It all sounds so good, until you study it

May 11, 2011 at 9:19 am 5 comments

I’ve recently started reading Everything is Obvious: *Once you know the answer which points out that just about every answer that can result from a social science study can seem obvious, and that’s why data is so important.  Our “common sense” when it comes to questions of social science is murky and easily biased.  (In particular, the author critiques Gladwell, which is pretty interesting since I do enjoy reading Gladwell books.)

I was reminded of that lesson yesterday, sitting on the advisory board  for an NSF-funded education project.

First, let me set the trap.  A few weeks ago, a colleague had recommended to me this interest RS Animate YouTube video on education by Sir Ken Robinson.  One of the claims made in the video (starting about 7:40 into the video) is that kindergarteners do really well on measures of creativity, but those same students do worse-and-worse on those same measures the longer that they’re in school.  The hypothesis is that schooling sucks the creativity out of students.

The NSF project, whose advisory board I was serving on, seeks to measure the potential impact on creativity of their intervention.  On the advisory board were several experts on creativity (from both psychology and education), and they told the project to just give up.  We spent a good amount of time reviewing measures of creativity and literature on creativity.  First, there are very few good (e.g., validated, reliable, you get the same results regularly) measures of creativity, and second, all good measures of creativity are based on expertise.  You have to know something to be creative with it.  The project is unlikely to measure much scientific creativity in 8th graders.

I realized that I had been drawn into the it’s-obvious trap by Sir Ken Robinson.  What does it mean for kindergarteners to be creative?  What do they know?  They might be creative in the playing-with-fingerpaints sense, but not in the innovative thinking sense.  And how exactly did they measure creativity in kindergarteners, given that the valid existing measures assume significant knowledge?  It may well be true that schooling sucks creativity out of kids, but I don’t think that the study described by the RS Animate video is providing significant evidence of that.  But it all sounded so good…

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  May 11, 2011 at 9:37 am

    I think the bigger problem here is endemic to soft areas of study, namely what causes to choose and which to exclude.

    For example, another possible cause is simply “age of child”. There is quite a bit of evidence that children the world over “get much more conventional relative to their culture” around the age of seven (e.g. see the original “Art, Mind and Brain” work of Project Zero at Harvard under Howard Gardner).

    There is much additional evidence that development combined with “life” knocks down “creativity”. Serious soft studies people call this a “conjecture” rather than a “theory”. (I think it is a good one)

    Weak soft studies people (perhaps Robinson is one of them) will use any correlation to back up their favorite theory regardless of how much method and logic (and reason itself) is dispensed with.



  • 2. Alfred Thompson  |  May 11, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I think this is also a case of people believing what they want to believe. It’s spoilsport researchers like you who confuse things with facts. 🙂 Seriously though we do need to go beyond assumptions and wishful thinking and do the research. Thanks for the post.

  • 3. Stanislav Datskovskiy  |  May 11, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Steve Dutch makes a very convincing argument against the supposed innate creativity of children:

    “It is useful, however, to distinguish between tinkering and creativity. Tinkering consists of exploring relatively minor variations on known themes, or subjecting new stimuli to an array of already known techniques. Thomas Kinkade rarely creates and mostly tinkers. Babies tinker constantly. They put every new object in their mouth. Eventually they figure out that most things are not good to eat. When they develop motor control, they throw things. Serious curiosity consists of actively seeking new kinds of stimuli. Creativity consists of juxtaposing objects and ideas in new ways, and having a sound intuition for separating the significant result from the trivial… Now we can address the contention that children are innately curious. They are not in the sense used here – they are tinkerers. The commonplace observation that children have short attention spans is direct refutation of the notion that they are creative and curious in any deep sense. The tragedy of our society is not that so many people outgrow their childlike curiosity, but that so few do. The adult equivalent of childlike curiosity is channel surfing and the ten-second sound bite.”

    “Why is there Anti-Intellectualism?” by Prof. Steve Dutch

  • 4. Mark  |  May 12, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    There’s a very interesting documentary from 2007 that follows a 4 year old child who makes a go of being an abstract painter. Her work, initially displayed in a coffee shop, goes on to fetch top dollar (six figures and up) and is received well by notable art critics.

    Eventually 60 Minutes comes along and wants to put a camera on her and verify her work end-to-end. When they can’t do it, they call into question everything that has her name on it, publically on national television.

    As a viewer, you begin to doubt it to, though the documentary makes no hard conclusions. It is a shocking story no matter what the truth is.

    None of my creative processes have ever been captured on camera, and yet no one has ever doubted my authorship. What is it about our culture that makes us doubt a 4-year olds capabilities, or (worse) makes us treat them like freaks when they exceed our expectations?

  • 5. vgivanovic  |  June 21, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    Sir Ken Robinson makes a number of claims and weaves them into a great presentation. But … are the claims justified? Where is the evidence to substantiate those claims? Is the logic sound? I’m not competent to decide, but I don’t think Mark Guzdial’s dismissal is useful either.

    My guess is that the way creativity was measured is described in the book Robinson mentions. If not, perhaps there is a paper that describes it. If there is no such description, then that’s a serious flaw in Robinson’s presentation.

    But, for the moment, let’s assume that the children’s creativity was measuered resonably and that there are no substantial creativity-declines-as-kindergarteners-age effects. What now? Is Robinson’s thesis still worth investigating (/pace/ Alan Kay)?

    Jonathan Kozol makes a simlar point about the stultifying effects of rigid regimentation in inner city schools in /The Shame of the Nation/.


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