Solving the Creativity Crisis

Creativity is typically defined as something like ‘the production of something original and useful’.  This recent article, however, warns that the United States is, for the first time, experiencing a creativity crisis.  Worries about the crisis have prompted some to worry about the far-reaching consequences of a sustained decline:

If American creativity continues to decline, there will be a domino effect in the U.S.: innovation and entrepreneurship will decline, new jobs will not be created, unemployment will rise, the debt will spiral out of control, Gross Domestic Product will decline, and military capability will be weakened by a reduced budget. 

The U.S. has rapidly moved up the value chain transforming from an industrial-based economy to a knowledge-based economy to an innovation-based economy.  Consequently, many U.S. factory jobs and back-office jobs have moved overseas, and creativity is the last skill Americans have to offer the global marketplace.

Clearly the ramifications of this creativity crisis are far-reaching.  But the question remains: how is it to be solved?   If the issue has never arisen before, we, presumably, have little past experience to draw from. 

The good news is that, while some individuals may be naturally more creative than others, according to this recent Newsweek article, creativity can, in fact, be learned.  The idea of creativity training is based on an approach which attempts to cultivate or refine an individual’s creative capabilities through practice.  Bronson and Merryman offer a useful analogy: 

Think of it like basketball.  Being tall does help to be a pro basketball player, but the rest of us can still get quite good at the sport through practice.  In the same way, there are certain innate features of the brain that make some people naturally prone to divergent thinking.  But convergent thinking and focused attention are necessary, too, and those require different neural gifts.  Crucially, rapidly shifting between these modes is a top-down function under your mental control.  University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung has concluded that those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better.  A lifetime of consistent habits gradually changes the neurological pattern.

Approaching creativity as a skill, as one more human endeavor to practice offers a hopeful solution to our declining creativity.  Newsweek cites several studies which indicate that creativity can be taught and that subsequent training can have a strong effect.  In fact, in his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s makes a strong case for the importance of practice in any human endeavor:

…Ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert-in anything.  …No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.  It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

Gladwell’s work is based on volumes of research that demonstrate the importance of targeted practice.  Much of this research, in fact, informs our attempts to target students at the right level of reading through the Lexile Framework and in mathematics through the Quantile Framework.  It’s quite likely that the research on what it takes to move from novice to expert applies to just about any human endeavor – including the development and application of creativity.

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