Education Opinion

Creativity in the Classroom

By Walt Gardner — July 26, 2010 3 min read
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The Newsweek cover story proclaimed a creativity crisis exists in schools that threatens America’s future (“The Creativity Crisis’). The report bases its conclusion on a steady decline since 1990 in scores on a creativity test first designed by E. Paul Torrance in 1958. The test, which involved a series of tasks, was given to a group of some 400 third graders. These tasks are considered the gold standard in the field because of their high predictive value. According to Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University, the correlation between scores on the test and lifetime creative accomplishments is more than three times stronger than childhood IQ.

The writers, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, go on to ask why creativity scores are declining. They point their fingers at public schools, where curriculum standards have caused teachers to engage in drill-and-kill lessons designed to boost scores on standardized tests to the detriment of all else. Presumably, private and religious schools are more creative because they don’t have to play by the same rules. But since Bronson and Merryman do not address this important issue, it’s impossible to know exactly how creative non-public schools are. This is a vital distinction if efforts to improve creativity are to be successful.

Nevertheless, the story raises some fundamental questions. If creativity is defined as the ability to produce something original and useful, can any test identify and measure this asset? (I don’t agree with the “useful” part of the definition.) Experts concede that there is no right answer on such tests because creativity involves both divergent and convergent thinking. In contrast, standardized tests are designed with only one correct answer. As a result, their very nature is antithetical to the identification of creativity. That’s the problem. Standardized tests still constitute a significant portion of the evaluation of public schools under the rules of the Race to the Top initiative.

Then there is the matter of IQ. Are gifted students also creative by the definition used? In other words, is there a difference between IQ and CQ? The test used by Torrance was a 90-minute series of separate tasks administered by a psychologist. According to the cover story, it has been taken by “millions” worldwide in 50 languages. Since IQ tests are susceptible to the Flynn effect, which means that each generation posts scores about 10 points higher than the previous generation because of enriched instruction, then why have CQ tests shown the opposite trend since 1990?

One possible answer is that the reform movement began to take shape in this country at about the same time in reaction to publication of A Nation at Risk. It’s impossible to prove that the introduction of standardized test-based accountability caused the beginning of the drop in CQ because correlation is not causation. But it’s something to consider since experts disagree on whether creativity can be taught in the same way that subject matter can. I’ve always believed it’s a process that builds on whatever innate talent students have. But if teachers are forced to focus their efforts overwhelmingly on tests that do not measure creativity, then it’s not surprising that whatever potential students possess for creativity is not nurtured.

Although it’s troubling to note the decline in CQ in America, it’s important to put the observation in proper perspective. As Singapore’s former Education Minister said in an interview in Newsweek in 2007, “We both have meritocracies. America’s is a talent meritocracy; ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well - like creativity (my emphasis), a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority.”

That’s something to keep in mind before we begin another round of self-flagellation about our public schools.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.