The initial spark that set me off thinking that I needed to write a book about imagination was reading a study by a professor at College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, whose name is Kyung Hee Kim, known as ‘K’ to her friends (because they kept getting her full name wrong). K is originally from Korea, and came to the US in 2000. She already had a Masters and a PhD from her time in Korea, but when she came to the US she did a second PhD under the supervision of Dr Ellis Paul Torrance, known as the ‘Father of Creativity’. Torrance created the famous Torrance Test for Creative Thinking, known as ‘the gold standard of creativity testing’. He passed away in 2003, but K has since continued her research into creativity.
Her paper The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking was published in the Creativity Research Journal in 2011, and its impact was huge. Its finding that since the mid-90s imagination in the US has been in a ‘steady and persistent decline’ while IQ continued to rise made the headlines, even the front page of Newsweek magazine. It led to a period of national soul-searching. When I came across it several years later, I was fascinated that I had never heard mention of it from anyone in the climate change and social justice worlds. If climate change is anything, it must be the greatest failure of the imagination in the history of the world. Perhaps K’s paper might offer some illumination as to why our response isn’t happening fast enough?
It was wonderful recently to be able to talk to K about her work and her findings. I started by asking her how she had ended up embarking on the research that was later to be published as ‘The Creativity Crisis’? Here is the podcast of our conversation, and an edited transcript.
The researcher James R. Flynn found that IQ scores in the world have been increasing every decade, what is termed the ‘Flynn Effect’. People have become smarter. People eat better, so the brain develops better, or more people are educated than before and it affects the IQ scores. There are many reasons. In 2005 I published a paper called “Can only intelligent people be creative?”
I did a meta-analysis on the relationship between creativity and intelligence. I collected every single article that was published on the relationship between creativity and intelligence from 1965 up to 2005. Then I synthesised and found there is a negligible relationship, so maybe creativity and intelligence are not really related. There was also my earlier research on Nobel Prize winners, which found that not all Nobel prize winners have very high IQs. I found, based on my own meta-analysis, that creativity and intelligence are not that related.
If intelligence is going up, then creativity should go up, because a lot of people think that creativity and intelligence are really related. But I hypothesised that creativity and intelligence are not really highly related. If creativity and intelligence are not related like I hypothesised, then it might not go up. Even though intelligence is going up every decade, perhaps creativity might not.
I analysed data from the famous Torrance test, since it was originally from 1966 up to 2008. The sample size is almost 300,000. Up to 1990 creativity was going up, then after that, somewhere between 1990 and 1998, something happened and it started declining. In 1998 it decreased and then after that continuously. After 2008 it decreased and then recently, 2018 decreased. Continuously decreasing. Something happened between 1990 to 1998…
What was the reaction to the paper like? Once the article came out?
I was shocked. So many people called me, left messages on my answer phone. I don’t know how many people. When I went to my office there were people waiting for me! Emails, emails… I don’t know. It was so many people. I didn’t know American people were interested in research findings that much because when I was in Korea we never even talked about research findings. It was really unexpected.
But I didn’t like the intention of the media attention. They didn’t ask me how to change this, or how to reverse this creative crisis. Nobody asked me really. They asked me “who did wrong?” Politicians? Education? Parents? Technology? They asked me to finger point like that. There were two TV shows, and one radio show too, who wanted me to talk about, to finger point, to blame a group of people. But I didn’t want to just be negative.
I want to be positive. I still think we can change this. As long as people like you are in this world we can change it. I don’t just want to blame on this specific person or group of people. That’s why I didn’t go to the TV show or radio show.
It felt like it really touched a nerve. It felt like it was similar, as you’ve written in your book, to the Sputnik crisis, when there was this sense of, “Oh no, we’ve abandoned that. We’ve let the imagination muscle grow weak.” What do you think was the nerve that it touched at that time?
I call it ‘American fear’. They have to be the leading country. All of a sudden they might not be. Like Japan in the 1980s, now maybe the Chinese. I don’t know. That kind of fear, and the economy wasn’t getting better. Also in my book I researched patents. If you look at the patent record, the percentage of foreigners, especially Asian people, is dramatically increasing. So the percentage of US born people is decreasing, so it’s a comparison. Foreigners are increasing, US are decreasing.
There are many reasons – also in education since the late 1990s, especially in 2000s, international testing movement like PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) … I know a lot of people like comparison and they think they can improve education, but I don’t know if the comparison side is really good because out of many countries in the world, US students, for example, PISA scores are in the middle, right? Out of all the countries…
Americans maybe feel that nowadays our children are getting dumber, or foreign children are getting smarter and then American children are getting dumber. It’s based on fear and that’s why they have been focusing on test scores a lot. I believe that in America our strength is creativity. Not test scores.
Asian people – I’m Asian – our strength is test scores and memorisation, and repetition and practice. But American people’s strength is originality, individuality, creativity. It means that American people’s weakness is the test score, their strength is their creativity. But since the 1990s, especially 2000s, American people are focused on their weaknesses, which is test scores and memorisation. They want to improve that instead of focusing on their strength which is their creativity. When you focus on improving your weakness, you lose your strengths, then eventually you become average, mediocre.
When you published that paper you attributed the findings towards the rising of testing in schools, the increasing presence of screens and the decline of free unstructured play. Over the time since then have you added any other possible clauses to that list?
Recently I did some research on the influence of school uniform. 80% – 90% of pupils in schools wear uniform. People think uniform is good for a lot of things like you don’t waste money on clothes, you focus more on academics and so on. But actually, based on all kinds of research findings, it’s really inconclusive. There are no really positive effects.
At the same time, on top of that, I found that a lot of the research was sponsored by uniform manufacturing companies. They perceive that there might be positive effects but actually the research findings don’t show any. Uniform is really actually encouraging conformity. But creativity requires non-conformity, especially the imagination side of creativity. The main essence of creativity is imagination. The imagination side of creativity requires non-conformity and originality.
You imagine something, you think of something other people never thought about, out of the box thinking. You have to think different to others. But wearing uniform suggest we should all look the same. At the same time, it excludes others who are not in the community too, right? So then who looks different, who acts different, who thinks different, it’s not a good thing. To add to that, technology.
So school uniform is damaging to the imagination?
Yes. Based on my research there are certain conditions, environments, that foster creativity. I call them the four different climates. It’s in my book ‘Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation’. First the ‘Sun’ climate: encouragement, inspiration. After that the ‘Storm’ climate: high expectations and challenge. Then third, Diverse Experiences, and a view point. The last one is freedom to think deeply and differently. In terms of that I chose items that indicated those creative climates. I call it creative climate to foster creativity.
I analysed. The UK was not really good. The US school environment still fosters creativity way better than UK. The creativity crisis in the US is happening. I haven’t studied other countries’ creativity crisis, but based on my comparison of PISA survey responses by teachers and the students, it looks like US students are still more creative. Or at least the US school environment fosters more creativity in students than other countries, including the UK.
Although your paper was called The Creativity Crisis, many of the trends that you measure, i.e. divergent thinking and things like that apply just as much to the imagination. I wonder how you see the connection and the distinction between imagination and creativity, and what insights your research gives us about the imagination?
People criticise the Torrance tests, “Ah, those are just divergent thinking, it’s not a creativity test, it’s a divergent thinking test.” But I disagree. At first when the Torrance test was started in 1958, both Torrance tests, both verbal and figural (one is drawing, the other is writing). Both versions of the Torrance test were divergent thinking tests. But Dr Torrance dedicated his entire life to researching creativity and creativity assessment.
Almost 25 years later, in 1984, he revised his Torrance test and especially the figure test, the ones with the drawing. Those are the ones that are famous worldwide. Over 40 countries have translated and use Torrance tests to identify gifted children. In 1984 he revised that and so it means that since 1984 the Torrance test particularly became a creativity test, not a divergent thinking test.
Divergent thinking, so there are certain elements used, but creative tests are more comprehensive than that. So that’s why I call this a real creativity test. Creativity is like a process to lead to innovation. Creativity is making something unique and useful that results in an outcome of innovation. But the foundation of creative thinking is expertise, not high IQ. Without high IQ you can be really good at something, one thing.
I give an example to other people because I have a friend who is fixing cars. He only had a fifth grade education. He didn’t finish fifth grade and education doesn’t reflect IQ but academic achievement and IQs are really highly and strongly positively related. I don’t think his IQ is really high. I think his IQ is below average. But because of his expertise, and then at the same time you grow up in an environment that can encourage imagination, so once you have expertise and then you have imagination, yes, you can become an innovator. You don’t have to be highly educated or highly intelligent.
That’s why Nobel Prize winners and other innovators don’t have a formal education or high IQ. All that’s in common is that they have one specific expertise in their specific field. Then at the same time, I told you earlier, if you have expertise you just become expert, right? You reinvent the wheel. But with imagination you can expand the uses of words, or you can combine different words together, or you can improve, or you can make some unique words. That’s why imagination is necessary.
I don’t call it just imagination, I call it either out-box thinking or out-box imagination, because you can just think inside in the box. You have to think of something outside the box. If it’s just you have the knowledge, and you just memorise knowledge and skills, then it’s just expertise. You have to add to it some uniqueness, so that’s why it’s imagination or out-box thinking is necessary.
So you feel it’s fine to say that the data in your Creativity Crisis paper also applies to the imagination as much as it applies to creativity?
Yes, of course. Because there’s no research field for imagination. But actually imagination is all about this out-box thinking. Why? Many people think of imagination as all of a sudden you just think about it, you just come up something new, or fantasising something new, right? But actually it’s all based on some specific expertise.
That’s why I’m saying the basis of creative thinking is expertise. You have to have raw material; a lot of raw material to mix together to do something with it. Imagination requires some material to tinker with. It’s not something out of the blue from the heavens. It’s not like that. It’s all based on your own experiences, knowledge, skills. So that’s why imagination is basically out of the box thinking.
Jean Twenge published iGen where she talks about how the data she looked at said that in 2012 she started seeing lots of trends in young people around anxiety, depression, self-harm, mental health, which she attributes to the introduction of the iPhone at that time. I wonder in your on-going updating of the Creativity Crisis research, have you seen any similar impact?
Yeah, so she’s connecting to some kind of mental illness, right? Negative effects. First I need to talk about that. When I looked at all of the Torrance tests, there were studies that use the Torrance tests I looked at recently. Torrance test scores are really positively related to healthy mental status. If you are mentally healthy, then you are more creative based on Torrance tests. If there is more depression, anxiety, then it can lower your creativity. On the other side, I connect technology more to passive play. So instead of going outside where you actively play, you explore outdoors, and you get hurt sometimes, and then you learn something, instead of children doing that, nowadays, you sit in front of an iPhone or TV or computer. Passive play is really hurting your creativity because you just get it, you put it, you don’t have time to think about. It hurts your reflection skills also.
You need deep thinking and you need different thinking but iPhones really foster the same thinking. Sameness. It’s like a conformity. Not active thinking. It also hurts your deep thinking also because you get distracted by this technology all the time. You don’t really have alone time, solitude, to think about things in depth; why it’s like this. You don’t have deep exploration time. It affects negatively on creativity.
One of the questions that I’ve asked everybody that I’ve interviewed for this book was that if it had been you, rather than Donald Trump, who had been elected as the President of America, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make American Imaginative Again’ – so you were really stressing the need to revalue the imagination in education, in public life, in policy making, in people’s home lives, you said, “We have to turn this around. Our survival depends upon it. We need to throw all the resources that we can at making American more imaginative again” – what would you do?
‘Make America Imaginative Again’. I like the phrase. I should use that.
So what might you do in your first 100 days in office do you think?
First of all, I’m still Korean. I haven’t changed my passport. I didn’t want to. So I have a strong Korean accent, so even if I die, I would still be Korean. So I can’t be American president, but I can imagine…
I would change education because education is the basis of everything. It’s the future. It would change everything. I would change the college admission criteria because all education is focused towards college admission. The parents are focused on which college their children will enter.
More people in the world are taking SAT and ACT every year, more and more. They make more money and more money. Then because they have more money, they have more money for lobbying at Congress, more and more. It’s becoming harder to reduce their power. If we can get rid of test scores then the admission criteria should be measuring each person’s expertise. Because all children are different. Each child is different. If they don’t focus on test scores then we find what they are interested in, then grow their interest into passion by accumulating more knowledge and skills. You work on it.
If you are interested in something and you work on it and you know more about it, then you become passionate about it. Once you are good at it, you are passionate about it, right? Then it can grow into your own expertise. So based on something they can do well, we need to measure and a lot of colleges could do that actually. We hire college students based on their interests, their work experiences or their expertise. So we can do that; then it will change the entire education. Of course high school, and then middle school, and then elementary school, it goes down, right?
Because of this focus on testing, even four years old in this country – it was not like that – but now, research shows, even four year olds are focused on academics. It means that before they had more play time, free time, exploration time. But now those times are already used. Now they have a focus on academics. And some children are not good at academics earlier, so then they already know that they are not good at this. They feel like they are failures already, at the age of four, because of the general societal focus on these test scores. If we change the admission criteria completely for college, then going down, from four years old, or three years old, the education movement, their life, their experiences, will be changed. That’s what I want.