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What Kills Creativity?

• November 04, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: ART4ALL/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Many American writers fear that standardized testing could be destroying our children. They might be right.

More than 120 American writers, including Judy Blume, Lee Bennett Hopkins, and Donald Crews, as well as National Book Award winners Kathryn Erskine and Phillip Hoose sent an open letter to the White House warning President Obama that the increasing use of standardized tests in American schools are destroying creativity and undermining “children’s love of reading and literature.” As they wrote: “We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your Administration’s own initiatives, on children’s love of reading and literature. … requirements to evaluate teachers based on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration.”

American children are spending too much time on test prep and “too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations,” the writers concluded.

While it’s unlikely that this document will result in any change in American education policy—the White House has issued no response, or even acknowledgement, of this letter—it seems to reflect a common concern among educators and writers. “We are creating a generation that hates reading and feels nothing but hostility for literature,” British author Philip Pullman has said. According to an editorial by one teacher in the Denver Post, “standardized tests are killing our students’ creativity, desire to learn. The children … have encountered it every year since third grade, and every year it has taken parts of their souls.”

Parts of their souls!

Are they right? As Andrew Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform and a resident scholar in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, tweeted sarcastically, “good thing those authors have all done rigorous research on this question.” And as Nate Johnson, who specializes in qualitative research in post-secondary education, tweeted, “it’s just not a self-evident truth. Possible, yes, but just as likely not.”

This sort of response is reminiscent of one of the more loathsome characters in literature. As Thomas Gradgrind, the notorious headmaster in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times, said:

Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

Gradgrind’s “nothing but facts” focus is a sort of parody of Utilitarianism, an educational philosophy of the 19th century focused on quantifying human conduct for “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Gradgrind forbids all imagination and recreation. Students get only dry lessons so as to make them more efficient and productive. (Such an education system, which was very popular in English schools during Victorian times, was also supposed to result in highly-talented and intelligent children.)

In the last 20 years we’ve seen an increase in the amount of standardized testing used in American schools. The country now spends $1.7 billion every year administering such tests. By the time students graduate from a public schools in Texas, they will have spent 34 full school days taking examinations. Students test for 32 days in Tennessee, and 28 in California.

But show me the evidence, right? Sure, we test students a lot, but is all of this testing really taking away parts of their souls? The fact that creative people don’t like widespread bubble testing doesn’t necessarily mean that such testing hurts creativity.

Certainly it’s hard to see a dramatic decline in creativity among Americans as a whole. Recently in New York Neal Medlyn produced a performance art project, “King,” as a homage to Michael Jackson. According to one review, Medlyn was:

Dressed in appropriately Jacksonian garb — first a sequined jacket with golden epaulettes, then a jewel-covered jacket, and lastly not one but two rhinestone-covered gloves — [and] performed nearly 20 of the singer’s songs, occasionally accompanied by group of school-aged backup singers. Each number is rendered slightly differently, from a piano-pounding rendition of the late, “Thriller”-lite song “Is it Scary,” to a mashup of “Leave Me Alone” and “They Don’t Care About Us” using looped voice samples to build up a cacophonous and hypnotic wall of sound.

Between tracks he opined on everything from pop culture — “I wanna talk about Mickey Mouse and Superman, and tearing that shit down” — to non-sequitur musings on life and relationships. “You know what’s overrated, I just started thinking?” Medlyn asked the audience Thursday night. “Getting close to people.”

Never mind the incredible diversity of American novelists. There was David Foster Wallace and his famous exploration of a tennis and rehab dystopia, (in which corporate sponsored time appears to render 2007 the “Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office Or Mobile”), all of those books about our 16th president fighting vampires and young women of English Regency gentry vs. zombies. This very quick snapshot of cultural projects shows, if nothing else, that Americans can be plenty creative, if a little ridiculous.

But the novelists appear to be on to something. One study conducted by KRC Research indicated that half of all creative professionals (in advertising, music production, design, etc. indicated that they believed “the level of creativity has declined over the last 10 years.” There have been a few studies showing that American children are also getting less creative. According to 2011 research by Kyung Hee Kim of the School of Education at the College of William and Mary:

[R]esults indicate creative thinking is declining over time among Americans of all ages, especially in kindergarten through third grade. The decline is steady and persistent, from 1990 to present…. The decline begins in young children, which is especially concerning as it stunts abilities which are supposed to mature over a lifetime.

This study demonstrated that, since the 1960s, children have become less creative, as least as determined by the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, which measure creativity by asking students, among other things, “to think of all possible things which might have happened when the cow jumped over the moon” and to try and come up with “the cleverest, most interesting and most unusual uses of a given toy, other than as a plaything.”

But the problem with these studies is that, while they do show children are a little less creative, and there is more standardized testing, it’s hard to demonstrate that one thing actually causes the other. As even Kim later explained:

I speculate that there are other significant contributing factors to the fall in creativity in America. Contemporary parenting styles may create overly programmed lives for children, by over-protecting them and over-scheduling them, which has the effect of denying children opportunities to discover for themselves as much as in previous eras.

The real cause for a decline in American creativity is more complicated, and doesn’t have much to do with school at all. The real cause, she argues, is simply that American parents are not encouraging creativity. They, like Gradgrind, are now intensely focused on efficiency, and propelling their children to material success. Kim:

Creativity scores are also declining because our society is less and less receptive and encouraging of creativity, creative people, and creative ideas. Americans are less motivated to be creative because creativity is continually less valued by home, school, and society overall in the U.S. It stands to reason that this problem will compound, as we keep producing citizens who tend to be even less tolerant of creative people and of creative expression. We talk a good talk, but in fact, research and development grants and programs are declining, creative children are labeled as classroom behavior problems, and society in general has less a sense of humor about mischief and diminishing tolerance for unusual behavior. For example, teachers claim to value creativity in children, but in fact it is proven that they generally dislike creative behaviors and characteristics in the classroom because they are inconvenient and hard to control.

But then, as the novelists explained in the letter to the White House, their real concern is more than just federal programs and exactly how much time people spend prepping for the SATs. Kim has more to say about that too:

An elephant in the room is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which requires all states to administer annual assessments in reading/language arts and mathematics in Grades 3 through 8. Teaching to this test discourages purposeful creativity development and stifles children’s creativity in schools. Standardized testing forces emphasis on rote learning instead of critical, creative thinking, and diminishes students’ natural curiosity and joy for learning in its own right.

The best way to promote creativity in the classroom is unclear, but according to one piece published by the Collaboration for Nondestructive Testing:

Teachers that want to encourage creativity in the classroom should make sure they are giving their students a lot of choice and different options when it comes to assignments and projects. Denise de Sonza Fleith (2000) found in her research that teachers encourage creativity by, “not imposing too many assignments and rules on students, giving students choices, providing students opportunities to become aware of their creativity, and accepting students as they are.” All students can be creative in some way, and it is the teachers difficult task to provide opportunities for students to develop their own creative thinking.

That’s sort of vague, but choices and creative thinking are certainly not promoted by more standardized testing. In fact, standardized tests, however useful, appear to point children in the opposite direction. They don’t help. As the authors suggest, the reason for the decline in creativity is part of a general societal problem in which we are intensely focused on objective rewards and proof of achievement and success. Standardized testing is merely the clearest outward sign of how this world has changed, for the worse.

As Lee puts it:

The decrease of creative thinking for younger children probably arises at home rather than in schools, because kindergarteners and first graders tend to be influenced more by home than school, or possibly both environments contribute to the effect. Regardless, something changed or has been changing to result in the decline of creative thinking in the United States over time, especially affecting younger children.

Standardized testing may only be part of the problem, but it’s the problem that’s most evident in American public school. It also the only part of this system where the president, whose own children attend the relatively standardized test free Quaker school known as Sidwell Friends, has any real power to enact change directly, and quickly, because the Obama administration does promote the sort of policies that result in a lot of testing.

The writers ask the president “to support authentic performance assessments, not simply computerized versions of multiple-choice exams.”

It could be worth a try.

Daniel Luzer

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