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Are We Wringing the Creativity Out of Kids?

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Do you think you’re creative?”

Ask this question of a group of second-graders, and about 95 percent of them will answer “Yes.” Three years later, when the kids are in fifth grade, that proportion will drop to 50 percent—and by the time they’re seniors in high school, it’s down to 5 percent.

Author Jonah Lehrer recently discussed the implications of these sobering statistics for education in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. In a talk and question-and-answer session he participated in at the Commonwealth Club in Palo Alto, California, last month, Lehrer talked about why children lose their playful sense of creativity as they get older, and how we can help them hang on to it.

Lehrer began by quoting Picasso: “Every child is born an artist. The problems begin once we start to grow up.” Actually, Lehrer noted, the problems begin in a very specific time frame: the years covering third, fourth, and fifth grade. It’s during this period, he says, that many kids “conclude that they are not creative, and this is in large part because they start to realize that that their drawing is not quite as pretty as they would like, that they can put the brush in the wrong place, that their short stories don’t live up to their expectations—so they become self-conscious and self-aware, and then they shut themselves down.” Parents and teachers must intervene during this crucial window to ensure that children’s creativity doesn’t wither.

One such intervention: “We have to expand our notion of what productivity means,” said Lehrer. “Right now we are grooming our kids to think in a very particular way, which assumes that the right way to be thinking is to be attentive, to stare straight ahead—which is why we diagnose 20 percent of kids in many classrooms as having attention deficit disorders, when the research is actually more complicated.”


People with such conditions are actually more likely to become “eminent creative achievers” once they’re out in the real world, Lehrer noted. He cited research by Jordan Grafman of the University of Toronto, showing that distractibility can be an asset as long as it’s combined with a moderately high IQ. “When you’re distractible, you’re always grabbing at seemingly irrelevant ideas and combining them with other ideas. Most of those ideas won’t pan out, which is why being smart helps, because that means you can get rid of those ideas quickly," he said. "But every once in a while, that new mash-up is going to be useful, is going to lead you somewhere interesting.”

Parents’ and teachers’ task, he said, is to help kids learn how to “productively daydream.”

Lehrer’s second proposal: Teach children how to have “grit,” the perseverance and determination that’s required to create something new. He referenced the research on grit conducted by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, who professes the maxim “Choose easy, work hard.”

Lehrer elaborated: “What she means by that is that’s important to give kids a menu of possibilities pretty early on, a menu of things they might fall in love with—maybe it’s painting, maybe it’s drawing, maybe it’s writing, maybe it’s computer science—just a bunch of passions that they could discover. [You want them to] find these things that don’t feel like work, activities that just feel like fun. And then you have to remind them—‘OK, so you’ve found something you love, the goal you want to strive for. Now you have to work hard. Now you have to put in your thousands of hours of practice. Now you have to be willing to persevere through failure and frustrations.’”

With these key interventions, Lehrer suggested, children’s vital spirit of creativity can be kept alive.



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