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Book Review: The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation by K.H. Kim

Over the past quarter century, America’s knee-jerk reaction to rising Asian test scores has driven our education system in precisely the wrong direction. In The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation, K. H. Kim explains the real meaning of creativity and why there is a problem. She then lays out a five-part plan to avert the looming crisis. We are innovators, you and I. Sometimes we are faced with a vexing problem and give birth to a clever solution. Other times, we are acting without provocation, creating a totally new experience.  Innovation is embedded in our DNA, guarding our being and fueling our…

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Reviewer's Rating

Summary : Declining creativity in America is a serious problem; this book calls it out, and then offers a viable long-term solution.

User Rating: 3.6 ( 1 votes)
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Over the past quarter century, America’s knee-jerk reaction to rising Asian test scores has driven our education system in precisely the wrong direction. In The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation, K. H. Kim explains the real meaning of creativity and why there is a problem. She then lays out a five-part plan to avert the looming crisis.
The Creativity Challenge
We are innovators, you and I. Sometimes we are faced with a vexing problem and give birth to a clever solution. Other times, we are acting without provocation, creating a totally new experience.  Innovation is embedded in our DNA, guarding our being and fueling our pride and sense of accomplishment. We depend on innovation, and we expect it to power America’s future.

It comes as no surprise then that the work of Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William and Mary has caused a stir. Professor Kim studied hundreds of thousands of Torrance Scores (similar to an IQ score, but instead measuring creativity) and discovered that they have been dropping steadily since around 1990. The fall is most precipitous in the K-6 crowd. The implication is that future generations will be unable to fulfill America’s innovation destiny.

Where exactly is this crisis, and what is creativity anyway? Professor Kim, brought up in the traditional Korean culture, ultimately became a successful academic and raised her own family in America. She is well equipped to draw cultural contrasts through personal life stories. As her book illustrates, there is a fundamental conflict between Asian values (based on Confucian Principles) and creativity.

Innovators are self-inspired, passionately curious, spontaneous, playful, energetic, and intense. Some “prickly” or undesirable attitudes in children may be early signs of these traits, and could portend future creativity. Unfortunately, some of these qualities can also lead a child to an ADHD diagnosis and a drug treatment to dull their edge. This profound insight reveals how the conformity demands of parenting and teaching can suppress creativity development.

The book quickly moves to the basic reasons for the past quarter century of declining creativity. Americans may have started out as optimistic, multi-cultural, flexible risk takers, but things have changed. In 1957, we were humiliated (and our security was threatened) by the launch of Sputnik. The knee-jerk reaction led to increased R&D spending, more STEM education, and greater student-teacher interaction. The result was a measurable increase in creativity.

More recently, when our education system felt threatened by the Asians, we responded with No Child Left Behind and Common Core, leading teachers to “teach to the test”. This produced limited improvement in test scores while seriously hampering creativity. In one of her many nature-themed analogies, Kim likens this to a Bonsai tree that is artificially pruned and wired to create a pleasing appearance, while preventing it from ever reaching full size.

How does the book propose we recapture American innovation? The short answer is to cultivate creative Climates, nurture creative Attitudes and apply creative Thinking Skills. CATS is the mnemonic that will serve as a guide through the details.

As the book begins to discuss solutions, the assault of acronyms and metaphors begins. Not that these are inherently bad; the sort of abstract thinking that this engages may in fact be drawing out some of the reader’s creativity. Both climates and attitudes have four attributes (soil, sun, storm and space), and there are as many as eight storm attitudes at the next level. To keep track, it might help to jot these teaching devices down on a 3×5 card, and use it as a bookmark. Doing so certainly enhanced my understanding of the book.

This is also the point at which the identity of the target audience started to get a little fuzzy. The back cover pitches the book to “parents, educators and businesses alike” (perhaps the acronyms will appeal to the business types) while the metaphors (apple trees, cactuses, growing seasons…) will be a better fit for parents and educators. Although creativity training has been shown to work surprisingly well, it usually doesn’t happen over the course of a 3-day business seminar. In the text, Prof. Kim says she will have been successful if just one child is enabled to rise above his or her limits. My own experience in higher education has taught me that high-achieving students are often hungry for some out-of-book experiences where they can stretch their innovation muscles.

Having planted the fundamental concepts of climates and attitudes for developing creativity, the book moves into the area where it really shines – the life stories of legendary innovators. The first is Albert Einstein, and while this may not be the best example of the disconnect between IQ and creativity, Kim’s highlights from his life provide compelling examples of her blueprint for building innovation. The stories sometimes lose their momentum when interrupted for an explanation of the principles just reinforced. I personally would have preferred (and perhaps had my creativity more stimulated) had I been allowed to think through these myself, and then be shown the connections at the end.

The story of how a compass Einstein received at the age of five ignited a life-long curiosity about invisible forces at work in the universe was engaging, as was the way his parents always challenged him, and encouraged him to finish everything he started. At first he wasn’t considered to be particularly smart, but he grew up in creative climates where “learning was respected and excellence was expected.” His parents encouraged his independent attitude, while providing opportunities to think and daydream.

Cultural climates matter as well, and Kim uses both her own life and stories of historical figures to illustrate. Marie Curie and Mileva Maric are two examples of potentially creative women who ended up quite differently. While Marie’s talented and creative husband mentored and encouraged her, Mileva lost the good academic relationships with her professors because of her romance with Albert Einstein, who himself had conflicts with them. While Mileva’s creative potential wilted away, Marie’s flourished.

Of all the many acronyms introduced in this book, I found the ION thinking skills the most compelling. The letters represent Inbox, Outbox and Newbox – respectively those that develop foundational expertise, those that are broad and spontaneous, and the synthesis of the first two into a creative product. Researchers have known for some time that it is the free thinking, artistic right brain, controlled and fed factual information by the logical left brain, that ultimately produces creative output. ION is a convenient way of recalling this.

While IQ may be a valid assessment of the logical left, the book notes that 80% of the most highly creative students would be missed by testing IQ alone.  Kim uses ACP, the Appletree Creative Process, and the growing seasons as a framework for presenting the detailed stages of this ION idea synthesis. She warns that gifts that appear early with students often limit the achievement of broad expertise and subsequent innovation later. It is the tension generated by curiosity that drives true development of expertise. “Aha!” moments happen when the strict logic of the structured mind steps momentarily aside.

How are we to put all these ideas to practice? Regardless of whether you are in business, education or parenting, it brings the whole subject neatly home when you have concrete exercises that can help implement the principles explained in the book. The final section of The Creativity Challenge provides these aids organized along the lines of the CATS principles. These appendices of “Exercises” comprise nearly half of the book, suggesting that this is more of a manual than a pleasure read.

The Creativity Challenge by K.H. Kim makes a convincing case for the gradual decline in American creativity over the past quarter century, and follows up with a plausible explanation. Prof. Kim’s personal cultural experiences, along with stories from the lives of well-known innovators, help to bring to life her detailed solutions to this problem.  In spite of a daunting dose of acronyms and metaphors, the book offers a worthwhile lesson plan for growing American creativity and reversing the historical trend.

Note: This review is based on an advance copy. The Creativity Challenge is scheduled for release on September 13.

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About P.W. Smith

Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development. Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.