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The End of Creative Genius?

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

According to scientific research, attending public school is the best way to destroy the creative genius of children. If that just sounds like clickbait, I would encourage you to read on and decide for yourself.

Exploring the idea of creativity poses some rather interesting questions. Where does creativity come from? Are we born with it, or is it learned? And if it is learned, then how is it learned?

In 1968, George Land, Ph.D., conducted a research study to measure the creativity of 1,600 children, ranging in ages from three to five-years old, who were enrolled in a Head Start program.

Land originally devised the creativity test for NASA in order to help them select innovative engineers and scientists. However, the subsequent success of this assessment inspired him to administer the same test to children. Land then re-tested these same children at age 10, again at age 15, and finally at age 25+. The results were absolutely astounding.

The tests revealed that the school system actually stifled the creative genius that children were born with.

So what percentage of those children do you think were categorized as creative geniuses?

  • 5-year olds = 98%

  • 10-year olds = 30%

  • 15-year olds = 12%

  • 25 years old+ = 2%

“What we have concluded,” wrote Land, “is that non-creative behavior is learned.” George Land & Beth Jarman, Break Point and Beyond: Mastering the Future--Today (San Francisco, CA: HarperBusiness, 1993). For skeptics who doubt the consistency of these findings, or dismiss them as isolated incidences, consider that these results have been replicated thousands of times. Watch Dr. Land’s TEDx talk here where he discusses his research.

So why aren’t adults as creative as children are?

To answer that question, we need to backtrack just a bit. In the 1880’s, the “Founding Fathers” (Thorndike, Dewey, Hall, Cubberly, et. al.) of the public school system successfully imported the Prussian model of education to America. This model was developed by Prussia’s autocrats to train citizens to be obedient soldiers and workers who followed instructions.

These goals were achieved by creating a school system whose most important product was boredom. Since bored people are the best consumers, school had to be a boring place. And, since childish people are the easiest consumers to manipulate, the manufacturing of childishness—extended into adulthood—became the first priority of public schools. Consequently, students were intentionally standardized into the most highly prized corporate (and political) commodity of all…predictability.

Fortunately, if boredom can be taught, then so can creativity, right?

Absolutely. Creativity skills can be acquired by learning and applying creative thinking processes. To quote from an abstract cited in The Effectiveness of Creativity Training, Ginamarie Scott, Lyle E. Leritz, & Michael D. Mumford, Creativity Research Journal (2004), Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 361-388:

Over the course of the last half century, numerous training programs intended to develop creativity capacities have been proposed. In this study, a quantitative meta-analysis of program evaluation efforts was conducted.
Based on 70 prior studies, it was found that well-designed creativity training programs typically induce gains in performance with these effects generalizing across criteria, settings, and target populations. Moreover, these effects held when internal validity considerations were taken into account.
An examination of the factors contributing to the relative effectiveness of these training programs indicated that more successful programs were likely to focus on the development of cognitive skills and the heuristics involved in skill application, using realistic exercises appropriate to the domain at hand.
The implications of these observations for the development of creativity through educational and training interventions are discussed along with directions for future research.

The research also identified three key components of creativity.

  1. Expertise. Based on technical, procedural, and intellectual knowledge.

  2. Motivation. Based on a combination of intrinsic (influenced by work environments) and extrinsic (tangible rewards).

  3. Creative thinking. Based on skills, degree of flexibility, and imagination.

Land’s work demonstrated that creativity was (1) a skill that can be developed and (2) a process that can be managed. Creativity begins with building a foundation of knowledge, learning a discipline, and mastering a way of thinking. Over time, we learn to be creative by experimenting, exploring, questioning assumptions, synthesizing information, and using imagination.

Put another way, improving our creativity is really just intentionally avoiding counter-productive thinking. We need to judge less and understand more…to criticize less and question more…to fail more and fear less.

So, how do we recover "lost" creativity?

According to Dr. Land, it's definitely possible. Based on his research, he determined that two types of thinking occur in the brain. Each type uses different parts of the brain and develops different structures to learn new things.

The first type is “divergent” which describes our imagination and is used for creating new possibilities. The other type is “convergent” which describes our process of making judgements and decisions through testing, criticizing, and evaluating.

Divergent thinking accelerates, and convergent thinking decelerates (or even halts) our best efforts. The problem, Land says, “[is that] what happens to these children, as we educate them, we teach them to do both kinds of thinking at the same time.”

Thus, whenever we are asked to come up with new ideas, we revert to the paradigm learned at school and respond with, “We tried that before”, “That’s a stupid idea”, “It’ll never work,” etc.

And this is precisely what we must stop doing.

Dr. Land notes that,

When we actually look inside the brain we find that neurons are fighting each other and actually diminishing the power of the brain because we’re constantly judging, criticizing and censoring. If we operate under fear we use a smaller part of the brain, but when we use creative thinking the brain just lights up.

“That is something you exercise every day when you’re dreaming,” Land reminds us.

Ultimately, we must rediscover the creative genius of our five-year old selves.

One of the best ways to initiate this rediscovery process is to remove the mental blocks surrounding our “5-year-old selves” by engaging in some form of physical activity. This helps to alleviate stress and anxiety and will inspire neurogenesis (the process that creates new brain cells). Diet also plays a crucial role in our mental and physical well-being.

Additionally, we need to be willing to challenge our understanding of things because our ignorance outweighs our knowledge. This is not because we are dumb, but simply because there is so much to know. Therefore, since we don’t know what we don’t know, it behooves us to approach learning with humble curiosity.

Louis R. Mobley, founder of the IBM Executive School, advanced another possibility for the recovery our five-year-old selves.

In 1956, Mobley theorized that IBM’s future success depended on teaching executives to think creatively rather than teaching them how to read financial data. The IBM Executive School was subsequently founded upon the following six insights.

1. Traditional teaching methodologies like reading, lecturing, testing, and memorization are useless. In reality, they are the counter-productive procedure for constructing boxes. Since this method of schooling focuses on regurgitating answers in a linear step-by-step manner, Mobley argued that asking radically different questions in a non-linear manner was the key to creativity.

While largely in agreement with Mobley’s assertion, I would hasten to add that core knowledge and the ability to acquire it, must be in place before engaging in the creative process. For example, before writing a creative essay, you need to have memorized the alphabet, rules of grammar, and be familiar with first-rate literature.

2. Becoming creative is an unlearning rather than a learning process. [I wonder if he knew about Dr. Land’s study?] Designed as a “mind-blowing experience,” the purpose of IBM’s Executive School was to demolish pre-existing assumptions. Executives were relentlessly driven from their intellectual comfort zones in often embarrassing, frustrating, and infuriating ways.

Mobley assumed a massive risk by humbling these high-level executives and their equally large egos, but he took those risks to produce the “Wow, I never thought of it that way before!” reactions that are the indispensable components of creative thought.

3. Since we don’t learn to be creative, we must become creative people. For instance, a recruit doesn’t learn to be a soldier by just reading the military manual. They become a soldier by braving the challenges of boot camp. Somewhere along the way, they are transformed into a soldier.

In much the same way, Mobley’s Executive School was a twelve-week experiential boot camp. Classes, lectures, and books were replaced by riddles, simulations, and games. Mobley and his staff were continually developing experiments where the “obvious” answer was never accepted.

4. The fastest way to become creative is to surround ourselves with creative people (even if they make us feel stupid). An early experiment in controlled chaos, the IBM Executive School was an unsystematic, unstructured environment where most of the benefits accrued through peer to peer interaction (and with much of that interaction informal).

5. Creativity is closely correlated with self-understanding. Since we cannot change what we do not know, Mobley's school was designed as a giant self-reflective mirror to reveal the biases, preconceptions, and belief systems of everyone who went through his program.

6. We MUST have permission to be wrong. This is arguably the most important of Mobley's six insights. Every great idea emerges from hundreds (or in Edison’s case, thousands) of bad ones, and the single biggest reason why many of us never fulfill our creative potential is that we are afraid of making fools of ourselves. Mobley taught that every "bad" or "wrong" idea was only a building block for even better ideas.

Although I agree with much of what Mobley says, I think his approach to unlearning creativity is unnecessarily chaotic. Like any learning experience, consistent practice in a safe, supportive environment will produce incredible results.

In addition to the programs developed by Land and Mobley, generative research has also demonstrated that everyone possesses creative abilities. The quantity and diversity of training greatly increases the potential for creative output, but with one important distinction.

The equation for producing creative output is: quantity = quality.

In fact, the longer the list of ideas, the higher the quality of the final solution. And more often than not, the highest quality ideas are to be found at the end of the list.

Robert Epstein, Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today (July/August 1996):

Behavior is generative; like the surface of a fast-flowing river, it is inherently and continuously novel… behavior flows, and it never stops changing. Novel behavior is generated continuously, but it is labeled creative only when it has some special value to the community… Generativity is the basic process that drives all the behavior we come to label creative.

Although most us will never have the opportunity to experience something like the IBM Executive School, we can have our own experience.

...We can push ourselves to do things that make us uncomfortable and that require skills we don’t think we currently possess.

...We can find mentors that challenge our ego instead of coddling it. Why do you think we love and admire film mentors like Yoda or Morpheus pushing their apprentices into their fullest potential?

...We can become friends with frustration. It is no exaggeration to say that if we don’t become occasionally frustrated (even angered) by a mentor or learning environment, we are not pushing ourselves hard enough and are almost certainly wasting our time.

...We can ignore the politically correct notion that no one should feel “uncomfortable.” Much (if not all) of our creativity is birthed in the uncomfortable.

...We can resist the temptation to build our “case” by appealing to what is “fair” (Hint: Life isn’t fair). Fair is whatever is possible, and creativity demands that we treat the impossible as possible.

...We can decide to give up on giving up. Tenacity is critical to our transformation. After all, no one said it would be easy, and the only alternative is settling for mediocrity.

...We can decide to embrace gratitude in the face of adversity. The power of perseverance is unstoppable and the will to persevere depends upon remaining grateful for what the obstacles help us to become.

As Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), the 30th President of the United States, wisely noted:

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
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