Why we should make great play of the widening creativity gap

Studies show that creativity in children is falling while IQ levels rise. This is bad news for our industry, and we shouldn’t take it lying down

Few would doubt that creativity is one of the most important raw human ingredients of marketing. Which makes some recent news from the US more than a little disturbing.

There is a phenomenon in Western cultures so well-validated that it has its own academic name. It’s known as the Flynn effect. It’s shorthand for the observation that measured intelligence is increasing by ten IQ points with each successive generation.

Hurrah, I hear you say. We need more mathematicians and scientists even more than we need more brand managers and copywriters. Especially if the West is not to lose its lead in advanced scientific research to the BRICs, or some other modishly acronymic collection of parvenu nation-states.

However, there’s a problem with this assumption. The scientific method starts with observation and hypothesis creation. Right-brain activities. The best scientists are amazingly creative people, highly skilled at spotting hitherto unrecognised relationships between disparate phenomena.

It’s not just the eggheads that value creativity. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the number one leadership competency of the future.

All the more worrying, then, that since 1990, the measured creativity of American children has been in decline.

You may balk at the phrase “measured creativity”. Isn’t measuring creativity akin to weighing angels’ wings? Well no, apparently. There is an accepted measure of creativity called the Torrance test. And unlike the more familiar IQ test, it actually sounds quite fun.

One of the elements of the test goes like this. You sit a child down with a toy fire engine. Then you ask the child to come up with ways to improve the toy to make it more fun to play with. Making the ladder removable, say, or giving it a working siren.

Highly creative children will come up with 30 or more ideas. A degree of mental fecundity sufficient to give most creative directors an inferiority complex.

If you try this test on your child this evening and are rewarded with an equally high score, you should seriously consider investing less in your pension plan. Because, according to Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University, a high score on the Torrance test is a greater predictor of career achievement than a high IQ score.

Plucker has been analysing over 50 years’ worth of Torrance data. Studies such as his have unearthed the fact that measured creativity peaked in 1990 and has been on the wane ever since.

This news has sent the American chattering classes into a tailspin. It even made the front cover of Newsweek this summer. Predictably, with the Gulf oil well catastrophe safely put to bed, the blamestorming around the “creativity gap” rapidly reached a peak of intensity.

It is, apparently, the fault of too little religion. Or too much. Of too little parenting. Or too much. It is due to the internet. Video games. Poor diet. Loud music. Mexicans. Arabs. Arab Mexicans. You name it, you can blame it.

Though there’s one blame-holder everyone can agree on. A group within society so universally loathed that their culpability is plain for everyone to see. Yes, I’m talking about the teachers.

I feel I have to declare an interest here. I am the offspring of two proud members of the teaching profession. I even dabbled with following in their footsteps once myself. So you will just have to believe that it is more than just chauvinistic pride talking when I say that I disagree.

On both sides of the Atlantic, governments have been responding to pressure from industry leaders for higher levels of educational attainment from school and college leavers. Their response has been to increase the size of the graduate population year on year.

Governments have been responding to pressure from industry leaders for higher levels of educational attainment from school and college leavers. Their response has been to increase the size of the graduate population. This has changed the nature of A-levels… Answer the question; don’t think for yourself; and don’t start getting creative

This has changed the nature of A-levels, and of teaching in general. Nowhere was this point made more clearly than in the recent Radio 4 programme “How to get an A-star”, in which Sir Trevor Nunn got a B in English Literature for presuming to challenge the premise of the examiner’s question.

Once, that would have got you an interview at Magdalen. Today it barely gets you a one-way ticket to Lampeter. Answer the question. Don’t think for yourself. And whatever you do, don’t start getting creative on them.

I can’t prove it, but I suspect that this subtle change in our definition of academic excellence could be a factor in any “creativity gap” we witness over here in the years to come.

The good news is that we in the so-called creative industries don’t have to take this lying down. Remember that the vicious circle began with industry in the first place. We can apply pressure on government and academics to put as great a premium on creativity as on other measures of intellectual capacity.

If this sounds a little abstract, here’s one concrete proposal, shamelessly cribbed from a recent issue of the Times Educational Supplement: bring back special papers, those un-crammable A-level papers that tested candidates on their ability to think on their feet and construct arguments from first principles.

In the meantime, perhaps we could introduce our own special papers. One department in my own agency already has. I think they call it a “copy test”.

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