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Creativity comes to a halt in the classroom

We’re in need of some glitter glue — creativity in students has decreased over the past 20 years.

Everyday, college students are expected to approach problems with a certain amount of creativity. Classmates that have the most creative projects get the best grades and people with creative problem-solving skills are considered the most hirable. So now everyone wants to use a Prezi presentation instead of a bland PowerPoint for extra brownie points. But really: have we lost touch with creativity?

Katie Davis, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, and Emily Weinstein, a third-year doctoral student at Harvard University, sifted through 354 visual works of art and 50 creative writing samples from high school-aged students. They concluded that over the last 20 years, these students have exhibited a decrease in the uniqueness in their creative writing, but an increase in their artistic originality.

This study was done by Project Zero, a group at Harvard that focuses on improving education in the arts. Davis, a one-time doctoral student at Harvard, recently published a book in conjunction with her professor, Howard Gardner, called The App Generation, which focuses on the impact of digital media on teens living in America today. The creativity study added to the book’s ‘imagination’ section, and the study will be published as a scientific article in January.


Where did this idea come from?
“We all have a real interest in understanding the lives of contemporary young people, like the changes in society and technology and what they mean for young people today,” said Weinstein. “We started wondering specifically about creativity and creative expression.”

Weinstein said one of the studies that prompted the Project Zero study was a paper published by Kyung Hee Kim from Eastern Michigan University in 2006. This paper looked into the results of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), which is supposed to measure creativity in humans. The TTCT focuses on divergent thinking.

“[Divergent thinking] is evidence of the ability to come up with multiple answers to ‘how many things can I do with a pen,’” Weinstein said. “Convergent thinking is coming up with just one correct answer.”

A divergent thinker would say that a pen could be used to put your hair up or make a tourniquet or fix a pair of glasses. A convergent thinker, on the other hand, would only think of writing.

The divergent thinking scores found by TTCT tests in recent years have shown a decline in this creative thinking. Davis and Weinstein wondered if this test was actually a reliable method of measuring creativity, so they decided to devise their own test.

Davis, Weinstein and their team collected samples from student art and literature magazines from 1990 to 2011. The artwork came from the teen culture magazine Teen Ink, and a high school literary magazine called Umbra, which is published out of a high school in New Orleans. The editorial staff from Teen Ink remained the same for the past 20 years, so Davis and Weinstein believed that it offered a good control for a consistent editorial eye. Umbra, however, is an entirely student-run magazine. Therefore, researchers believed Umbra would receive submissions pertinent to what students liked and actually wrote about.


How do you measure creativity?
Creativity is a subjective entity in the minds of most people, but Davis and Weinstein devised a system to scientifically decide which works are more creative than others. They came up with codes and markers that would be easily identifiable among the wide variety of submissions they received.

“One of the things we coded for was background and how fully rendered it was,” said Davis. “In the earlier works, many of the backgrounds were bland or partially rendered, and in the more recent ones the background was more fully rendered.”

They also focused on materials: earlier works embodied traditional pen-and-ink sketches while more recent work utilized mixed media. In the creative writing, the focus was genre and the use of fantasy elements.

“In the earlier works we saw that a majority of stories involved a fantasy element, like a mirror covering the entire sky of the city or someone sitting in a consultation with their psychiatrist who is actually a crab,” said Weinstein. “In the later stories, a majority of them were complete realism with no fantasy elements.”

Taylor Rystrom, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she thinks society’s definition of art has changed.

“There are more things we consider art forms now,” she said. “There’s also easier access to art supplies than in the past.”

Davis agrees that there are more creative opportunities now with “the advent of digital media and the internet in terms of opening up new opportunities of creation, new media for creating, and new inspiration.”

Researchers said another aspect of writing that has changed in the past 20 years is the language that students use.

Stephanie Perry, a senior in the College of Communications, agreed with this and said she thinks the way we communicate has changed.

“Now there’s texting and ways to simplify writing, so our communication is more casual,” she said.

Davis and Weinstein thought the same thing. With easier ways of communicating in a teenager’s everyday life, the language that they speak is drastically different from the language of teenagers 20 years ago. Subsequently, the language that teenagers write with is more casual and less developed. Teens today are also reading more informal writing on the Internet than teens of the ‘90s, who read mostly formal writing in books and newspapers.

“Overall we found two divergent trends with the writing and art,” said Davis. “In the visual art, we found in general that it seemed to be getting less conventional, increasingly sophisticated and complex.”

Meanwhile, the creative writing scores of teenagers decreased over time. To find an answer about why this is happening, Weinstein said that it is important to think about policy change in the American education system like the ‘No Child Left Behind Act.’

“We can’t look at whether being trained in school to do really well on a standardized writing test will influence the way you structure your creative writing,” said Weinstein. This means that while it may be a factor, scientists can’t rely on policy as the only cause.

Davis said the way kids are taught to write has also changed, such as “teaching to the test and focusing on getting that five paragraph essay 100 percent right rather than focusing on one’s creative writing.”

Lemma Salem, a sophomore Sargent Health and Rehabilitation College, agreed with the shift in teaching focus.

“Based on my experience, they don’t give us the option to write creatively in school,” she said. “It’s all research papers.”


What impacts will this have on teachers?
Before embarking on this study, Davis and Weinstein tried to understand the concerns of teachers working in schools.

“We talked to some veteran teachers and some of them expressed that they weren’t getting much boundary-pushing, and more conventional works of art,” said Davis.

Davis and Weinstein are hopeful that their results will help teachers in the classroom. Teachers that are really concerned about the creativity of their students can utilize this knowledge to help improve their students’ works.

“[Pretend] I’m an English teacher and I read this study and I’m worried about a decline in my kid’s ability or excitement to write stories with fantasy elements,” said Weinstein, “ I can make an assignment or create an exercise for kids to practice thinking about things that aren’t just realism.”

With the results of this study being published in January, teachers that are concerned with their student’s divergent thinking skills may implement more creative-based work into their curriculum.

Davis and Weinstein don’t expect teachers to turn every day into ‘art day,’ but with the results of this study in the educational environment, they hope our future will become more creative. A little more glitter glue and dragons in the student’s lives could have monumental impacts for college students and future CEOs, managers, or presidents. With a more creative outlook, who knows where the world may go next.

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