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"The Creativity Crisis": A Conversation with Nurture Shock Author Ashley Merryman

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Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson recently penned a Newsweek cover story called "The Creativity Crisis." They cite new evidence that American creativity is on the decline, but they also suggest that we can turn things around.

Regular readers of this blog may recall our earlier interview with Merryman about Nurture Shock, the best-selling book she and Bronson published last year. That book argued that many of our most cherished strategies for nurturing children are failing because we overlook key lessons from science.

In their Newsweek piece, Merryman and Bronson find themselves on similar ground. There is a science of creativity, they write, and we ignore that fact at our peril. We can't just pin our hopes on a vague sense of American ingenuity. Nor can we simply enjoin students to let their inner creativity out.

But science can point us toward concrete strategies to boost creativity, Merryman and Bronson write. In an interview last Friday, Merryman told us more.

Is American Creativity on the Decline?

Public School Insights: You and Po Bronson write that measures of creativity in the United States are falling. How bad do you think the situation is?

Merryman: Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) were developed in 1958 by E. Paul Torrance. He and a colleague tracked kids for 40 and 50 years. They found the TTCT predicts lifetime creative achievement more effectively than IQ. It is a three-time stronger correlation.

These tests are continually re-normed because scores are based on, what answer is most original? In 1970, if someone had drawn an iPod, they would've scored off the charts. But a kid who drew something as an iPod today might not be considered original. So the tests are constantly reevaluated in terms of what kids understand and are familiar with.

Kyung Hee Kim, a researcher at the College of William and Mary, is one of the people responsible for re-norming these tests. In May, when analyzing over 300,000 scores, she found a pattern that showed a decline in scores since 1990. Before 1990, scores were going up, but they've been going down since. The decline is the steepest for young children, specifically school-age children. They are still working on the data, so I cannot say “It has declined X percentage.” But what we can say is that the decline is significant, and Kim considers the childhood score decline to be what she called “most serious.”

Public School Insights: Is it possible to get at reasons for the decline?

Merryman: We only first identified this decline in May, so it is too early to say for certain what the causes are. We obviously have knee-jerk theories. I think I have talked to every major creativity scholar working today, and all of them, before Kim had a chance to do this new analysis, said, “I think that TV and the Internet are bad for kids. And standardized tests may be bad for kids.”

So there were theories even before we knew about the decline. Elizabeth Vandewater, a researcher at the University of Texas – Austin, has found for every hour kids watch television, their participation in creative activity drops about 10%, with some variation depending on how old the kids are. If kids watch three hours of television a day, which is roughly what studies say, though sometimes it's lower and sometimes higher depending on the specific study, that is a 30% decline in creativity.

Granted, lots of kids were watching TV in 1990, so we cannot necessarily assign causation. There may be other factors. But what Kim, Po and I, and other scholars are saying is: We can argue the causes for the decline for the next 20 or 30 years in scientific literature. But we know ways to increase kids’ creativity. So leave what caused the decline to the scientists. What we can do as reporters and what you can do as policy people is implement the things already known to increase creativity.

Public School Insights: Do you think there is a broad effort in the United States to address this problem?

Merryman: No. As we wrote, we think that the national strategy for creativity is praying a Greek muse drops by your door. And I have to say, that is probably not too different from my strategy two or three years ago, before I realized there is a science to creativity and things you can do to increase it.

Part of the problem, and one important thing we wanted to address, is that creativity is not the sole province of the arts. Especially when you talk about creativity in schools, you hear, “There is a lack of funding for art in the school, and no time for it. Isn’t that a shame?” I don’t disagree. But that is not the sum total of creativity. When we put creativity in the artistic box and do not understand it is making something new, original and useful, we miss out. Because we have had what Mark Runco, a researcher at the University of Georgia, calls the “art bias,” we have not really even tried to develop creativity in students, because the arts have seemed comparatively dispensable to kids who can't read or add.

Teaching Creativity: The Inventor School

Public School Insights: We often hear that a surprising number of Americans, particularly young people, lack knowledge of important facts. For example, we recently learned an astonishing percentage do not know the country from which we declared independence. Some attribute this to a retreat from more traditional modes of education. But now we are hearing from you and others we are not doing enough to instill creativity. Is there a tension between these positions, or is there a way of reconciling them?

Merryman: I am so glad that you asked. I think this is the most important point of all. The debate is framed as “either/or.” And for a teacher overwhelmed by a big class, a pile of standards and a test coming up for the kids and perhaps himself, the idea that you are going to add a creativity curriculum would probably send him over the bridge. But that is a false choice. Creativity researchers are very clear that freedom from facts is not what creativity is about. It is how you use facts that makes creativity really valuable. So you could add a lecture on creative theory to the school day. The problem with that approach is kids will see the skills of creativity, of thinking originally in new and useful ways, as limited to creativity class.

That is one reason we wrote about the National Inventors Hall of Fame School in Ohio. There is a buzz that experiential learning is really cool. Everybody needs it. I personally had kind of a problem with that, because 90% of what I know has nothing to do with my experience. I’m a fairly boring person who sits in my apartment reading scientific literature and e-mailing scholars. Yet I know about the history of the pharaohs in Egypt, Galahad and life in Switzerland and Africa. I've learned it. But I’ve not experienced it. So I have a hard time understanding the attraction to experiential learning. And more importantly, experiential learning can seem capricious. A kid goes to the pond. He sees a frog. So he learns about a frog. Tomorrow, a group of kids goes to that same pond. They do not see a frog. They see a fish. Do they walk away with a completely different knowledge base, because the frame was on the experience?

At the Inventor School, as I call it, they start with the standards. They look at every thing fifth-graders need to know and every thing sixth-graders need to know. Then they come up with a situation or a problem that requires kids to master those things. For example, Ohio wants its fifth-graders to learn about sound—how sound is transmitted, how to understand the sign of the curve, sound absorption. And about decimals, fractions and ratios. And how to do an artistic representation of a 3-D object on a flat or diorama surface. And about argumentative presentation. There's this huge list of what they are supposed to learn.

The Inventor School is new this year. When the kids went to see the building, one of the teachers started frantically saying, ”You all have to come into the library. It is too loud. I could hear you outside. What can we do about this?” For four weeks, the kids looked at how, as fifth-graders, they could fix the library sound problem, and they learned everything they were supposed to learn. In science, in math and in argumentative language. They presented their ideas. They did per unit cost calculations—“My idea to put tablecloths on the table is going to cost $100 for all the fabric,” or “Mine is going to cost this much because we will use different fabric and plants.” Somebody said, “We are going to build a water wall to mask the sounds. It is not going to cost anything, because we are going to get donations.” So the kids learned the material, but there was a purpose to it from the beginning.

I've been tutoring in inner-city Los Angeles for 11 years, and I’ve noticed that even if kids do not ask the “Why do I have to learn this?” question, they struggle. “I read a social studies chapter and other than the fact that there are some words in bold,” they say, “I do not know what is important.” If a kid knows that she has to present a proposal on how to make the library quiet, and in the room are going to be teachers, the principal, Jim West (inventor of the electric microphone) and parents and peers, she is constantly thinking, “These are the facts. What is the most important?” And that is the creative process.

I asked a lot of the staff, “At what point can you trust kids to look for the formulas they are going to need? How do they even know enough to start asking those questions?” They said it depends on the subject and the kids. If we're talking about a fifth grader who has not heard of fractions, decimals and ratios, you should not expect them to guess. But you can give an orienting question and say, “Before we get into this, there are a couple things we should talk about.” Then you can do a fairly traditional lecture. But now the kids understand how they are going to use it. I thought that was fascinating.

Public School Insights: You suggest there's no conflict between the approach of the Inventor School and academic standards, which are often blamed for narrowing the curriculum.

Merryman: There is absolutely no conflict. It is about presenting the same material in the opposite of that sort of capricious “I get there and this is what I learned” way. It is about figuring out what you need to learn and then putting yourself in an experience to make sure you get that.

I have to say that one thing the Inventor School has that I'm sure a lot of teachers will be enormously jealous of is huge amounts of professional development. There is constant back-and-forth, “Are they learning what they need to? Are we anticipating what they are going to be interested in and pursue as they do this?” And the result is students absolutely get the standards.

Ohio has not published their state test scores yet—they are in draft form for another month—but we peeked at the raw scores. It looks like scores are probably going to be in the top 3 of all Akron middle schools. If this wasn’t enough, to have a first year school be one of the best in the district, 42% of the kids who go to the school receive free or reduced price lunch. And admission…A lot of people think this must be some kind of charter school, but it is an Akron public school. Admission was by random lottery.

Some Creativity Training Can Do More Harm than Good

Public School Insights: What will protect us from a kooky creativity curriculum? I once attended a training session in which I was asked to imagine how I would spend an afternoon with the color green if it were a person. I remember that being singularly unhelpful.

Merryman: Courses like that have actually been found to reduce creativity. Michael Mumford, a researcher at the University of Oklahoma, determined through analysis of something like 700 techniques commercially available to increase creativity that about 50% work. The ones that don't often actually have a negative effect. Unfortunately, the ones that don’t work are the ones most available. Commercial creativity programs will say, “Let your inside creativity out. Imagine yourself as a bird.” Someone selling you this kind of program can say that if it doesn't work, it is your fault because you did not sufficiently imagine yourself as a bird. You are just not creative. And that’s crazy.

There are programs with science behind them. It is very easy to see which. They include scholars’ citations. If you want some science of creativity you can apply in class, look at the University of Georgia's Torrance Center or Treffinger's Creative Problem Solving. There are specific things that can be done.

Training for creativity is about a new way of thinking. The process of creativity—producing original thought—is, and this is a bit of an overstatement, about divergent thinking and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is thinking in different directions when you're trying to find an answer. Convergent thinking is how to put the stuff you’ve learned together into an idea. What do you do with it?

Public School Insights: It is sort of the move from left brain to right brain to left brain to right brain.

Merryman: That is what we said in the article. If you were only right-brained, you would have a bunch of problems. There is no such thing as a right-brained person or a left-brained person. There are people who are biologically predisposed to think in a more convergent fashion. There are people who are biologically predisposed to think more divergently. What is exciting is that creativity training actually changes brain function. You can literally change, on a neurological level, how your brain responds. We are not talking in a day, but over years you can actually change brain function.

Creativity and Knowledge

Public School Insights: There are debates in education between people who talk about 21st-century skills and those who speak of knowledge. You seem to be describing an approach based on the foundation of knowledge, the idea people need knowledge to use creative processes to best effect. Is that right?

Merryman: It really is not “either/or.” Problem finding goes along with problem solving. It is not that you have to have knowledge first, and then you are creative in the use. It is that those two are just constantly working together. When the fifth-graders were presented with the question, they had to ask, “What do we need to know?” Then they had to learn the facts. And then they asked, “Are we sure we have the best idea? Are we missing anything?” So it was not “either/or” at any stage.

Public School Insights: A question a lot of people in the education world will have is, how do you assess this? A big complaint about the current accountability system is that the quality of the assessments is not strong. So while it is affirming to see, for example, the Inventor School scoring so high, I'm sure there are things they are achieving that are not even registering on those tests.

Merryman: I think that is true. I have to say, because of my skepticism with some experiential learning, I was waiting for the shoe to drop with the Inventor School. To hear they did not have tests or grades. For someone to say, “Every child is creative, and how can you grade creativity?” But they have quizzes all the time. Teachers are constantly assessing whether kids are mastering the things they want them to learn. And they have an ambitious approach. They do not use a bell curve. All students are expected to get 85% or higher on everything. If they do not, they are immediately—I do not mean at the end of the semester, but the end of the week, or the next day—given more attention and tutoring. If that does not work, they get even more intense tutoring. They're also looking at other aspects of schooling, such as attendance, which is phenomenal. They have an optional two hours every day after school, and 50% of students stay every day, completely voluntarily, for tutoring and to build stock cars and robots.

A National Model?

Public School Insights: So should the nation look to schools like the Inventor School as a path out of the apparently declining measures of creativity?

Merryman: I absolutely think so. You know, this school is an outgrowth of a couple things. The first was that the Hall of Fame had a big symposium, with many of its honorees. They were asked, “How do you become a world-class inventor?” They all said that education was so important. But then they looked at each other and said, “I hated school. I got out of school in spite of school.” It worked out, but they were miserable. But they are inventors, so they thought, “We should make our own school.”

One of the first things the Inventor School decided to do, because they are excited about engineering and science and getting kids involved in that, is start a program called Camp Invention. It is a one-week summer program, with programs all over the country that use a lot of creative problem solving techniques. In some ways they were piloting how they might expand this into a school program.

While that was happening, none of the creativity researchers, the guys in the labs, knew about the school. When I found out about it, I went back to some of them and asked them if they knew about the Inventor School. Every researcher I spoke to asked, “Where is this school? I am going. This is something I've been waiting for for 20 years.” The scientists are thrilled with the application, and that was before they knew the test scores. The fact it actually is working is a big bonus.