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Smart? Yes. Creative? Not so much.

  • Torrent of Torrances
    Torrent of Torrances  Kyung-Hee Kim looks up from a binder of completed examples from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. In this figural activity, participants construct—and give a name to—a picture using the jellybean-shaped blob. Kim has documented a decline in creativity as measured by the Torrance test.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The numbers show it: American creativity has been declining since 1990

First, the good news: Judging from IQ scores, America’s young minds seem to be improving every year. And now, a reality check: While our ability to memorize facts and think critically may be at an all-time high, our knack for coming up with original ideas and inventions may be at risk.

According to a study by William & Mary’s Kyung-Hee Kim, America is facing a creativity crisis. She found that, though America’s IQ scores are on the rise, the country’s scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking have been declining since 1990. Her research indicates that creativity levels are dropping throughout all age groups, she said, but the decrease is most significantly among young students. Though her paper “The Creativity Crisis,” has not been published yet, Kim’s discovery has garnered a lot of attention, including a cover story in Newsweek.

With help from the Scholastic Testing Service, Kim an assistant professor in William & Mary’s School of Education, examined nearly 300,000 Torrance tests of kindergartners to adults from across the country, collected between 1968 to 2008. Through her research, Kim discovered that, like intelligence scores, Torrance scores rose steadily for many years. However, in 1990, the Torrance test scores began going down.

drawThe Torrance test, named for creator E. Paul Torrance, was developed in the late 1950s as a potential tool to individualize student instruction. However, it has since been primarily used to identify gifted children. Kim says the Torrance test is the most widely used creativity test in the world and is the best predictor of creative achievement.

In fact, the Torrance test has been found to predict children’s creative achievement three times better than IQ tests, Kim said.  Moreover, creativity and intelligence are not the same thing—or even closely related, she noted. And creative people are not just artists and musicians; they enter all professions, including engineering, mathematics, medicine and the sciences. People who are creatively successful go beyond merely performing a job, becoming sources of new ideas, discoveries and inventions.

Although Kim looked at the overall Torrance scores (see sidebar), she also examined the six Torrence subscales used to score the figural form of the tests: abstractness of titles, resistance to premature closure, fluency, originality, elaboration and creative strengths.

Creative strengths, for instance, refer to creative personality traits, such as emotional expressiveness and energy level. The elaboration score is determined by how detailed the drawing is. The amount of detail in a drawing is also an indicator of how motivated someone is to be creative, Kim said.

When scoring abstractness of titles, Kim looked at the originality of titles that the test takers had given their drawings. For instance, a person who drew a whale in one of the drawing tasks and named it “whale” would receive fewer points than someone who drew something similar and named it “Moby Dick’s missing child.”

“In order to be creative, you need to have some abstract thinking,” she said.

Kim also looked to see what participants did when presented with a drawing that was left open—for instance, a shape that looks something like a sideways V.

“When non-creative people look at a drawing and it has an empty space in one part, they want to close it as soon as possible,” said Kim. “But creative people try to leave it open. It means that psychologically, creative people tend to defer their judgment and they can stand ambiguity. Non-creative people cannot stand that. They have to know the answer.”

For the fluency score, Kim looked at how many ideas were created.

“In order to produce a really creative idea, you have to have a lot of ideas,” she said.

In terms of originality, Kim used an “originality list” that Torrance created in the 1980s to determine the uniqueness of ideas. The list includes the most common responses that people give on the test. For instance, in the section where there are a lot of circles, most people draw something involving things like wheels or other common round objects.

“Those common responses are on the originality list,” said Kim. “Since (the creation of the list), when we look at the circles, if you draw one of those things that are on the list, it’s not original, so you don’t get any points for originality.”

Significant decrease in K-3

Like the overall scores, most of the scores in each of the six subscales also began decreasing in 1990. However, the score for elaboration has been decreasing since 1984. Additionally, Kim discovered that the overall decrease was most statistically significant among kindergartners through third graders.

Kim also noted that most of the scores began decreasing or remaining static at sixth grade. This result questions the idea of the “fourth-grade slump”—a common concept among researchers that describes a plateau or drop in creativity in the fourth grade as more emphasis is placed on socialization and conformity. Kim suggests that her study shows that a “sixth-grade slump” has replaced the fourth-grade version.

Kim said the results of her study are important not only because of what the world will lack in terms of positive benefits from the decline in creativity but also because of what happens when creative people are not nurtured.

Three types of gifted children

She noted that there are three types of gifted children: those with high intelligence and high creativity, those with low intelligence and high creativity, and those with high intelligence and low creativity.

“In order to be creative, you don’t have to have high intelligence,” said Kim, adding that studies have found “there’s almost no relationship between creativity and intelligence.”

While many schools focus on standardization and testing, students who don’t get the best grades may still be extremely creative.

“If we neglect creative students in school because of the structure and the testing movement—creative students cannot breathe, they are suffocated in school—then they become underachievers,” said Kim.

Kim, who also studies school drop-outs, added that she has found that creative people can be either overachievers—if their needs are met in the classroom and at home—or underachievers. Kim said that for creative students, the odds of dropping out increases by 52 percent if they are in the wrong school environment.

“Among underachieving students, there is a strong relationship between behavior problems and creativity,” she said. “The more creative you are, the more behavior problems because of their creative personality.”

Although Kim stresses that she cannot yet make a conclusion about what has caused the decrease in creativity, she said that certain environmental factors—such as strict gender roles and too much structure—can stifle it.

“According to research, parents who are really organized, really clean, really structured have less creative students,” said Kim.

Creative children often have parents who allow them ways to release their creative energy—even if it means they are a little messy in the process, said Kim.

“The children have the freedom to explore, to throw something, to make it dirty,” she said. “The parents value when their children make something new, no matter if it’s useful or not. They also show they value their own creativity, too.”i