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Learning at its Best

The decline of thinking outside the box

While IQ scores are indisputably on the rise, American creativity levels are bottoming out. Analysis of the results of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking suggests that the creative abilities of American children have been spiraling downward for almost 20 years. The Torrance tests analyze young children’s ability to come up with original ideas and put them into practice. Kyung Hee Kim, an assistant professor at the College of William & Mary School of Education, found that scores on Torrance tests taken by children up to 6th grade between 1968 and 2008 showed a steady decline after 1990. That’s a serious issue at a time when creative thinking is among the most desperately needed skills in the American workplace. A recent study found that 85 percent of employers concerned with hiring creative people say they can’t find the right applicants. Kim blamed America’s standards-obsessed schools for creating an environment in which creative thinking was not nurtured. “Creative students cannot breathe, they are suffocated in school,” she said. “Then they become underachievers.”

I thought it is interesting that although IQ test scores have risen…in the last century [my note: for what is asked on IQ tests…which one could argue is cultural and socioeconomically driven…] Creativity is declining…that is, read on. [my note: now why this is happening is not known, but let us not forget the rise of pharmaceuticals in the last 20 years…some attribute this decline to more hours in front of TV…but I attribute the whole thing to lack of RELATIONSHIP with the child’s developmental needs]

I am posting this on behalf of Josette Luvmour, who brought this to my attention. I am frustrated, and heartbroken about this.


About ambersk

During her 17 years with Summa, Amber has taught Natural Learning Relationships to hundreds of parents, led dozens of school groups in ropes course experiences, brought children from the inner city to the outdoors, and planned and executed Summa’s programs for families, Teachers, and children. She is now Executive Director and she lives in Portland with her husband and two daughters (Ruby 5 and Naomi 2).


18 thoughts on “The decline of thinking outside the box

  1. While statistics are often true, I often meet very creative students. They are in bands, plays, newspapers, or art class (I now teach at the CC level). Additionally, students who can use technology are always a step ahead about suggesting how to use it. Gourmet cooking is a creative hobby that interests many these days. Then, this weekend, a group of students and young people organized a peaceful resistance to “Wall Street” in New York. Actually, almost everywhere I look, I see creative kids.

    Posted by Elly | September 19, 2011, 6:36 pm
    • My wife has often said that the classes that prepared her for life were the ones that were written off by others as “fluff,” but taught her how to live well: culinary arts, student government, art, choir, theater and creative writing. She’s an amazing, creative woman and she would, no doubt, be a creative woman regardless of her schooling. However, the “fluff” classes were her refuge from the perfectionist world of trigonometric proofs and lit reviews.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | September 20, 2011, 11:27 am
  2. If we’re talking twenty years, let’s not forget the ’89 education summit. This summit got governors interested in collecting achievement data. Governors interested in achievement data appoint state superintendents interested in achievement data. Neither governors nor superintendents interested in achievement data are interested in creativity at traditional schools.

    In fact, the more banal and numbing traditional schools are, the more demand there is for charters and other special programs maintained as political niceties for the privileged and/or politically active, like governors’ schools. It behooves politicians who pursue federal dollars and education PAC donations to be able to point toward some struggling traditional schools to justify calls for creating new schools and “partnering” with vendors for new solutions. It behooves the testing industry to fail schools so that they “partner” with vendors for interventions.

    I mean, the money in schools is in the status quo of a system that is set up to fail some kids to promote others. The money is not in creativity, but I hope that maybe soon the voting will be, and that then we’ll see a change. Higher ed could do a lot here by requiring portfolios of student work in the arts – I mean, imagine the scramble to be “college-ready” if colleges asked for – and awarded some points by – audition tapes (I’m a relic!) on two instruments and art portfolios in two media from each student?

    What has to happen? I don’t know, but I would like to see this:

    Parents who have the resources to pull their kids from the school system stay in and instead put their resources into backing the teachers and administrators ready to change the system from within. Let those families and teachers who vote with their feet to leave the school system risk voting for change in local elections for local school boards and in voting with their feet to occupy schools as volunteers, protestors, and brothers and sisters with educators who want for all children what they want for their children. Let teachers who see the system for what it is (and who humanely see the people in it as people) subvert it from within and help create joyful places for kids to learn. We don’t need to strike; we need to decide to teach differently than the system asks us to.

    Right now, at our venal apex, we measure “results” – the results of one day of testing per subject per year; we have this weird-ass Anglo-Saxon weregild thing going on with merit pay and test scores; we have more faith in schools funded by billionaires and run by authoritarians than we do in schools funded by our communities and run by students and teachers in any kind of democratic fashion.

    We are reserving creativity for the privileged and technocratic – I am both of those things. Many teachers are one or the other or both. What we do – or rather, what we give up and do instead in following each of our students – will determine if we and our students find creative ways to solve the problems of schooling, communities, countries, and worlds of people in need of more than tough love and reward systems.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 19, 2011, 6:45 pm
    • I’d go back a little further to the manufactured crisis of A Nation at Risk in ’83 and I’d tie it to the commodification of all social institutions under the Reagan administration.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | September 20, 2011, 11:28 am
  3. Yay! You have my vote!

    Posted by ambersk | September 19, 2011, 6:51 pm
  4. Amber,

    I not one to argue against Data… (actually I will)…. I don’t buy this. The very idea that you can test for creativity is off base. I think the problem is we are not listening when children are being creative. See my post we must look to young children

    For examples of schools doing this… see Reggio Emilia inspired schools, see SalmonBerry School… see lots more.

    Also just to offer a counter point to data, check out Tedkids@bc from this last weekend. Or TedxRedmond…. Led by (Adora Svitak)

    Yes schools should be based around relationships of learning that support creatively… and testing does not help this…but you can’t offer a test to find creatively…

    Thanks your mom for sharing!


    Posted by dloitz | September 19, 2011, 6:59 pm
  5. David, I hear what you are saying, how do you measure creativity? And I took statistics in college, so I know how skewed that can be. But when you think about this as a trend, it is a scary thought. Especially when the argument for testing tends to be that it is going to turn out “good workers”, and you read that what bosses want these days is creative thinkers. Then you see the huge disconnect between the two and I guess my hope is that people will start to realize that education has to be about something else.
    Yes, reggio and other approaches are offering great alternatives, and we live in this alternate universe, but the “main stream” is marching to a different tune. And this points out how the tune is not even the same within that same parade – crazy when you think of it like that.

    Posted by ambersk | September 19, 2011, 7:38 pm
  6. See I think “mainstream” is not really marching to this other tune… Many many people are help to take down the test, to bring art back, to promote creatively…

    I think it is not a trend anymore… what caused the back to basic craze after spudnik, or in the 80’s with Regan. Education data honestly is never “true”, when it is trying to use fear. I read too many report using the same data, to say complete opposite things about “what is needed”… I just do not buy it!

    Also, I will never buy one generation saying another is “less” or “more” of one thing. I just think it is generational warfare. At some point every generation starts believing they were the golden age and the new one is this or that.

    Education, learning, life is not about data. It is about people and relationships. It is about stories.

    We need creativity, we need play, we need time to know each other, and we need to have schools that support these things. I don’t need Data to prove that. It just common sense… Lets just keep saying that whenever anyone asked.


    Posted by dloitz | September 19, 2011, 8:43 pm
  7. Hmm…

    Perhaps “The Box” is the problem.

    Alfred Binet first investigated “intelligence” in order to identify students who were not performing as well as their peers in order to assist them. Lewis Termin went on to bend the heck out of that thought — the “Stanford-Binet” test and its numerically assigned “Intelligence Quotient” became a sorting tool to identify who would qualify for certain levels of military service and even who would be sterilized. I fear the “Creativity Quotient” can/does/will serve similar functions.

    I am certain employers want “creative” employees, but do not believe their notion of creativity is entirely like that which you and I have. Employers want employees who “create” profits. While this May implicate a general sense of “creativity”, the real matter involves employees’ ability to go so far as to “create” something sufficiently different from existing patented, service-marked and trade-marked “things” and pratices so as to lock in legal property rights to those “things”. The following hypothetical should make the foregoing point quite clear:

    Assume a “creative” individual comes up with an alternative energy source that would enable individuals to heat their homes in the winter, cool them in the summer, and to fuel vehicles for FREE.
    What happens to 1) the creative individual; 2) the energy source; and 3) the existing energy structure and everthing and every individual that relies on that structure?

    I would bet the creative individual either gets incredibly rich or is eliminated from view, the Free energy would be commodified and therefore would no longer be Free, and the existing energy structure would either control the “Free” energy to profit from it or would suppress it in order to avoid structural collapse.

    I suggest “intellectual” and “creativity” quotients are apples of education that are but commodified ‘oranges’ of business enterprises, and that we have been discussing “roses” instead. We must do this because of The Box dictates that “quotients” be used to cream-skim or cherry-pick rather than increase or improve the situations of all students (who are human beings, each and every one).

    Posted by Brent Snavely | September 20, 2011, 7:42 am
  8. We try to talk about this “decline” in creativity (measured creativity) in describing IDEA’s work to academic audiences, and it is always controversial. Many folks are not aware of/do not understand Torrance measures. On the other hand, teachers often nod their heads in recognition, and students intuitively get this.

    Human beings are deeply and profoundly creative. Creativity will out. However, the learning environments we construct for almost all kids means that it is something that is experienced in the margins, or outside of school, or as an “outcast.”

    That must change.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 20, 2011, 8:02 am
    • What I think is really interesting about this is the perspectives that are coming forward from everyone’s own life situation. I feel it safe to say that we are, here on the coop, in the company of very creative people. So it is always good to remember that our thoughts and ideas come from within that paradigm. But think about what the world would look like to you if you were never given the chance, encouragement or even quiet space to allow your creativity to flow.

      I agree with Kirsten, humans are deeply and profoundly creative beings. And the emergence of that creativity will not stifle easily. But let us not forget how much more it would flow if it were given the space; a trickled falls as compared to Niagara falls.

      And yes, it must, change.

      Posted by ambersk | September 20, 2011, 12:06 pm
      • I agree so much with that statement! Given the space and time… Time is important….. also the chance to make safe risks without worrying about lost of jobs or money…. that something I think school is perfect for… we just need to continue to open up the dialogue with more and more people… instead of always talking about grades, test etc… talk about what we can do to provide more space for creativity….not just testing it.


        Posted by dloitz | September 20, 2011, 1:54 pm
  9. Hello,

    My name is Devon Weaver and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I am currently enrolled in EDM310. I think that it is rather heartbreaking to know that the creativity ability in children is on a downfall. I believe that every child is creative in his or her on way. However, some children never get a chance to express their creativity and maybe that is why it is going down. I also think it is interesting that IQ scores are rising but creativity is falling. I will be summarizing your blog post on my blog at Devon Weaver’s blogspot.

    Posted by Devon Weaver | September 20, 2011, 11:35 am
  10. I wanted to bring Brian Eno into the conversation…

    “The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times. It’s the equivalent of the dream time, in your daily life, times when things get sorted out and reshuffled. If you’re constantly awake work-wise you don’t allow that to happen. One of the reasons I have to take distinct breaks when I work is to allow the momentum of a particular direction to run down, so that another one can establish itself.”

    – Brian Eno, cited by Eric Tamm in Brian Eno: His Music and The Vertical Sound Of Color

    how does what he says relate to education?


    Posted by dloitz | September 21, 2011, 11:06 am
    • David, One way that I see this in education: At my daughter’s new school (Reggio inspired), they have dream time (yes, they actually call it that) after lunch every day. It is not necessarily naptime (what 5 year old do you know who still naps?). It is a time for them to sit quietly with whatever comforts they choose from home (my daughter’s selections: handmade quilt and pillow and her teddy), and just have quiet time. It is a time to let the learning of the day and experiences sink in and settle, a time to regroup and have a little space from the activity of the classroom and the buzz of 20 kids. A

      Posted by ambersk | September 21, 2011, 12:14 pm
      • I love it!

        Also I think his statement draws into question the methodology of their study.. (though I guess I haven’t read the whole thing)…..

        but I wonder if they did a holistic assessment of their creativity, meaning gave them the time, space and peers to be creative with. or did they used story or play … see any Vivian Gussian Paley book (The girl with the Brown crayon and Mollie is three are my favorites)

        Ideas and creativity is not always a one person job…. as reggio emilia schools will highlight!

        Thanks for opening this can of worms!


        Posted by dloitz | September 21, 2011, 12:58 pm
  11. Creativity

    reading this definition of creativity… I have to wonder if it is not a decline in creativity amount children but a decline in adults. Kids will be fine, creativity is a way of life…. I think we need to worry more about adults lack of creativity and I don’t think it schools that are causing the decline.

    Adults like children need more environments that encourage and support creativity and playfulness… often when we are able to have “fun” or be “playful” it is a reaction to the stress in our life…which means it often involves drugs, alcohol or mindlessness…..

    so many we need to start offering more place for adults to also creative so they don’t feel the need to take those places and times away from children. Krishnamurti once said, it is not the child who needs education it is the adult, children will be fine…. his idea of education had more to do with self-knowledge, de-conditioning of ourselves and understanding the connection of consciousness… I guess what i am getting at, is need to look at the way in which we limit our own creativity before we can start to solve or understand the problem for others…including children.

    Enjoying this discussion!


    Posted by dloitz | September 21, 2011, 5:08 pm
  12. A slightly different take on this comes from science about dreams and memory. Apparently, REM sleep and most dreaming states are ways of consolidating memories. If you deprive people of this capacity bad stuff happens. What happens in non-dream states (our waking world) when every minute is taken up by ‘time on task’. What happens when there is no ‘downtime’ like there used to be? Perhaps what happens is that however we define it, we don’t have enough time to consolidate reality through daydreaming, woolgathering, hanging out, and responding like all kids of my generation did: where ya been? out. whadya do? nothing. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.

    Posted by Terry Elliott | September 22, 2011, 4:02 pm

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