Each spring, an Olympics of creativity takes place for grade school, high school, and college-aged kids, teams from around the world who come together on a U.S. college campus to showcase their creativity.
The teams display their creativity in two ways. First, they solve a mind-twisting spontaneous problem, a problem they haven’t seen before but have only minutes to solve. The second level involves performing a solution to a long-term problem that they’ve worked on for months.
This program, called “Odyssey of the Mind,” provides an opportunity for kids to showcase their creative thinking skills at local and state competitions, and possibly the World Finals.
Unfortunately Odyssey of the Mind (OM) isn’t available in all schools. It’s an extracurricular activity offered only at the schools where parents, teachers, and other volunteers commit a considerable investment of time outside of the classroom, usually after school and on weekends, coaching kids.
Yet OM is exactly the type of program that supports divergent thinking, thinking that generates multiple, “out-of-the-box” solutions to problems. Instead of one right answer for every problem, divergent thinking creates multiple solutions. For more information on divergent thinking, see psychology of creativity.
Odyssey of the Mind
For more than 25 years, Odyssey of the Mind (OM) has cultivated creativity and divergent thinking in students. Students have fun, working on teams, and learning how to solve problems as creatively, yet practically, as possible.
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Divergent thinkers cross disciplines, and divergent thinking is a skill that lasts a lifetime, according to those who study the psychology of creativity. Divergent thinkers carve out lives filled with passionate careers and interests. They are the individuals who make discoveries that often take technologies, the sciences, industries, or the arts into the unknown. These unknowns eventually turn into thriving new products, inventions, innovative artworks, and solutions to the world’s toughest political, cultural, and environmental problems.
Thanks to creative, divergent thinking, living life as a human on planet earth is more compelling, sometimes more prosperous, entertaining, and hopefully sustainable.
Classrooms that Stifle Creativity
Yet according to psychologists and education experts, schools do not promote, teach, or encourage divergent thinking. The experts warn that the education system today lacks the type of curricula, teaching, and structure that lets creativity flourish, and divergent thinking skills predominate.
Cognitive Surplus and Creativity
Television programs like Batman, Bewitched, and Love Boat initiate smiles and shared recollections for some individuals raised during the 1960s and 1970s. Kids sitting in front of the television every day after school, and with the rest of the family in the evenings, defined an entire generation.
Yet those same individuals today, now parents, decry their own kids’ preoccupations for Facebook, and other social media.
Clay Shirky, author of “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age,” makes a case for digital media. As someone born during the 1960s and also part of the television generation, Shirky argues that social media and networking are more engaging, less about consuming, and less isolating than hours spent watching TV.
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Sir Ken Robinson, PhD, and an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources, states that rather than nurture and enhance creativity, the current educational system actually stifles it.
In his many books, papers, and lectures, he states that the system is based on the intellectual culture of the enlightenment, and the industrial revolution. The need for trained workers to work in factories became a driving force behind public education, a system based on production lines, the ringing of bells, and educating kids in batches by age rather than skills and abilities. In other words, it’s a system based on conformity, a system that believes in one right way or answer for every problem.
But environments that enforce conformity destroy creativity, according to Robinson. Mark A. Runco, PhD, executive director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia College of Education, also states that creative thinking most often involves nonconformity, unconventional thinking, autonomy, and room for self-expression. These facets are not found in the typical U.S. classroom.
Compiling and assimilating a large amount of creativity research in his book, “Creativity, Theories and Themes: Research, Development, and Practice,” Runco explains that within the current system, setting up an unconventional classroom of 30 to 40 kids in order to breed creativity remains a challenge. Teachers can’t possibly teach within situations where nonconformity breaks all boundaries, where completely unstructured classrooms lead to chaos.
However research also suggests that although teachers say they support creativity and its eccentricities, in reality they do not. They strongly prefer students who are highly conformist, who are punctual, complete all assignments, and politely follow the norms. Runco cites research that teachers across all cultures view the behaviors and personality traits of creative children unfavorably. And the traits of these children are completely opposite those of the “ideal” student.
Runco suggests a solution: A balance between the traditional, highly structured classroom environment, and one that fosters creativity - in other words, a compromise. He states that an intermediate level of openness and unstructured situations might add enough opportunities for creativity’s requirements of self-expression and autonomy. Some tasks require more structure, for example, and others less so. Those activities or projects requiring less could be optimized for more creative thinking.
Runco cites research conducted during the 1980s that children in less formal and “intermediately structured” types of classrooms scored higher on divergent thinking skills than those in more formal classrooms.
However, given the current climate for higher test scores (the one right answer) and more standards, teachers already feel overwhelmed. Some experts trying to marry the concept of higher test scores and creativity suggest taking current teaching methods and integrating creative teaching methods.
The Gifted Child Today article “Creative Thinking in Schools: Finding the ‘Just Right’ Challenge for Students” provides the following suggestions for teachers trying to incorporate more creativity into their lesson plans:
- Diversity and large volumes of ideas and work increase the chance for creative outcomes, so encourage students to generate lots of work, and give them the appropriate tools they need to develop this work. Free students from busy work, lots of worksheets, DVD watching, etc. in order to get them working on projects and generating solutions.
- Teach the value of hard work and discipline in finding solutions, solutions that make sense and aren’t simply nonsensical or impractical. The ability to decipher good ideas from bad ones is an essential part of the creative process, and a skill that also should be taught.
- Encourage risk taking, and discourage perfectionism. Establish an environment that shows students that sometimes ideas fail, but the effort wasn’t wasted. Ensure that integrity is maintained during successes and failures.
- Provide strategies for managing group dynamics, such as discussing with groups the possible difficulties that could arise, and how to troubleshoot those situations. Give the students a signal to inform the teacher when they need advice or mediation.
- Set up a rubric for the final evaluation of projects and assignments. Guidelines, expectations, and goals should be a part of every project.
- Layer independent study with group study, and give older students the option of working with students in younger grades.
- Teachers should model creative thinking in how they make decisions, solve problems, and how they approach their instruction and guidance.
- Encourage divergent thinking by providing students with nonconventional tools and supplies. For example, instead of using traditional art supplies, bring in objects that seem bizarre or out-of-the ordinary, and let kids create with these items.
- Lessen the amount of extrinsic awards, such as stickers, special privileges, or an emphasis on the final grade. Creativity researchers have shown that extrinsic awards actually reduce creativity. Instead, encourage intrinsic satisfaction by providing all the guidelines, materials, time, and space students need to complete projects and assignments.
- Allow time for student feedback sessions, and encourage responsible and productive critiques from all students.
- Show exceptional work in libraries, hallways, even in community buildings and businesses.
- Teachers that expect great things from students will receive great things.
A Historical Moment for Creativity
The traditional way of filling kids’ heads with facts, formulas, and theories in order for them to memorize and regurgitate answers back on bubble sheets does not lend itself to living in today’s complex world. The one-answer approach measures convergent thinking, and it’s an important skill, but not at the exclusion of divergent thinking.
According to education expert Sir Ken Robinson, children are living in the most stimulating period in history. In the year 2000, Smart Phones, IPods, Ipads, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and most of the social media sites didn’t even exist.
Robinson calls the current age a “revolution,” and a point in history like no other. Nothing less than a complete paradigm shift is needed to educate kids within this world changing at breakneck speed, according to Robinson.
Kids bored with the traditional, convergent approach to learning simply walk outside the doors of their schools and find learning much more enjoyable – and personalized – on their computer or other digital devices.
Other experts agree that education must change, but it’s how to make workable, effective changes that keep many saying that change must take place within the context of the current structure, one step at a time.
Whether it’s change that completely turns the system into something new, or more incremental steps, one fact is certain:, it will take a generation of divergent, creative thinkers to solve the problems. Nurturing those thinkers today is critical to achieving the most advantageous results.
The changes required to understand how to implement more creative classrooms will also mean more creativity specialists in fields such as Cognitive Psychology, Social Psychology, Educational Psychology, and Media Psychology.
For those interested in studying the psychology of creativity contact psychology schools. Specific creativity coursework in many psychology departments is also available for those interested in the psychology of creativity.
The 4th-Grade Slump
Psychologist E. Paul Torrance is considered one of the founders of the Psychology of Creativity field. He worked for 60 years starting in the middle of the last century researching and promoting creativity, developing psychometric tests to measure creativity in children called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.
Torrance coined the term the “4th-grade-slump.” This is the age that children begin to lose their spontaneity. They take fewer risks, and are less playful than when younger, and consequently, it’s at this age that researchers begin to see a huge drop off in creativity.
A 1968 study confirmed Torrance’s observation. Educators George Land and Beth Jarman used an assessment tool created by NASA to measure creativity or divergent thinking in engineers and scientists on a group of 1,600 kids. They first tested them at 3- to-5 - years old, and retested these same children at intervals throughout their lives.
At 3-to-5-years-old, 98% of the kids scored at the creative genius level. But at ages 8 to 10, only 32% tested at the genius level. By the time they were ages 13 to 15, only 10% tested as creative geniuses, and over the age of 25, only 2% of these individuals were at the genius level.
Some researchers believe that developmentally something occurs physiologically to instigate such a huge decline in creativity around age 10, or 4th grade. Others attribute the drop in creativity to a time period where kids become aware of conformity and adhering to social conventions and norms, diminishing their creativity.
However many other researchers believe that the highly structured, conventional form of today’s classrooms and traditional ways of teaching completely sabotage creativity. In other words, these researchers believe that all people are born with monumental amounts of creativity, and the myth that creativity is a gift given to select, “special” individuals is simply that – a myth.