In its July 10 issue, Newsweek reported that although creativity scores had for decades been steadily rising in America, since 1990 “they have consistently inched downward.” This news is disturbing for the nation’s children and our future prosperity. But the situation is not dire. There is a clear antidote to this decline in the nation’s creativity.
Creativity is a discipline that can be taught. Although many consider this assertion to be self-evident, others vehemently disagree. A common retort: No matter how much training and practice I receive, I will never be a Mozart or a Shakespeare or a Beatle. But this misses the point. Few would make the claim that creative genius can but taught. But each of us can become better creative thinkers with quality training and sustained practice.
Consider this analogy. When I was a kid, I never suffered the illusion that I would be the next Jerry West or Oscar Robertson, but I did practice a lot of basketball and became fairly proficient at the game. Last fall, while killing time at the local YMCA, I went into an empty gym, picked up a basketball and made 14 free throws in a row. A fluke? Absolutely. But decades later, the muscle memory remained.
Just as we practice an athletic discipline over and over until its skills become automatic, so, too, we can practice creativity skills until they become habits of mind. For more than 50 years the Creative Education Foundation (CEF) has championed research and delivered training in deliberate processes to improve creative thinking. The CEF’s approach distinguishes between two major creativity skills, divergence and convergence:
- To diverge is to explore options, to consider all possibilities, to extend in different directions often while departing from the norm.
- To converge is to critically evaluate options, to move toward a common conclusion, to reach agreement, to make a choice or decision.
Diverging before converging is not the natural pattern for most people. By our natures, most of us are more apt to criticize each new idea as it is shared and less apt to defer judgment while carefully considering all possibilities. But the simple fact is that training and practice can instill the habit of diverging before converging in just about anyone.
Both these major creativity skills have sub-skills. For example, divergence requires the ability to think fluently and flexibly. Fluency is the ability to generate a large quantity of ideas quickly. Examples of fluency sub-skills include brainstorming, free-noting, tolerance for ambiguity, among many others. Flexibility is the ability to see diverse and unusual relationships. Here, too, there are many sub-skills, including forced analogies, lateral thinking and morphological analysis. And – like shooting free throws over and over until the motion is preserved in muscle memory – each of these sub-skills can be practiced repeatedly until they become automatic habits of mind.
Yes, we can all learn to be more creative thinkers. We have the research base, the educational resources, the knowledge and skill. America can reverse the trend toward declining creativity among its youth.