How do you think Charles Darwin, George Bernard Shaw and Isaac Newton, would have fared as students in today’s world? From what we know about their lives, they all got less than stellar grades in school and would likely not have qualified for any school district’s gifted program. Despite that, they all made lasting and valuable contributions in their fields. These examples, among others, have been a subject of many debates about what intelligence is and what the role of education should be. If IQ, which correlates well with grades, is not enough for great accomplishments, then what is?
Psychologist, Joseph Renzulli, has spent decades on understanding “giftedness”. He identified two forms of giftedness, which are both important and usually interact with each other. The first, schoolhouse giftedness, is the kind that is measured with IQ tests (cognitive ability) and correlates well with school grades. The other, creative-productive giftedness, is the kind where the creative ideas and work have an impact on others and cause change. Or, in other words, the domain-transforming, culture-changing kind of giftedness that results in an Einstein or a Mozart. Interestingly, it turns out that you do not need to have an off-the-charts IQ to be a creative genius of that caliber.
Renzulli identified three clusters of traits, summed up in his Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness, that are required to be creative-productive. It is the interaction between the three clusters that creates creative-productive accomplishment. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard, also arrived at a similar set of components in her Componential Theory of Creativity.
Above-Average Ability: Creative geniuses have above average ability in both general abilities (like general intelligence) and specific abilities (like in specific areas like mathematics and ballet). However, above average ability doesn’t imply superior ability. In fact, Renzulli believes that performance in the top 15-20% is usually sufficient for high accomplishments.
Task Commitment: Creative geniuses have a focused form of motivation that Renzulli and Amabile call task commitment. This includes factors like grit, intrinsic motivation, perseverance, hard-work that help the creative genius stick with the task long enough to overcome challenges and achieve success.
Creativity: Creative geniuses also possess the ability to envision original and fresh approaches to problems, the ability to set aside established conventions. Amabile highlights some cognitive styles and heuristics – like suspending judgment, trying something counter-intuitive or choosing wide categories – that can help build creativity and generate novel ideas. The challenges we design at MindAntix are built around these (and more) heuristics to help people learn to think in more diverse ways.
Our culture emphasizes schoolhouse giftedness – leaning too heavily on building analytical skills – sometimes at the expense of building other traits. However, as Renzulli discovered, creative geniuses are well-rounded – they have high levels of creativity and perseverance that help them achieve bigger goals. Nurturing creativity and building grit can have a bigger impact on building geniuses than focusing entirely on academic skills. Recent studies point to some clues on building grit – pursuit of engagement and meaning, as opposed to pleasure, help build the right kind of motivation that enables grit. Creative thinking skills can be developed by practice – the SCAMPER technique is a useful brainstorming tool to use with your child in solving open-ended challenges. But more importantly, the next time your child spends hours absorbed in a task or uses a little creativity in solving her problem, take comfort in the fact that she is building crucial skills for success.
There is a growing debate in the education world about how schools are squelching creativity in our kids. Sir Ken Robinson, a leading proponent of this theory, outlines his argument of how we are “educating people out of their creative capacities” in a humorous and immensely popular TED talk. For those who haven’t seen his talk, the video is embedded at the end of this blog and I highly encourage everyone to watch it.
There are a few ways that schools shortchange our children as Sir Ken Robinson points out in his talk. The first is that our view of intelligence is still dominated by academic ability. Despite the advancement in our understanding of intelligence – that it is diverse (as proposed by psychologists like Howard Gardner and Robert Steinberg), dynamic and distinct – our educational system still focuses primarily on logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence. Our belief in what’s important to learn leads to a hierarchy of subjects with math and languages at the top and humanities and arts at the bottom. This results in a system that discourages kids with strengths lie outside of the “top” subjects. And, this one-size-fits-all approach robs everyone of an opportunity to develop different kinds of intelligences and ways of thinking. Finally, by creating a culture where mistakes are stigmatized, schools make kids more risk-averse and less creative. Sir Robinson raises valid points in his talk but is that the whole story – are only schools responsible for undermining Creativity?
Kyung Hee Kim, a leading researcher on Creativity, analyzed creative thinking scores for K-12 students over the last few decades and found that Creativity has been declining steadily since the 1990s. This is a worrisome trend, because, as she puts it, “it stunts abilities which are supposed to mature over a lifetime.” In addition, she found out that the biggest drop in creativity, surprisingly, was for the K-3 age group, a group more influenced by home than school.
In her article, Kim outlines three factors that might be playing a role in the declining creativity trend.
Time to think: In our rush to provide children with enriching after school activities (ironically, to complement school’s left-brain slant), we are leaving them with less time for free play and for “reflective abstraction”. In two studies (1, 2) spanning 1981-2003, Sandra Hofferth, a professor at University of Maryland, found that discretionary time for children reduced by 14 hrs per week in that time period. In addition, structured activities are taking up an increasing portion of discretionary time leaving children with little time to think and reflect.
Problem Finding: Problem finding uses a different set of skills as compared to problem solving. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes a distinction between “presented” problems, which are formulated by others, and “discovered” problems which are self-identified. While creative solutions are often found for presented problems, major breakthroughs occur more with discovered problems. Einstein was not alone in holding this conviction when he said, “the formulation of a problem is often more essential than it’s solution.” Other studies have also shown that students show more motivation to solve self-generated problems and they come up with more creative solutions for them as compared to presented problems.
Collaboration: Creativity also emerges from collaborative groups. Studies have shown that other people’s ideas can be stimulating when group members actively listen to each other’s ideas. Children’s creativity can be enhanced by providing them with a receptive and encouraging environment to discuss ideas.
With so many changes in our values and lifestyle since the ‘90s it will be hard to narrow down all the factors causing a fall in creativity, so this debate is here to stay. But what can we all do in the meantime? I believe that we should encourage children to think in many different ways whenever they can – adopt different perspectives, challenge assumptions, ask “what-if?”, and find new kinds of problems (real or hypothetical situations) to think about at school and at home. Ask “why?” five times to get to the root of any problem and to find more creative solutions. And then ask “why not?”. Learning to think and ask different questions not only helps in acquiring deeper insights but also reveals more creative solutions. “The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers,” said Sir Antony Jones, co-author of the famous British comedies Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, “but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.”