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  • Writer's pictureDavid Nagai

Do Schools Hurt Creativity?

Updated: May 18, 2021

Who do you think has more genius-level creativity? Five-year-old kids or adults?

Systems scientist George Land helped answer this question with a research study beginning in 1968. In the study, 1,600 American kindergarten students around age five were tested for their creativity. They were asked to figure out how many different ways they could use a paperclip – basically, how to creatively innovate.

Can you guess what percent of students were categorized as creative geniuses?

98% of the kindergarten students tested at genius creativity levels.

Then, when those same exact students were tested again at age ten, what do you think the percentage was?

It dropped to 30%.

How about the percentage by age 15?

It decreased all the way to12%.

It was clear that the students quickly lost their level of creativity year by year as they participated in the education system. Isn’t this ironic that the education system that was meant to prepare students for the future actually slowly killed their creativity?

Land draws our attention to two types of thinking – divergent and convergent.

Divergent thinking moves outward toward as many ideas as possible. It focuses on infinite possibility, no restraints, and freedom where any answer could work.

Convergent thinking moves inward by limiting the number of ideas. It restricts the creative process with judgment, criticism, and censorship.

Our education system has often forced students into convergent thinking where their thoughts are limited by external judgment, which grows their fear. This is the opposite of what’s needed for creativity – that is, curiosity and exploration.

So how did our education system become like this?

Education researcher Ken Robinson has explained how our modern education system was built during the industrial revolution. The main purpose was to educate people well enough to obediently and efficiently follow rules as factory workers. (View Robinson's presentations about education here, here, and here.)

Though this might have been a necessary part of the development of education, he argues that our current system places too much emphasis on subjects such as math, science, and languages, while neglecting the humanities, or the arts. More holistic subjects such as physical education and various art subjects, for instance, are given very low priority compared to subjects that tend to involve more strict mental work that result in exact answers.

If you think of our schools as fast food restaurants, Robinson suggests, you can see how this standardized, efficient, and repetitive system we call education might seem to produce countless cheap meals, but seriously fails to provide quality, nutritious food that really benefits society.

Going against the idea of a brain factory, Robinson recommends that we recognize the diversity of learning styles and the dynamic interconnection of all subjects – including the arts.

Another education researcher was Brazilian Paulo Freire who critiqued how poor people were educated in the 1960s and 1970s. Freire called this system the “banking model” of education. Imagine that each student is a tiny bank, or coin box, used to collect coins. In this analogy, the teacher simply inserts coin after coin of information into the students’ empty heads until their heads are filled up with knowledge and correct information. This “banking model” is extremely passive and fails to empower the students to think for themselves.

In opposition, Freire promoted a model where students would participate in the process of learning. Instead of passively receiving information, they would actively ask questions, exchange ideas, and be agents of their own growth and transformation. In this sense, the teacher would not input knowledge into the students, but would rather draw out the creative and perceptive potential of the students. The students would then become increasingly conscious, active, and empowered.

What can we learn from these educators and their ideas in 2021?

We can acknowledge that education has evolved over time to suit certain requirements, like factories. But the times and requirements have changed drastically in the last few hundred years, and especially more recently.

Now, we have AI that is doing a great job doing many tasks we used to be educated for. But we also have much more complex problems and opportunities to investigate that require increased creativity. This is our chance to look toward the future and adapt education to help students maintain their creative genius capabilities into adulthood.

Looking at the workplace, we must seriously examine how we select, train, and develop our team members. If they have been educated to practice convergent thinking, we had better nurture company cultures that promote divergent thinking in order for us to keep up with necessary change and opportunity. This skill is one of the main things that separate us from AI.

In our world of standardized education, exams, and rule following, I wonder:

How creative will our kids end up as adults? And, how will this make our future better or worse?

In the past, we put kids in a box because we thought that was the safest and most predictable way for them to grow.

Perhaps now, the safest and wisest thing is for us to let our young children step outside of the boxes we’ve put them in and invite them to show us how to innovate those boxes to create the future that we all need.

It might be unpredictable, but so is the world we live in.

Let me leave you with three questions:

How will you help your children to maintain and use their creativity?

How will you embrace creativity in your life and work?

If you don’t embrace more creativity, what will it cost you?


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