The Ingenuity Series Part 1: How to reconstitute childhood and the American imagination
If you’re interested in children, education, social innovation, or, for that matter, the future of America, Newsweek‘s recent cover story on the “creativity crisis” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman is a must read. It makes a powerful argument that our system of education, and perhaps our way of life, are diminishing children’s imaginative capacities.
Since 1990, measures of creativity among children from kindergarten through sixth grade have steadily declined—and the decrease is significant. This doesn’t just mean we’ll be producing fewer painters and pianists; it means we’ll be producing fewer problem solvers and changemakers of all kinds. Creativity is defined as the ability to produce something “original and useful.” And one way it’s measured is by asking children questions about specific problems—how to improve a toy truck, for example—and seeing how many unique ideas they come up with and how they combine them. Children who come up with a lot of ideas are more likely to become entrepreneurs, inventors, authors, software developers, and so forth.
In fact, Bronson and Merryman write that the “correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment” has been found to be “more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.” [My emphasis]
Have American educators overlooked creativity? We now evaluate student success almost exclusively by performance on standardized tests that focus primarily on reading and math. In this context, the challenge of nurturing students’ imaginations is a luxury many teachers and principals feel they can’t afford. But educators in other countries see it differently.
In 2008 British secondary-school curricula—from science to foreign language—was revamped to emphasize idea generation, and pilot programs have begun using Torrance’s test [a leading creativity index] to assess their progress. The European Union designated 2009 as the European Year of Creativity and Innovation, holding conferences on the neuroscience of creativity, financing teacher training, and instituting problem-based learning programs—curricula driven by real-world inquiry—for both children and adults. In China there has been widespread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach.
What should we be doing? Essentially, we’ve got to reconstitute childhood. We’ve got to stop terrifying educators into teaching to the test. Instead, we’ve got to make sure they give children ample opportunities to engage in imaginative play and practice solving problems that are meaningful. There are effective ways this can be handled in a classroom, as the Newsweek article shows. (And guess what? Test scores soar.)
Parents can also do this at home by giving their children real-world challenges to work through. Quite a number of initiatives like Youth Venture, Do Something and the Girl Scout’s Challenge and Change program specialize in helping young people generate and build their own solutions to social problems. Groups like Playworks, Peace First and Roots of Empathy bring child-led problem solving and conflict resolution into elementary school classrooms. These kinds of educational offerings are still seen as supplemental in many districts. But, in fact, they teach children the core skills they need—empathy, leadership, teamwork and the ability to shift perspective—to be creative agents in a world of change.
Tomorrow: More on what schools and parents can do to nurture changemakers.
Photo: Nederlands Watermuseum