Can America Avert a 'Creativity Crisis?'

Ann All

At my son's public school in Kentucky, teachers devote a good chunk of the spring to making sure kids perform well on tests annually administered as part of the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS). The tests are given to determine how well students are learning the core content laid out in the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990.


I know from talking to a lot of other parents that most of us don't feel the tests have improved our children's education, and many of us think it has hurt. I and others think there is too much emphasis on "teaching the test." We aren't the only ones who have problems with the system. State legislators last spring voted to eliminate CATS and create a new system of educational assessment and accountability. While I believe children's progress must be measured, I think CATs and many other achievement tests put too much emphasis on rote learning.


As I've written in the past, there is widespread concern the American educational system may no longer be keeping up with countries like China and India, which are making big investments in their schools. Some school systems are experimenting with new approaches to learning, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has proposed lengthening the school year and making school days longer.


While I welcome any efforts at improving the U.S. educational system, many of them are evaluated using measures like CATS. Such tests don't measure creativity, an area in which American students are declining.


Unlike intelligence scores, which are still rising steadily, scores on a creativity index created by professor E. Paul Torrance in 1958 have been falling for the past 20 years. The Torrance index correlates strongly to creative accomplishment, with those who score well more likely than their peers to become entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers.


A Newsweek article attempts to analyze what it calls a creativity crisis, pointing the finger at two fairly obvious suspects: the increased time kids spend in front of TV and video game screens rather than engaged in more creative play and a lack of emphasis on creativity in American schools.


The article also looks at what other countries are doing. For instance, British secondary-school curricula in 2008 was revamped to emphasize idea generation, and pilot programs have begun using Torrance's test to assess their progress. The European Union designated 2009 as the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, and promoted it by holding conferences on the neuroscience of creativity and financing teacher training. His nationality may be a coincidence, but I recently saw an interview with a 13-year-old British student who used two recycled vacuums to create a machine he uses to scale walls.


Should American schools revise their standards to make room for assessments of creativity like Torrance's index and do more to encourage creative thinking? Results from schools that have done so are promising. The article mentions one, an Akron, Ohio middle school called the National Inventors Hall of Fame School. It details how fifth-graders there were presented with a challenge: how to reduce noise in the library, and given four weeks to submit proposals. During this time they learned about how sound travels through materials and other topics related to the challenge.


Students spend as much as three-quarters of each day in this kind of project-based learning. Based on students' performance on the state's achievement test, the school, in its first year of existence, has become one of the top three schools in Akron. It's an even more impressive achievement considering students are enrolled through an open lottery and 42 percent of them live in poverty.


A ReadWriteWeb piece opines that game developers should become part of the solution, rather than a perceived part of the problem, by creating more games that encourage creative thinking. This suggestion illustrates a larger point: If America wants its children to be more creative, a broad swath of society, not just our educators, should get involved.

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Jul 16, 2010 6:08 AM Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D. Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D.  says:


Excerpted and adapted from:Manzo/Manzo/Thomas  Content Area Literacy:A Framework for Reading-Based Instruction (5th edition) Wiley (2009) ; and 3.a new site for detailing some professional teaching methods for Professional

Anthony V.Manzo, Ph.D.

It is ironic that the act of passing on prior inventions and discoveries, or acquired knowledge, seems to diminish the inclination to think creatively.Clearly, the mind is empowered by acquiring the experiences and knowledge accumulated by our predecessors;however, it also can be powerfully constrained by the way in which knowledge is transmitted.In point of fact, there appears to be a host of subtle but pervasive factors woven through the fabric of traditional schooling that tend actually to discourage the type of critical analysisthe thoughtful articulation and decomposition of a problemthat leads to constructive thinking.I take constructive thinking to be the composition and assembly of possible solutions, including some that may need to be invented.Constructive thinking, then, includes both "critical" and "creative" intellectual processes.

Factors That Discourage Constructive Thinking

Think, if you will, of these realities of traditional schooling:

The problems that are most in need of creative solutions often are socially "off limits," and hence difficult even to define and articulate.(President Clinton's call for a national dialogue on race and racism, for example, has become a national nonevent.)

Schools are set up to transmit existing knowledge;this goal tends to conflict with any real attempt to generate new knowledge.

Students, by definition, are quasi-ignorant, and hence, it doesn't seem logical to invite them to think critically, let alone creatively, about what they don't yet fully know about or presumably understand.

As teachers, we have not been educated in a climate conducive to creative thinking ourselves, and so we are understandably unsure of how to encourage or even to allow it.

Most current academic tests reward convergent, or "within the box," thinking, often to the exclusion of divergent, or "outside the box," thinking.

The addition of constructive thinking to the equation defining academic success changes the system of ranking students (Ratanakarn 1992) and, hence, the current academic power structure.

Key Ingredient to Promoting the Constructive Process

It is possible, however, to raise expectations and teach for creative outcomes.The key that most often opens the door to constructive thinking simply is to reach up and ask for it.This simple suggestion may not seem to be a very satisfying solution, but it is a reasonable place to start.A cursory look at schooling, most anywhere on the globe, reveals that there is hardly lip service paid to this constructive, or knowledge building, process. Reply

Jul 16, 2010 6:09 AM Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D. Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D.  says:
The closest that even the professional literature in education comes to valuing this process is to praise the importance of some related higher-order mental processes such as "transfer of training" (application), critical thinking, or the evaluation of the ideas of others.Even discovery learning approaches, so popular for a while, have tended to fade in importance, perhaps because there was no constructive thinking context to support them.It is very rare to find a school curriculum guide or a professional organization's accreditation standards or a blue-ribbon commission's call for educational reform that makes constructive thinkingespecially creativitya major objective, let alone something to be practiced, with commensurate methodologies and assessment protocols.That is especially unfortunate because there is considerable reason to believe that the simple gesture of establishing creative thinking as a target can bring quick and impressive results, even from the self-declared "uncreative."

Here now are some largely nonintegrative, though sound, suggestions for promoting creative thinking.Note how easily many of these suggestions could be integrated into the curriculum if there were a collective will to do so.

Creative Thinking Activities

These stand-alone activities can establish a climate and a schema for creative thinking in most classrooms.Initially, they might be done on a fixed basis, say for the first twenty minutes of class on "Thinking Thursdays." It is especially useful to explain to youngsters why such activities are being undertaken.To do so tends to ignite pupil interest in and contributions to the overall process as well as to the given activity.(For a regular bulletin with creative thinking activities, subscribe to The Tin Man Times, Box 219, Stanwood, Washington 98292.)

Word creation.Language is constantly changing.To help students to be participants in our living language, provide occasional exercises such as the following:

Define the made-up word squallizmotex;explain how your definition fits the word.

If dried grapes are called raisins, and dried beef is called jerky, what would you call these items if they were dried:lemons, pineapple, watermelon, chicken?(Provided by a favorite teacher, Maria Manzo Wiesner.)

Unusual uses.Have students try to think of as many unusual uses as they can for common objects.Objects may vary from a "red brick" to "used toys." Ask students to identify objects that challenge inventive thinking.Objects that students have suggested or brought to class have included old tennis balls, handballs, and racquetballs;soda water bottles;and old eight-track cassette tapes.

This activity could be easily tied to units on recycling and current events.Newspapers and magazines often carry stories of the clever ways in which some things are being recycled.One such article told the fascinating story of how the tons of rubber from old tires was being used in a mix to make the very asphalt roadbeds that ate them up in the first place.Another, more recent story noted that this solution had created another problem.It appears that as the rubberized roadbeds deteriorate from use, they put more floating rubber molecules into the air, which is already overloaded with such molecules from normal tire wear.

The "what ifs"--or, Circumstances and consequences."What if" statements build what could be called extant comprehension, or abstracted understandings of the physical world and the social order. Reply

Jul 16, 2010 6:09 AM Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D. Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D.  says:
This activity and several that follow essentially tap into a key cognitive factor on the widely used Weschler IQ tests.Insights and understanding are gained merely by asking, What if

school was on weekends and not during the week?

people were allowed to tell one lie a day?

all babies looked alike at birth?

there was no perception of color?

This type of activity can be made more academically sophisticated and integrative by upping the caliber of the "what ifs" to situations such as the following:

What if we all had identical genetic make-up?

What if everyone would vote on every issue that now is decided by representatives to Congress?

Rational problem solving.These are questions and problems to which youngsters often can deduce positions, though not necessarily answers, using current levels of knowledge and experience.Similar questions can be raised to urge further study and exploration via Internet chat groups and specialized Web sites.Examples of starter problems or questions that can be considered by rational thinking and exploration are as follows:

Is it possible for someone to fly the way Superman does?

Why do scientists say that it probably isn't possible to go faster than the speed of light?

Why is it unlikely that there are aliens on Earth right now?

Currently, Matt Thomas, a research assistant, and I are experimenting with a related teaching technique based on the use of an algebraic metaphor.The method encourages multifactor, and hence interdisciplinary, thinking on targeted concepts and issues.It is proving to be very evocative from middle to graduate school levels.(For details and updates, contact Matt

Product improvements.Teachers can design questions that basically ask, "What is broken?," the theme of several of the exercises that follow.(Generating these questions requires considerable imagination in itself!) Here are some sample product-improvement-oriented questions:

How might school desks be improved?

How might living room furniture be improved to provide better storage and even a way to exercise while watching television?

How might we take further advantage of all the unused space between walls, above ceilings, and in attics and basements?

How can book-carrying bags be better equipped to handle lunches and other personal needs?

Problem identification.What's the problem?What doesn't work?What's needed?These questions almost always lead to creative thinking.When asked to generate these challenging questions, students have identified problems that included the following:

Some way to deal with the loss of water pressure when the faucet is turned on and someone is in the shower

A place to quickly and easily put toys and stuff in your house

A quick way to check a spelling when you're writing (or shouldn't you bother just yet?)

A way to dry and store wet washcloths and mops

A way parents can get kids to help around the house

Systems and social improvements.Breakthroughs in world order, peace, and sanity often are the result of the creative vision of a few individuals who have pictured innovative social and systems changes (e.g., bicameral government, legally binding marriage, democracy, the post office).To encourage such social inventing, teachers can pose problems and reward plausible solutions to questions such as the following:

What might be a way for every student and parent to know what homework is due? Reply

Jul 16, 2010 6:10 AM Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D. Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D.  says:

How can we get ourselves to be courteous to everyone, including those we may tend to ignore?

How can we help people who are not very bright, or are less able due to aging or infirmity, to meet the complex obligations of modern life?(Provide some examples by category, such as owning a car, which requires renewing a driver's license, getting the proper insurance coverage, getting license plates, safety inspections, etc.)

How can school be made more fun without hurting expected learning outcomes?

What are some of your "pet peeves"?What are other social problems that might need attention?

What's good about...?This activity is especially useful for establishing a constructive orientation and for helping students to build a mental menu of ideas that are workable:

What's good about bureaucracies?

What's so good about compulsory education?

If language usage pretty much defines how language is used, why do we need books on and study in grammar and standard usage?

Making the Thinking-Curriculum Connection a Habit

Haggard (1976) has suggested four steps to further integrate constructive thinking into the standard school curriculum.Consider this a more detailed way to just "ask for it."

1.Pose a stimulating question.In other words, ask for constructive thought.

2.Brainstorm.Initial responses can be generated in small groups, following standard brainstorming ground rules:All responses are permitted, without criticism;as many ideas as possible are listed;unusual, even "wild," ideas are not discouraged;and new ideas can and should be formed by combining ideas already mentioned.

3.Compare ideas.After brainstorming, each small group should share their ideas with the class for review and evaluation.Students may wish to choose the "funniest" or the "wildest" response generated by each small group.At this point also, ideas are assessed for "reasonableness," or practicality.It is important to point out that all creative solutions are at best just "possibles" until tried and proved.

4.Fuse to curriculum.The whole point of a thinking curriculum is to transfer new knowledge and power to personal problem solving.That process is more likely to occur when real problems are allowed to surface and are the forces behind reading, learning, and thinking.Here are some examples for grade levels 4-12.

Maggie Magpie was determined never to write in cursive.We know that she eventually came to like it, but what might the teacher have done to help her sooner?

Before we find out how Huck saved Jim, think of some possible ways for him to do so.

What new invention (or system) could you come up with that would change the end of this story?

After reading Liange and the Magic Paintbrush:What would you paint if you had a magic paintbrush and whatever you painted would then come to life?(Gross 1990).

What might not work properly today if pi had not been properly calculated?

Describe a problem you are having in reading or studying, and try to create a personal reading-study technique to solve it.(For further guidance with this activity, see "PASS:A Problem-Solving Approach to Study Skills," Manzo and Casale 1980;and "Strategy Families," Dana 1989.Both can be found in Manzo and Manzo 1993, 1997.)

There are several other transfer activities that are especially suitable for typical reading or viewing assignments.Collins-Block (1991) offers seven questions to guide such fusion: Reply

Jul 16, 2010 6:11 AM Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D. Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D.  says:

1.Could you give me an example?

2.What do you mean by -


3.What is not an example, but similar to the idea that you are describing?

4.Is this what you mean:-


5.Would you say more about -


6.Why do you believe (feel or think) that -


7.What is the main point?

Collins-Block provided a context for these questions by asking students to report times in their lives when they had benefited from asking clarifying questions.Good discussion is also provoked when students are asked to tell about times they got into difficulty for failing to ask clarifying questions.It is best to urge students to practice using these fusion-type questions with one another, such as in cooperative learning groups.

Where to from Here?

There are several possible "next" steps.Here is one that we are taking.Our recent research, looking at possible deficiencies in proficient readers, is suggesting that there are apparently academically strong individuals who have some well-masked weaknesses in the way they are able to think about, or apprehend, what they otherwise seem to adequately comprehend (Manzo et al.1997).These findings now are causing us to try to better understand an inverse condition, that of the naturally fertile mind.We have begun a project to study the thinking characteristics of such minds, including those creative individuals who may not otherwise be academically talented.If you are or know someone, any age/grade level, who has a particularly fertile-inventive mind, please forward his or her name, address, and phone number to us, and we will take it from there (;or of the objectives of the Fertile Minds Project is to assemble a cadre of idea makers to advise us on possible ways to make schooling and the workplace more friendly to creative-inventive thinkers.We also can't help getting a bit excited wondering about what synergies might occur as we bring together people who otherwise must feel isolated by a relatively inhospitable environment.


Collins, C.1991.Reading instruction that increases thinking abilities.Journal of Reading 35:510-16.

Collins-Block, C.1993.Teaching the language arts:Expanding thinking through student-centered instruction.Boston:Allyn and Bacon.

Dana, C.1989.Strategy families for disabled readers.Journal of Reading 33(1):30-35.

Drake, S.1982.Creative writing skills, grades 2-3.Grand Rapids, Mich.:Instruction Fair.

Gross, D.1990.Unlocking and guiding creative potential in writing and problem solving.Unpublished manuscript.Kansas City:University of Missouri-Kansas City, Educational Specialist Project.

Haggard, M.R.1976.Creative Thinking-Reading Activities (CT-RA) as a means for improving comprehension.Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Manzo, A.V., A.E.Barnhill, A.Lang, U.Manzo, and M.M.Thomas.1997.Subtypes of proficient readers.Paper delivered at the College Reading Association Conference, Boston, Mass.

Manzo, A.V., and U.P.Casale.1980.The five c's:A problem-solving approach to study skills.Reading Horizons 20:281-84.

Manzo, A.V., and U.Manzo.1993.Literacy disorders:Holistic diagnosis and remediation.Fort Worth, Texas:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.


.1995. Reply

Jul 16, 2010 6:12 AM Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D. Anthony V. Manzo, Ph.D.  says:
Teaching children to be literate:A reflective approach.Harcourt, Brace.


.1997.Content area literacy:Interactive teaching for active learning.2nd ed.Columbus, Ohio:Merrill.

Ratanakarn, S.1992.A comparison of reader classification by traditional text-dependent measures and by addition of text-independent measures.Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri-Kansas City.




Jul 17, 2010 10:33 AM Perrier Perrier  says:

This is quite an alarming bit of news.

I recently read a remarkable blog post on creativity and innovation -- Google "the role of psychological distance in creativity and innovation" and have a read. (Link is


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