Fifty years ago, Paul Torrence invented a creativity aptitude test for children that is still used worldwide today. With declining results for America’s youth, some experts are asking, Are we in a creativity crisis?
By Brittaney Carter

he United States is the birthplace of some of the world’s most innovative brand names — McDonald’s, Starbucks, Apple, and Facebook, for example. But what if recent test results showed that the same ingenuity that conceived these products was slowly dwindling, the youth of the United States becoming less and less creative over time?

That is the challenge posed by the results of the Torrence Test of Creative Thinking, a sequence of creative tasks presented to children to determine how many creative solutions they can come up with. The test was invented by scholar E. Paul Torrence in 1958 and focuses on four criteria: fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration. The universally-recognized test, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, has recently been at the center of what is called the “Creativity Crisis.” According to a July 2010 Newsweek article written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, creativity scores in the United States peaked in 1990 and have consistently yielded lower results in the subsequent years. The findings have urged many scholars and researchers to question what is behind this downward trend of creativity and ask themselves is there actually a crisis in creativity?

Cause and Effect

The Newsweek article presented several reasons as to why children in the United States seemingly lack creativity. One of the most prominent reasons is the amount of time that children spend each day watching television or playing video games instead of engaging in creative tasks. However, the two pastimes do not have to be mutually exclusive, says Ann My Thai, the assistant director for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which is dedicated to advancing childhood education through digital media.

When asked about her take on the role of video games and television in the declining creativity of the nation’s youth, Thai commented, “I think that the jury’s still out on that, but we try to take a balanced perspective. And our perspective is that if kids are using digital media and other types of media for over seven and a half hours a day — which is a statistic that Kaiser Family Foundation found in their survey work this year — they should have a balanced diet of things that are educational and productive, as well as things that are entertaining.”

Offering a solution to the crisis, Bronson and Merryman seem to champion project-based learning. This type of learning structure encourages students to use divergent thinking (generating lots of ideas) and convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best, most useful result). The two authors write at length about an example in Akron, Ohio. Students at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School in the town were presented with a challenge: The school library was facing another public space and at times became noisy. Students were assigned with the task of reducing the noise pollution in the library using their creative skills.

The students discovered that by placing an aquarium between the library and neighboring public area, the double-paned glass and water diverted the noise. In the process of creating this plan, the students had to inquire into how sound travels, what would be the best way to reduce it, and what challenges they may face along the way – all of these part of the learning experience.

Project-based learning is so effective because it requires participation and critical thinking from students, says Thai. “Instead of having kids consume knowledge that the teacher is giving them, they have to construct knowledge,” she explains. For example, “instead of just reading about World War II, a teacher might actually set forth a challenge like building a scrapbook from the perspective of a mother whose son has gone to war.” These types of project make the student an active participant in the curriculum.

Although it has been lauded as highly effective, this type of project-based curriculum is rarely found in our schools. To explain why, project management expert Scott Berkun elaborates on the challenges teachers face — mainly the ability to be creative themselves with the curriculum.

“Give teachers more power,” he urges. “They are the ones with the greatest responsibility in this entire debate, yet they often have very little power in their own classrooms.” Berkun discusses an important point in the realm of educational politics. Teachers often feel overwhelmed by the pressures that standardized tests can produce, which make it difficult for them to focus on the essential components of a sound education.

While it’s true that grade-school teachers often feel more pressure to produce well-performing students on standardized exams than to nurture creativity, University of Georgia professor and researcher Mark Runco calls this pressure an “art bias.” He argues that educators often feel that creativity is limited to the arts when, in fact, it can be incorporated into the sciences as well.

As an example, Thai mentions Quest to Learn, a creative program in place at New York City public school that uses digital media to the advantage of the students. Quest to Learn presents a curriculum to students through the perspective of game design. In its mission statement, the school stresses the importance of granting its students access to digital media to equip them with the needed skills to be competitive for college and future careers. She explains, “It’s a charter school that’s been held to the same standards as other NYC schools.”

The Question Mark

Many scholars question whether a creativity crisis actually exists at all in the United States. Michael Schrage, a fellow at MIT and author of Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, argues that no such crisis in creativity exists. In an August 2010 article of the Harvard Business Review, Schrage argues that creativity is nurtured by challenging situations and a demand for innovation. The recent financial recession in the U.S., for example, has forced us to become more entrepreneurial and therefore creative.

Schrage also challenges the Torrance test. Our educational system is already full of standardized tests, he reasons, and creativity training should be the solution.

Creativity though, has many definitions and is valued differently by different people. As Schrage asks, who is it defining creativity? And doesn’t it vary between professions and life paths? Along the same lines, Berkun says that the real necessity is not to measure creativity but rather its results. He concludes, “Does it matter if Fred is more creative than Sally, if they both leave the classroom with better ways of finding and working ideas than when they arrived?”

The Future

Whether scholars and researchers believe in the creativity crisis, there’s one thing that they can agree on: the technological and industrial landscape of the world is changing, and the United States will have to change with it. This change requires us to prepare the children for economic and industrial situations that we have yet to even imagine. What solutions are there for soaring healthcare? What will happen to social security programs? These are the types of problems that we did not foresee decades ago, and they are examples of the unpredictability of the challenges we will face in the future.

And what about those innovative American brands — the Starbucks, the Apples, the McDonalds’ and the Facebooks of the world? Thai is still hopeful. “I see a lot of exciting innovation happening all the time. There are a lot of motivated very smart very passionate creative people here,” she says. “I’m not worried about there not being the next Apple.”

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