Creativity Crisis: U.S. Schools' Next Challenge?

American kids have, for decades, lagged behind European and Asian countries in math and science. But our dirty little secret was always that U.S. kids’ creativity kicked global ass.

At least until the 1990s.

Ever since then, it’s been on a steady decline and nobody is sure why. Writing for Newsweek, Nurtureshock‘s Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, take a look at the crisis and upend assumptions about what creativity is, how it works and who or what might be to blame for its decline. There’s also the interesting history of measuring creativity (who knew!), what and how it has been tested for (hint: not the prettiest oil-on-canvas).

There’s lots of speculation out there about what is causing the decline. Of course, there’s the usual stuff: TV, computer time, cuts to arts programs. Another reason could be the emphasis on academic standards in an effort to compete with the high international math scores. We’re teaching and testing facts, not knowledge, not learning. There’s no process. No thinking. As a consequence, Americans have given up one thing that we were really good at. And guess who’s laughing at our memorizing/testing/drill-and-kill ways? China.

China’s (and the U.K. and other countries) are making big changes to their curriculum to give time and emphasis to creativity. When an education expert was asked at a Chinese university what some of the trends in U.S. education are, here’s how a Chinese faculty member responded:

…  he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Plucker says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.’ “

Bronson and Merryman point out that conventional wisdom about creativity has been all wrong. The whole right brain/left brain thing is reductive and also false. True creativity needs both sides to integrate. Creativity isn’t just a thing you might or might not be born with. It can be learned — through practice. No, not memorization! Rather, through opportunities to work creatively. When given plenty of opportunities to solve problems — no! not math problems on a worksheet, real engineering conundrums, for example — you get better. You get more creative.

And if you’re thinking, great! More water colors. More symphony! Think again. A bias has long relegated creativity to the arts, though artists and “creative types” have no more a stronghold on creativity than engineers. Creativity is necessary for engineering, science, invention — all those things we’ve gotten hot-and-heavy with standards for.

The Newsweek piece is a must-read for parents. And while you’re at it, why not copy the link and send it to your school’s principal. Hey! China’s laughing at us!

[Updated for clarification.]


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