A study by Emily Weinstein et al of University of Washington Information School and Harvard University found that over the last 20 years, the creative writing of American students has become more conventional and mundane, this in contrast to the apparent increase in creativity of visual art.
The findings of the study about decline in creativity are consistent with those of a 2011 study, which showed that creative thinking has decreased even as intelligence seems to have increased.
While there is no set of guidelines for measuring creativity, a trend toward formulaic, conventional and mundane narratives is a worrisome sign not outweighed by the apparent rise in quality of visual art.
Unlike visual art, writing is a key indicator of creativity because writing requires synthesis of information, which requires understanding of the interplay of concepts and ideas from different sources and their manipulation into new configurations. Being able to write a well-told story is a far more complex intellectual and creative task than creating a piece of visual art for the simple reason that more imaginative work must be done by the writer in arranging events, developing characters and describing the world of the story.
The study parallels observations of writers and teachers about the decline in creativity.
Last month, a group of more than 100 of America’s children’s book authors wrote an open letter to President Obama calling for changes to current educational policy of standardized testing, which, in their view, is killing imagination and the love of reading for pleasure. The new learning climate in schools, fostered by the need to prepare for tests, misses the point of learning to read entirely: “It’s not about testing and reading schemes, but about loving stories and passing on that passion to our children,” according to the study’s authors.
Teachers are also voicing their concern. In a Denver Post editorial Don Batt, a high school English teacher, writes that children no longer write to express their understanding but to satisfy an algorithm: “First, build your writing with a certain number of words, sentences, paragraphs; second, make sure your writing contains the words in the question; third, begin each part with “first, second,” and “third.”
Even if testing in schools is not a causal factor in the observed decline of creativity, it is certainly an effect of the evolution of America’s culture toward one of increased surveillance and control. The author of the 2011 study writes: “creative children are labeled as classroom behavior problems, and society in general has less a sense of humor about mischief and diminishing tolerance for unusual behavior. For example, teachers claim to value creativity in children, but in fact it is proven that they generally dislike creative behaviors and characteristics in the classroom because they are inconvenient and hard to control.”