students were told, “finish the drawing the right way to get one point,” they almost universally drew simple houses.  The belief that there was one right answer drove them to look for the simplest, most universally acceptable drawing.  Later, when simply told “finish the drawing,”  they produced a much greater variety of drawings.

You can see a similar result with time pressure.  Children who had to finish immediately went for the simple solution, versus those that had the luxury to try out another idea.

This echoes Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TedX lecture, where he shares how we are educating people, “out of their creative capacities.”  Children are prepared to be wrong, so they have the capacity to be creative–if you’re petrified of getting the wrong answer, you’ll never come up with anything new.  Now think about the message we send with standardized testing.

This is a tricky subject, because we would never want to say that there’s no such thing as a wrong answer.  If you measure the support beams for a house incorrectly as a contractor, you have a pretty big problem.  Same thing if you translate a legal document incorrectly as a lawyer, or don’t understand how drugs interact as a pharmacist.  But we put a lot of emphasis on questions with one right answer up until children are 18 (or 21), and then throw them into an adult world where, for many problems, there are no right answers.  Sometimes there aren’t even clear problems–it’s the really creative folk who become “problem finders” and figure out that there’s a better way.

How can we foster creativity?  Giving students access to space and materials that they can use to create is one way.  Makerspaces are opening up all over the country, and they provide children with the tools, time, and space to work on the kind of projects that have been pushed out of most classrooms.

Design challenges also give students the opportunity to be creative, and to work together in a group-worthy task.  In this challenge, elementary students must design a car that will land “in the zone” when the launch it, as well as a background story.  The challenge combines engineering, creativity, and teamwork.

Even more “traditional” subjects, such as writing, can be approached in a more open-ended way.  Consider the difference between giving students a traditional prompt, “write a 5-paragraph essay on your favorite summer activity, due tomorrow” (controlling the subject and the format) with a workshop-type approach to writing: “take two-four weeks to work on a piece about a moment in your life that stands out” (open timeline, subject, and form.)  No one is suggesting we don’t teach children some rules within the open structure–complete sentences, paragraphs that make sense, cutting out empty filler–but there’s room for creativity even as you teach the basics.

There’s a happy compromise between rows of students reciting “2+2=4” and a free-for-all chaos of children working on projects that might be inventive, but seem to impart few skills (the skeptic’s picture of “open” schools.)  I bet if we were creative, we could find it.



*Kyung Hee Kim (2011). The creativity crisis: The decrease in creative thinking scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23, 285-295.


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