“My starting point is that everyone has huge creative capacities as a natural result of being a human being, The challenge is to develop them.”
--Sir Ken Robinson, Author and Creativity Guru
At a recent staff party, a young staffer—call her Alisa--challenged me on my views on education and creativity. Alisa was dubious that schools could scale up creativity among the masses of students. “I don’t believe that the vast majority of people are capable of creativity,” she argued. “Most people need a basic education just so they can get by. Given my background (born in Russia), I’m suspicious of all utopian claims.”
It was a fair challenge. After all, while there are numerous examples of instilling cultures of creativity in particular schools, it’s never been done in an entire American school system. How do we know that Alisa is wrong that such a shift is unattainable?
Let’s take a look at the evidence:
Children are creative. Several studies show that vast majorities of children start off creative and gradually become less creative as they get older. Ken Robinson, among others, suggests that the rigid, one-size-fits-all education system routinely kills creativity. Skeptics like Alisa might argue, however, that the loss of creativity is a natural if regrettable by-product of the brain’s maturing control functions. Perhaps. But how much of that childhood creativity must be lost? Longitudinal studies show that learning environments that promote imaginative play are associated with enhanced creativity later in life. In an interview with Barbara Walters, the founders of Google cite their creativity-inducing Montessori education as a major factor in their success. Evidence clearly suggests that we can preserve some creativity.
Some schools are creative. Numerous alternative schools have successfully inculcated creativity. San Diego-based High Tech High, for example, utilizes a project-based learning approach that seeks to turn its diverse student body into “savvy, creative, quick-thinking adults and professionals in a modern world.” The school's students, many of whom are economically disadvantaged, not only produce highly creative projects way beyond what you'd see from students at typical schools, but virtually all get into college.
Again, Alisa might argue that while High Tech High may be a model of excellence, it relies on a charismatic leader at the helm, hand-picked teachers predisposed to such an environment and more motivated parents, all necessary conditions for success. There’s no reason to believe, she might argue, that such schools can be brought to scale. But even if not every school can attain the level of excellence of a High Tech High, I don't see why we can't develop a school model that is far better than the current system at bringing out creativity. Finland, for example, has created a school system that places a much higher premium on creativity than school systems in other industrialized nations. There's no reason that it can't be done here too.
Some societies are creative. According to the book "Start-up Nation," Israel, for a combination of cultural and structural reasons, leads the world in start-ups on a per capita basis. It has more companies listed on NASDAQ than all European countries combined and more global venture capital entering the country per person than any other country. Its Middle Eastern neighbors, by contrast, have stifled the creativity of their populations. The UN-commissioned Arab Human Development Report in 2002 asserted that Arab societies are being held back by a lack of political freedom, subjugation of women and “an isolation from the world of ideas that stifles creativity.” If nothing else, freedom is a necessary condition of creativity, and societies, history shows, can be made more free.
Yet even among democratic societies there are major differences in creative output. Education scholar Yong Zhao points to the link between societies with rigid education systems that rely heavily on standardization, and lack of entrepreneurship. “Correlational analyses show a statistically significant negative relationship between test scores in math, reading, and sciences and aspects of entrepreneurship,” he said. This suggests that more rigid social and educational systems allow less room for creative pursuits and produce less creative kids and adults.
Alisa might counter that if Americans are already more creative than the citizens of the vast majority of countries, why mess with success? Be that as it may, we are not creative enough to assure prosperity in the 21st century. With the growth in international competition and the automation of tasks once performed by humans, our remaining competitive advantage is our ability to separate ourselves though innovation. We will sink or swim on our ability to become more creative.
While Ken Robinson may be right that everyone possesses the ability to be creative, it’s safe to say that not everyone is capable of being creative in equal measure any more than everyone is capable of doing math or playing the violin at the same level. There’s no reason, however, for creativity to remain as rare of a human trait as webbed feet. That we are not all capable of being Picasso or Einstein or Steve Jobs does not mean the average person cannot become far more creative than she is today and that we cannot increase society’s total creative output.
Alisa is justifiably doubtful about building a creativity utopia, but such realism should not deter us from aspiring to a better dystopia. We can become much more creative.
Book Recommendation: Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World by Tony Wagner