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

By Madeline Holler |

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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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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7 thoughts on “Creativity Crisis: U.S. Schools' Next Challenge?

  1. bob says:

    We’re all about learning through play before kids get to school. Then we do an about face. Playing is taking what you know and finding ways to freely combine and use it. It’s best when guided, managed, contained a bit. Creativity arises from within certain constraints, after all.

  2. Bluster says:

    Sorry Bob, but creativity is building your own path from where you are to where you want to be. I have read so many complaints on this blog page about the way young people use computers; not like their parents would like.
    Who taught them? Oh, no. That’s not a showing of creativity, is it? It’s just kids, unable to keep up with our new world order. Damn, could they be the new Google meisters. Oh, FacePage? Oh.

  3. Lisa says:

    I hate to tell you this but these broad sweeping generalizations are just that. The good schools aren’t all drill and kill.. we are closer to some of the gifted programs from when we were kids.

    Of course, we destroyed our gifted programs which built a lot of that creativity in an attempt to have equity.

  4. A_Plato says:

    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

  5. Anthony Manzo,Ph.D. says:


    Excerpted and adapted from: Manzo/Manzo/Thomas § Content Area Literacy: A Framework for Reading-Based Instruction (5th edition) Wiley (2009)
    Websites: 1. 2. and 3. a new site for detailing some professional teaching methods for Professional Teachers:
    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 analysis–the thoughtful articulation and decomposition of a problem–that 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. 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 thinking–especially creativity–a 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. 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 at:
    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?
    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:
    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 (e-mail:; or One 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. 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.

  6. [...] lack of interest in books, and lack of creativity. Newsweek ran a major story this month on the creativity crisis in [...]

  7. disgruntled_scholar says:

    I suggest that we simply start giving out more student loans to grad school in the humanities, to destroy what shreds of creativity our most creative children have left

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