Can Creativity Be Taught?

Newsweek warns of declining creativity scores, and asks if the trend can be reversed by teaching the skill?

A recent Newsweek article offers a pretty alarming read, in which the key headline is that creativity scores (as measured by Torrance tests) among US children have been declining since 1990. According to the article, it is the scores of younger children—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

This clearly raises the immediate question of ‘why’? Potential culprits include kids spending more time with TV and video games, vs. engaging in creative activities – and the lack of creativity development in our schools. In short – there’s no concerted, organized effort to nurture creativity.

Newsweek’s article hit very close to home for us – after all, creativity is the source of all the ideas that we track, help spread and encourage. The implications of decreasing creativity are broader (and more dangerous) than what it bears strictly for the traditional ‘arts’; creativity is necessary to engineer solutions to political (international relations, health care), business (growth strategy), technical (solve unmet needs) and cultural challenges.

That said; what can be done to reverse this decline? Can creativity be taught? As laid out by Newsweek, the latest in neuroscience research helps shed light on the first piece of that puzzle – how does creativity work in our brains?

When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn’t come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.

Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the “aha!” moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it’s come up with.

Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.

Citing examples from current research and from advances made at particular US schools, the article demonstrates that particular activities can indeed help cultivate creativity. What’s common about successful programs is they alternate maximum divergent thinking with bouts of intense convergent thinking, through several stages. When problem solving challenges (i.e., how can we reduce the noise level caused by external construction to a library?) are consistently applied to the everyday process of work or school, brain function improves.

Additionally, research has identified particular factors that can help further teach, cultivate and encourage creativity:

  • Highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness, yet provided stability. They were highly responsive to kids’ needs, yet challenged kids to develop skills. This resulted in a sort of adaptability: in times of anxiousness, clear rules could reduce chaos—yet when kids were bored, they could seek change, too. In the space between anxiety and boredom was where creativity flourished.
  • Highly creative adults frequently grew up with hardship. Hardship by itself doesn’t lead to creativity, but it does force kids to become more flexible—and flexibility helps with creativity.
  • In early childhood, distinct types of free play are associated with high creativity. Role-playing helps develop the ability to analyze situations from different perspectives. Play serves as a safe harbor to work through forbidden thoughts and emotions.
  • In middle childhood, creating paracosms—fantasies of entire alternative worlds – peaks at age 9 or 10, and is a very strong sign of future creativity.
  • Creative people tend to exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.

The beauty of this piece is that it sheds light on research that proves that ‘creativity’ can be taught, as much more so the result of practice, discipline and active challenges than what it is the result of a left vs. right-brain birthright, or a muse. We hope that parents, the educational system and even corporations will apply these lessons of science and research towards arming future generations with the tools necessary to solve our collective, social, local and global problems.

Newsweek ‘The Creativity Crisis’

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