Can America Avert a 'Creativity Crisis?'

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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.