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As Children’s Freedom Has Declined, So Has Their Creativity

New research suggests that American schoolchildren are becoming less creative.

If anything makes Americans stand tall internationally it is creativity. “American ingenuity” is admired everywhere. We are not the richest country (at least not as measured by smallest percentage in poverty), nor the healthiest (far from it), nor the country whose kids score highest on standardized tests (despite our politicians’ misguided intentions to get us there), but we are the most inventive country. We are the great innovators, specialists in figuring out new ways of doing things and new things to do. Perhaps this derives from our frontier beginnings, or from our unique form of democracy with its emphasis on individual freedom and respect for nonconformity. In the business world as well as in academia and the arts and elsewhere, creativity is our number one asset. In a recent IBM poll, 1,500 CEOs acknowledged this when they identified creativity as the best predictor of future success.[1]

It is sobering, therefore, to read Kyung Hee Kim’s recent research report documenting a continuous decline in creativity among American schoolchildren over the last two or three decades.[2]

Kim, who is a professor of education at the College of William and Mary, analyzed scores on a battery of measures of creativity—called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT)—collected from normative samples of schoolchildren in kindergarten through twelfth grade over several decades. According to Kim’s analyses, the scores on these tests at all grade levels began to decline somewhere between 1984 and 1990 and have continued to decline ever since. The drops in scores are highly significant statistically and in some cases very large. In Kim’s words, the data indicate 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.”

According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is 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. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT, for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984. Yikes.

You might wonder how creativity can be assessed. By definition, any test with questions that have just one right answer or one correct pathway to solution is not a test of creativity. The Torrance Tests were developed by E. Paul Torrance in the late 1950s, when he was an education professor at the University of Minnesota. During the immediate post-Sputnik period, the U.S. government was concerned with identifying and fostering giftedness among American schoolchildren, so as to catch up with the Russians (whom we mistakenly thought were ahead of us in scientific innovation).

While most of Torrance’s colleagues focused on standard measures of intelligence as a path toward doing this, Torrance chose to focus on creativity. His prior work with fighter pilots in the Air Force had convinced him that creativity is the central variable underlying personal achievement and ability to adapt to unusual conditions.[3] He set about developing a test 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. The eventual result was the set of tests that now bear his name. In the most often used of these tests, the stimuli are marks on paper--such as a squiggly line or a set of parallel lines and circles—and the task is to make drawings that incorporate and expand on those stimuli. The drawings are scored according to the degree to which they include such qualities as originality, meaningfulness, and humor.

The best evidence that the Torrance Tests really do measure creative potential come from longitudinal research showing strong, statistically significant correlations between childhood scores on the TTCT and subsequent real-world achievements.[4] As the authors of one article commenting on these results put it, high scorers “tallied more books, dances, radio shows, art exhibits, software programs, advertising campaigns, hardware innovations, music compositions, public policies (written or implemented), leadership positions, invited lectures, and buildings designed” than did those who scored lower.[5]

Indeed, the TTCT seems to be the best predictor of lifetime achievement that has yet been invented. It is a better predictor than IQ, high-school grades, or peer judgments of who will achieve the most.[6] The correlation coefficients found between childhood TTCT scores and real-world adult creative achievements have ranged from a low of about .25 to a high of about .60, depending on which tests are included and how adult creative achievements are assessed.[6]

So, the decline in TTCT scores among school-aged children indeed does appear to be cause for concern. Kim herself calls it the “creativity crisis,” and that term has been picked up in a number of articles in popular magazines.

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, as I documented in a previous essay, 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.

In the next essay in this series, I will present research evidence that creativity really does bloom in the soil of freedom and die in the hands of overdirective, overprotective, overjudgmental teachers and parents.


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[1] IBM 2010 Global CEO Study: Creativity Selected as Most Crucial Factor for Future Success.

[2] 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.

[3] Garnett Millar, Christine Dahl, and John Kauffman (2011). Testing the whole Mind—educating the whole child.” Illinois Association for Gifted Children Journal, Spring, 2011 issue.

[4] Mark A. Runco, Garnet Millar, Selcuk Acar, & Bonnie Cramond (2010) Torrance tests of creative thinking as predictors of personal and public achievement: A fifty-year follow-up. Creativity Research Journal, 22, 361-368.

[5] Mo Bronson & Ashley Merryman (2010). The creativity crisis. The Daily Beast, July 10, 2010. The Daily Beast, July 10, 2010.

[6] See: Mark A. Runco, Garnet Millar, Selcuk Acar, & Bonnie Cramond (2010) Torrance tests of creative thinking as predictors of personal and public achievement: A fifty-year follow-up. Creativity Research Journal, 22, 361-368. Also: Kyung Hee Kim (2008). Meta-analysis of the relationship of creative achievement to both IQ and divergent thinking scores. Journal of Creative Behavior, 42, 106-130.

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