The Creativity Crisis – Newsweek

July 20, 2010 at 8:10 am 11 comments

For the last 20 years, Americans have been getting less creative — measurably.  What’s most interesting to me is the argument that creativity can be taught.  That’s pretty important for computing where innovative uses for technology are being invented daily.

Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

The good news is that creativity training that aligns with the new science works surprisingly well. The University of Oklahoma, the University of Georgia, and Taiwan’s National Chengchi University each independently conducted a large-scale analysis of such programs. All three teams of scholars concluded that creativity training can have a strong effect. “Creativity can be taught,” says James C. Kaufman, professor at California State University, San Bernardino.

via The Creativity Crisis – Newsweek.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  July 20, 2010 at 8:31 am

    The latter point has been known for many years, and has given rise to several excellent processes for creativity training (de Bono was one of the pioneers here).

    The article doesn’t do a good job of pointing the finger, and it’s possible that the cause (or causes) aren’t well delineated yet. Howard Gardner’s first large investigation at “Project Zero” at Harvard gave rise to a study of children’s art over much of the world. This was done long before the 1990 cutoff point here, and showed strikingly that children likely have a biological “critical period” around the age of 7-8 when they shift from internal experimentation with ideas to those conventions found around them.

    This gave rise to some well founded worries about what television etc., could mean as “environment and conventions” for children’s thought.

    This could be an extension of this disaster

    Best wishes


  • 2. Alfred Thompson  |  July 20, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    I have heard people express the belief that schools are teaching the creativity OUT of students. I don’t know if there is science to support this idea though. Frankly it would not surprise me though.

    • 3. Alan Kay  |  July 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm

      Hi Alfred,

      I think this has always been going on.

      My guess is that what’s changed is “imagination servos” have taken over, starting with TV (which literally shows you the images to imagine), “single purpose toys” which show you what you should make and how to play, video games, and so forth.

      It would be really useful to have (or find) a study which would shed light on the real causes …



  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Creative Author, Max Steel. Max Steel said: The Creativity Crisis – Newsweek […]

  • 5. Hélène Martin  |  July 20, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    Isn’t there a decrease in teaching and learning of “basic skills” also?

    My understanding is that creativity requires basic knowledge to be automatic and inter-connected. As an example, having iterative constructs be easily accessible in memory frees me to think creatively of their applications. If typing is an automatic task, I have more space in working memory to formulate interesting ideas and compose coherent sentences.

    Of course, things become automatic through practice. The irony is that as school systems have tried to avoid “rote learning” and encourage “thinking like an expert,” students haven’t been getting as much of the benefit of automatic access to basic skills and knowledge. Unfortunately, I’m not well-enough versed in this area to cite the appropriate science but I feel like I’ve come across this idea with research backing in several contexts.

  • […] creative. Well, Americans are, anyway, according to research reported in Newsweek (and repeated elsewhere): Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost […]

  • 7. Alan Kay  |  July 24, 2010 at 8:16 am

    To just pick two kinds of “creativity” … one is to be able to see how to put isolated ideas together to make something, and the second is how to escape from how one thinks about one’s ideas to make something.

    The first is more common and more encouraged — and it is here that “having basic things fluently in memory will allow ‘creative thinking’ about their applications”.

    So fluency with bricks and mortar will allow many things to be conceived and built.

    Many classes try to teach programming and programming languages so that just such processes will happen.

    This is only a great idea if the basics are really good. I don’t think this is the case in computing, and the strong encouragement of the above makes things worse.

    The second kind of creativity is being able to escape from one’s “plane of existence” (a 2D universe where many things can be done and many places can be reached) to a plane that is at a different angle (where an invisible dimension has to be found to reach it and in which *new* exists rather than *news*).

    For example, bricks can be put together to make arches, but this thought does not at all come from fluency with bricks — one has to *forget* what bricks are for to have the thought.

    Computing desperately needs this kind of thinking to rescue itself from “simple creations” many of which are quite inappropriate and are clogging both progress and imagination.

    My heuristic for this is “read everything, know the field, and then forget it except for the perfume”.



    • 8. lixkid  |  July 24, 2010 at 3:24 pm

      Hi Alan,

      In your Turing lecture (and in other occasions) you used the phrase “different kind of simplicity” to describe special techniques ARPA/PARC community used in handling complexity. In that context you also mentioned Maxwell’s equations and The Constitution of the USA as examples of that kind of simplicity.

      In your paper “Is Software Engineering an oxymoron” you described inventors from ARPA/PARC community this way: “But it was also true that most of these inventors didn’t feel that they were smart enough to solve any of these problems directly with brute force (as “gods”, in other words). Instead they looked for ways to finesse the problems: strategies before tactics, embracing the fact of errors, instead of trying to eliminate them, etc.”

      How is this “second kind of creativity” from your comment related to fluency in scientific thinking and to what extent is it captured in your descriptions of ARPA/PARC community that I mentioned?

      Recently I found on the Web notes from one of your talks in 1984 whose abstract was:
      “This talk is about the battle between Form and Content in Design and why “being smart” usually causes content to lose. “Insightful laziness” is better because (1) it takes maximum advantage of others work and (2) it encourages “rotating” the problem into its simplest essence — often by changing it completely. In other words: Point of view is worth 80 IQ points!”.

      In case you still think that above abstract is valid, my question is:
      Is “insightful laziness” important part of “second kind of creativity” from your comment?

      • 9. Alan Kay  |  July 25, 2010 at 8:08 am

        Hi lixkid —

        Here are a few conjectures about this tricky subject.

        First, “most ideas are mediocre down to bad” regardless of the processes that gave rise to them.

        This stems from both the improbability of a good idea (it’s worth pondering this), and because we aren’t nearly as smart as we’d like to think we are.

        This is a good basic heuristic because it encourages going beyond the thrill of having an idea (some seem to come from the heavens) to subjecting the idea to great scrutiny and testing.

        And, this also implies a second heuristic, which is to have lots of ideas. Let them come! One way to help this is to “almost get rid of them” (i.e. ideas are jealous of other ideas, and the first ones fight the subsequent ones). One way to deal with this is to write down the ideas as they come in a notebook and don’t go back to look at them for a while.

        To let ideas come, one has to lower the threshold of criticism, and this is a factor in “lots of mediocre to bad ones”. But let the criticism come later after lots have happened, and then let it be merciless!

        A second point here is related to your question. These days I explain it by getting audiences to imagine what it would be like to be born with a 500 “IQ” but in 10,000 (or with Leonardo’s IQ in his time — he couldn’t invent an engine for any of his vehicle ideas). But Henry Ford with a much lower IQ did, because he was born into Knowledge that Leonardo didn’t have. So Knowledge trumps IQ in most cases. But the particular knowledge that Ford had came because of a change of Outlook that we can symbolize with Newton. Humans have always accumulated a lot of knowledge, and like ideas, much of it has been mediocre down to bad. So Outlook trumps Knowledge because it opens up a new world for better knowledge, which can then be better dealt with by our finite and not very impressive “IQ”s.

        My slogan for this is
        “Knowledge is Silver
        Outlook is Gold
        IQ is Lead”

        So the problems with “being smart” are that we are almost never smart enough without knowledge. The result is “reinventing the flat tire” instead of reinventing the wheel.

        However, gaining a lot of knowledge encourages the use of it, and paradoxically, this can block some really creative thinking.

        So you “have to learn everything, and somehow almost forget it!”. Done well, this allows “New Outlook finding” to happen. One can approach this by “being modey”. Develop a “super crazy mode” and a “super critical mode”. Most people have tendencies towards one and not the other. Develop the other one and learn to use it. Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a good example and metaphor. He had to be “without practical worries” to conceive it, but was able to go into his other mode and lie flat on his back for 4 years to paint it.

        One of the few books about creativity that has real content is Arthur Koestler’s “Act of Creation”. He sums up one of his characterizations of creativity by noting the emotion reactions that accompany it when it happens as:
        “Ha Ha!”
        “A Ha!”
        And he uses the joke (and humor generally) as his model for all. A joke is a process that takes the listener down one apparent road, and then suddenly reveals that it is all about something else.

        He calls this “crossed contexts” or “bisociation”. A pun is the simplest example, but the range of humor is vast and all use the reveal of other meanings as their method.

        Similarly in Science, the initial reaction is “A Ha”, but often followed by “Ha Ha” because the universe didn’t change because we suddenly noticed something. That thing to be noticed was right there and we couldn’t see it until we found a different vantage point. The universe is a joke to our nervous systems and we have to find out what is funny!

        And in Art, the primary reaction is “Ahhhhhhh” but with tinges of the others (and “Ahhhhh” often also happens in Science) because this slower less aggressive response is that of being awakened to a different and larger world than we thought we were in at the moment of enlightenment. Often, this appears as a reminder of things we already were aware of but which had been crowded out by the exigencies of our daily lives. And often it provides a new perspective on the remindings.

        The “bisociations” have more of the characteristic of “rotation” (out of the plane) than of “moving” (on the plane). One has to stop “making progress” (which is dealing with goals in the plane) and “look elsewhere than the plane”.

        I’ll end with one more heuristic (which I could have started with) that — to our nervous systems, genetic and cultural, (a) most things are invisible and (b) that which is invisible doesn’t exist.

        Not knowing and using that heuristic puts people in a too simple world that can only be coped with and bashed at and hacked. It is the main job of Education to instill that heuristic, and then the mind is open to the others, all of which help us to “see” better.

        Why “insightful laziness”? Because highly industrious people are good at and even happy with coping with what is in front of them. This works a little, so it takes real dissatisfactions and criticisms — and laziness of a special kind — to abandon the visible and go after the invisible.

        Quite a lot of art in every area comes from profound dissatisfactions while avoiding getting depressed to the point of immobility!

        Best wishes,


  • […] that the economics will work.  Innovations arise from people who know their stuff really well (see the ongoing discussion about creativity on an earlier blog post).  People who know their stuff well get paid for that.  Might they also volunteer time in their […]

  • 11. Why Teach Creativity? « Exploration Art  |  December 28, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    […] The Creativity Crisis – Newsweek ( […]


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