• February 2011

Researcher Ashley Merryman Explains Why Creativity Scores are Falling

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor & Publisher
Be Inkandescent Magazine

How creative are you? That’s the question authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (pictured left) asked in their July 10 Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis.

Previously known for their 2009 New York Times bestselling book on child-rearing, “NurtureShock,” the authors — both science journalists — revealed research showing that Americans are becoming less creative. Here’s why.

The Torrance creativity tests

Defining creativity as the “production of something original and useful, and that’s what’s reflected in the tests,” Merryman and Bronson report that when it comes to being creative, there is never just one right answer. “To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result),” they explain.

Nonetheless, it is possible to measure creativity. For decades, the gold standard has been the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, which were designed by educational psychology professor E. Paul Torrance of the University of Minnesota and later the University of Georgia. The 90-minute test is a series of discrete tasks that is administered by a psychologist. To date, it has been taken by millions worldwide, and has been translated into 50 languages.

What’s surprising is how incredibly well Torrance’s creativity index predicted kids’ creative accomplishments as adults. In fact, those who scored highest grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers.

Recently, however, creativity scores have been falling.

Last spring, Bronson and Merryman discovered the work of Kyung Hee Kim of The College of William & Mary. After analyzing 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults, Kim found that there was a serious decline in the scores of children in kindergarten through 6th grade.

“The potential consequences are sweeping,” Bronson and Merryman wrote in the Newsweek article, pointing to a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs who identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future.

“Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth,” they explain. “All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering healthcare. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others.”

While it’s too early to determine conclusively why U.S. creativity scores are declining, culprits include the number of hours kids spend watching TV and playing videogames. Another reason, they believe, may be a lack of creative development in our schools.

A Q&A with Ashley Merryman

The good news is that there are ways to increase creativity, says Ashley Merryman, who recently talked with Close-Up Online about this important topic.

Close-Up Online: What can parents and educators do to help kids be more creative?

Ashley Merryman: Schools do a good job helping kids understand the facts, and that is important. But they can do better encouraging them to take those facts and creatively apply them to solve problems.

There is an old belief that creativity is limited to what is taught in art and music class. That’s something we talk about in the article as being an “art bias,” which simply is the age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity. It’s totally unfounded.

As we explain in the Newsweek article, when scholars gave creativity tasks to both engineering majors and music majors, their scores laid down on an identical spectrum, with the same high averages and standard deviations. Inside their brains, the same thing was happening—ideas were being generated and evaluated on the fly. That’s the type of creative thinking that we need to be encouraging.

Close-Up Online: Which schools have mastered this process?

Ashley Merryman: One of the best examples is at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron, Ohio.

The school’s teachers came up with a project for the 5th graders, who had to figure out how to reduce the noise in the library. Its windows faced a public space and, even when closed, let through too much noise. The students had four weeks to design proposals using convergent and divergent thinking to come up with the best ways to solve the problem.

As a result, they learned about sound, sound absorption, and how sound travels in waves. These lessons were all part of the Ohio State Standards, and by the end of the lesson the kids had learned about decibels, how to calculate sound waves, and which materials are more sound absorbent. One team practiced with tablecloths, and another used plants. Then they combined the solutions and tested it.

At the same time, 6th graders were doing an ecology unit to learn about the wetlands and figuring out a solution to restore them. Asking themselves these questions orients them to the task: what do I need to learn, how do I apply it, and how do I use this information to solve the problem. Creativity researchers are firm that it’s not a choice between learning facts and being creative. It’s the combination that makes them score high on creativity tests. This school is doing a fabulous job helping students master this ability.

Close-Up Online: Are you optimistic that more schools will encourage their students and teachers to think more creatively in the years to come?

Ashley Merryman: I am! I think that the more educators who realize that they can not only encourage their students to think creatively to solve problems, but can define it and assess their work, the more it will be incorporated into school curricula across the country.

Close-Up Online: What can parents do at home to help encourage kids to be creative thinkers?

Ashley Merryman: The best thing to do is ask open-ended questions. Don’t encourage kids to spring straight ahead to the right answer.

In the article, Po and I wrote about University of Georgia professor Mark Runco. When driving through California one day with his family, his son asked why Sacramento was the state’s capital—why not San Francisco or Los Angeles? Runco turned the question back on him, encouraging him to come up with as many explanations as he could think of.

This is a terrific example of how to help train your child’s brain to be creative. Think back to when your preschooler asked you 100 times a day why, why, why? Although you wished it would stop, the truth is that by middle school kids have pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.

So don’t do it. Keep your kids asking — and creatively answering — questions, and you can help turn the tide on the creativity crisis.

Meet Ashley Merryman on Jan. 26. Ashley will be in DC later this month, speaking to the community and friends of the Arlington Unitarian Cooperative Preschool (4444 Arlington Boulevard in Arlington, VA) from 7:30-9:30 pm. Additional speaking engagements can be found on her blog.


Ashley Merryman’s 10 Tips for Encouraging Creativity in Kids

  • Encourage fantasy play with involved characters.
  • Advocate for activity in the arts and other creative activities — everything from knitting and drawing to making clay sculpture and playing with Legos.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Encourage kids to learn as much as they can about other cultures.
  • Make sure they learn at least one foreign language, if not more.
  • Travel.
  • Get enough sleep. Research shows that shortened sleep patterns, even 15 minutes, give the brain less time to process creative thoughts.
  • Encourage project-based learning.
  • Play with generic objects. For example, grab a stack of paper plates and some art supplies and turn them into anything and everything you can imagine. But don’t ask the child to get creative with the plates. Rather, suggest that they “come up with something only they would do, and nobody else.”
  • Develop a real passion. Being “well-rounded” just to build a college resume may discourage kids from getting deeply involved with any one thing. Let them find their way, and don’t worry so much about the outcome.

About Ashley Merryman

Ashley Merryman is a public speaker, having appeared at Yale University, the Aspen Institute, PopTech, 92nd St. Y Tribeca, the Los Angeles Times Book Festival and conferences and venues around the nation.

She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and a Juris Doctorate from Georgetown University.

Previously, Merryman was a litigation attorney and a speechwriter in the Clinton Administration. She lives in Los Angeles, where the small, all-volunteer tutoring program she has directed for inner-city kids for 12 years has helped more than 800 children.

For her civic involvement, Merryman received commendations from both the Clinton and Bush Administrations.

About “NurtureShock”

With Po Bronson, Ashley Merryman is the co-author of “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children,” which suggests that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring because key twists in the science have been overlooked. Though not a parenting manual, “NurtureShock” explores how we grow, learn, and live.

Released in hardcover in September 2009, the book was on the New York Times bestseller list for three months. It was one of Amazon’s best-selling books for 2009 (after just three months of release), and it spent over a year on Amazon’s list of Top 100 Nonfiction Books. In addition to the January 2011 publication of the paperback, editions of “NurtureShock” are being published around the world in 15 languages. Read our review of the book by clicking here.

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