According to an article in Newsweek, here in the United States we apparently have a creativity crisis. According to Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William and Mary, scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking have been decreasing since the 1990's. The same article mentions that China is making a push to move away from rote memorization and adopt a more problem centered learning approach, perhaps like that of America.
Contrast this with the results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which examines 15-year-old students in 65 countries. The U.S. scored about average in science, above average in reading, and below average in math. China was first on all subjects, with Japan, Korea, Singapore and Finland trailing closely behind. So it appears that in addition to the creativity crisis, we also have an educational crisis, in particular in the areas of math and science.
According to the New York Times, Mark Schneider, a former commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education's research arm, was quoted as saying that "the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning...these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations." So in addition to knowledge and problem solving ability in the core areas of reading, math, and science, do Chinese students perhaps possess more creativity than American students?
Which clearly raises the question: Why is China trying to emulate America's educational system if they are already doing so well? I don't have the answer to that question.
Let's consider another perspective, that of Bill Gates. In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman writes:
"When I asked Bill Gates about the supposed American educational advantage-an education that stresses creativity, not rote learning-he was utterly dismissive. In his view, those who think that the more rote learning systems of China and Japan can't turn out innovators who can compete with Americans is sadly mistaken."
"Said Gates, 'I have never met the guy who doesn't know how to multiply who created software...Who has the most creative video games in the world? Japan! I never met these 'rote people'...Some of my best software developers are Japanese."
So it appears that Gates thinks that China and Japan have educational systems that are working quite well in producing creative innovators with high IQ's, because as I quoted Gates saying in my article America's Got Talent, "Software is an IQ business."
In some of my research, along with work by my colleagues Gregory Park, David Lubinski, and Camilla Benbow of Vanderbilt University, we essentially found that even within the top 1% of mathematical ability for students who took the SAT-Math at age 12, when comparing the top quartile to the bottom quartile, there were significant differences between these groups about two decades later in the earning of Ph.D.s, publications, patents, and even securing tenure at a top university. This means ability differences matter even within the top 1%. And certainly it can be argued there are creative aspects to some of these real world outcomes.
Now a recent study published in the journal Intelligence by Emily Nusbaum and Paul Silvia at the University of North Carolina Greensboro asks the question, "Are intelligence and creativity really so different?" The authors point out that all of the major creativity textbooks contend that intelligence and creativity are essentially unrelated abilities. However, Nusbaum and Silvia conclude based on their studies that "fluid and executive cognition is in fact central to creative thought."
Certainly there are facets of creativity that are different from intelligence and I am not saying creativity and intelligence are synonymous. Yet I think what these studies suggest is that there is probably more overlap between intelligence and creativity than we realize. Using two different terms doesn't necessarily mean you're talking about two entirely different things.
Case in point: In my article Will We Ever Find the Next Einstein? we can see that even creativity in the arts (and perhaps marketing) might be related to intelligence, because Stefani Germanotta-who later "hatched" into Lady Gaga-was identified as gifted in adolescence. So Lady Gaga was not really born this way but rather transformed herself to become this way.
Which brings us back to what I think are the fundamental questions. Does great innovation come from encouraging creativity in the classroom and hoping it will translate into creativity in the real world? Or does it come from rigorously training our best and brightest minds and then allowing them the freedom to innovate?
Like most answers, it's probably some of both and it depends on the area of innovation we're talking about. But I think Bill Gates was generally right when he said, "You need to understand things in order to invent beyond them."
Keep in mind: If you can't multiply, how can you expect to create software?
So, do you think creative people are smart? Or that smart people are creative? Can someone invent beyond what they don't know? Perhaps in another article we can explore some of those questions in more detail. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.
© 2011 by Jonathan Wai