Despite what the title may lead you to think, this paper isn’t yet another plea for greater recognition of the economic contribution of Britain’s co-called ‘creative industries’. Important though they are to the national economy, Downton Abbey, WPP and Roots Manuva are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, thank you very much. Instead, this essay frames a broader-ranging proposal to turn all businesses in the UK into creative businesses. We propose to do this by starting at the very roots; by changing the emphasis of our educational system to identify and nurture the growth-driving creative1 talent of coming generations.
By Richard Madden
In 1952, an American academic by the name of E. Paul Torrance embarked on a fascinating but often-overlooked study which would span several decades. At a time when the main focus of educational psychologists was the study of human intelligence, Torrance instead decided to concentrate his study on the then unfashionable topic of human creativity.
He took a cohort of children of the same age and measured their creative fluency.2 He then separated them into two groups, one with high creative fluency and the other with average or lower creative fluency. As far as possible, he controlled for effects such as affluence and cultural differences through his sample design.
Torrance interviewed his subjects (who became known as ‘The Torrance Kids’) at regular intervals through their lives. The results surprised him. He was expecting the creatively talented sample to be frustrated in their lives: round pegs in the square holes of workaday adult life. Reality turned out to be different. Their self-reported happiness scores were higher than those of their peers in the control group. But the true revelation came when the average salaries and other proxies for career success were compared.
Far from being ‘happy dreamers’ who could boast only relatively modest material attainments in life, the creative members of the group were earning higher salaries and occupied positions of greater authority than their less creative (though often equally intelligent) peers.
The Torrance Study was the first to show that creativity has not only an aesthetic value to individuals and society, but an economic one too. A flurry of other studies subsequently confirmed its conclusions. However, at roughly the same time as his experiment was beginning, something happened which would cause his findings to be ignored for a generation.
In 1957, the Soviet Union orbited the world’s first artificial satellite. In so doing, it proved it had a heavy-lift rocket capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the heartland of America. In the corridors of power in Washington, the phenomenon of ‘The missile gap’ was born. In a shock response unseen since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Government invested massively in science and technology education with the aim of raising a generation of rocket scientists. As a direct result, an obsession with the measurement of numerical reasoning and logical deduction rapidly displaced research into creativity within the psychological community.
In 2014, another geopolitical shock occurred which reinforced this trend. That year, according to the IMF, China overtook the US to become the world’s largest economy (when adjusted for purchasing power). Once again, the finger was pointed at educators. And this time, the argument had a subtly racist overtone.
The Chinese, it was argued, are good at systems thinking. They excel at taking existing ideas and industrialising them. Like a super-computer, the collective Chinese intellect solves problems by brute force, not by inventiveness. Their educational philosophy is focused on deductive thinking coupled with rote learning. Despite this rather condescending attitude, the response of US legislators was to copy what was presumed to be China’s approach to education. There was a race to get back to basics, and fast.
The only problem was that this was a specious argument. And the only reason it went unchallenged was the establishment’s widespread ignorance of one little-known statistic.
We’ve all heard of Moore’s law, by which the processing power of integrated circuits is supposed to double every two years. It so happens that there’s an analogue in the world of psychology called the ‘Flynn effect’, which holds that in the Western world average IQ increases by 10 points every decade. Which indeed it had.
The reason for America’s relegation to second place amongst the world’s economies wasn’t stagnation in the development of its population’s deductive reasoning capacity. The cause, it was hypothesised, was more likely to be found elsewhere.
Despite the general decline of interest in creativity studies since Torrance’s day, a small but dedicated coterie of researchers had persevered with their assiduous measurement of young Americans’ creative fluency. One of them was Kyung Lee Kim of the University of William and Mary. He discovered that just as IQ was steadily advancing decade by decade, the creative fluency of young Americans had been in decline since 1990.
As is the pattern in any developed western society, the greatest minds of a generation were immediately applied to the task not of finding a solution, but deciding where to cast the inevitable blame for this phenomenon. Was it the teachers or the parents? Video games or artificial sweeteners? Just as the debate was reaching fever pitch, another bombshell dropped.
While young Americans’ measured creative potential had been in decline for over two decades, that of their Chinese peers had actually been increasing during this period. Furthermore, a mandate for teaching creative thinking techniques had been incorporated in China’s 2011 10-year plan for education. Just to rub salt into the wounds, the same creativity researchers who had been ignored for decades in the United States were welcomed with open arms by the Chinese government, and their research was read widely.
One such researcher, Prof. Jonathan Plucker, was invited to address a group of Chinese academics on his work. After his presentation, one of his hosts came up to him and opined: ‘You know, it’s ironic. Just as your system is seeking to copy our old one, we are creating a new system based on your old one’.
This change in the Chinese educational system was based on one large (and in many Western countries counter-intuitive) insight: Just as creativity can be measured, it can also be taught. As with intelligence, one’s creative phenotype is a factor of both genotype and environment (and in my case, psycho-active drugs). In other words, the inherited creative horsepower of an individual may be fixed. But it can be increased by an educational environment that respects, teaches and rewards divergent thinking.
Neuroscience long ago disproved the pop-sci notion of the ‘left brain and the right brain’ and the concomitant assumption that people are either right-brain or left-brain dominant. Instead it has been shown that both inductive and reductive thinking is used during the creative process. The key to creative fluency isn’t the size of the creative cluster in the brain. It’s the speed with which it can communicate between its deductive opposite number. This so-called ‘neural plasticity’ can be increased through training: Yet more reassuring proof that it’s not size that counts, but what you do with it.
You can probably see where this is going. Here’s yet another liberal arts graduate with a passion for rap and the late Beethoven string quartets making an impassioned plea for more ‘arts’ education in a belated attempt at self-validation. But you’d be wrong.
My parents were both teachers, one of music and the other of the visual arts. They were idealistic participants in the so-called ‘Leicestershire Experiment’ of the 1960s and early seventies. Under the visionary county director of education Stewart C. Mason, state schools in Leicestershire were given massive funding (by today’s standards) to invest in the teaching of the arts. The initiative had many positive effects. Children who would otherwise have been ignored by the educational system found success as artists and performers. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the culture in schools was broadened, which had a positive effect on overall educational attainment.
However, there is no direct evidence that the Leicestershire Experiment increased the overall creative fluency of a generation of children. Perhaps because there was a self-selection effect at work. Arts education was disproportionately focused on the naturally talented. Genotype won out against environment. Youth symphony orchestras and print-making classes aren’t necessarily the answer to growing a generation’s neural plasticity. So, what is?
A quantitative meta-study3 of 70 published reports shows that well-designed creative thinking programmes can significantly increase children’s and adults’ creative fluency. Common characteristics of these successful programmes include teaching structured problem-solving, giving participants permission to fail, and making the subject matter relevant.
The last point is key. Our view is that any attempt to introduce creativity as a separate subject within the curriculum is mis-guided. If it becomes seen by students, parents and teachers as a mere bolt-in, it will never be taken seriously and never become part of ‘serious’ education. It is also likely to become a target whenever an administration feels the need for a ‘back to basics’ crusade.
What we are proposing here is more radical. If we want creativity to become an intrinsic part of the way the people of the UK work, we need to make it an intrinsic part of the way they learn. Just as the cry in the 1980s was that every teacher should be a teacher of maths and English, every teacher must become a teacher of creativity.
What does that mean, exactly? Creativity research suggests that the best way to teach creative problem-solving is to leave enough room in the trap for the mouse. In other words, to equip children with the knowledge they need to solve a problem, together with an armoury of creative thinking techniques, and then let them loose on a problem with the encouragement to attack it in any way they choose. The more practical the problem the better. How can physics help cut the noise level in the library? How can psychology help students eat healthier? How can music help the first fifteen score more tries?
With the pressure on so many teachers to teach to the test, the tests must change as well. Exam questions must be devised to require students to extrapolate beyond first principles. Grading must reward divergent thinking. And the ability to contribute to team-based problem-solving should be a component in the final score too.
Of course, this is primarily a paper about economics. So, at some point we need to address ourselves to the $64,000 question: Will refocusing the education system on creativity deliver a measurable boost to the UK’s GDP?
There is no known golden ratio of return on investment here. The evidence at a national level is patchy. Yes, the rise of the Chinese economy has been co-incident with a rise in the measured creativity of that nation’s population. But there are plenty of other, more tangible explanations for China’s success, from its high savings ratio to its shift to a more laissez-faire economic policy. The population of Japan also scores higher in average creative fluency than the US, but that country has been notoriously slow to maintain the inventiveness of its industries, which was so admired in the seventies and eighties.
However, there is evidence that individual businesses which outperform others in creative thinking grow faster and deliver higher dividends than their peers. In 2005 Business Week USA, Wharton Business School and Boston Consulting Group first assembled its annual ranking of America’s most innovative companies.5 This list was compiled by analysing responses to a series of questions put to C-suite executives about their organisations’ creativity and innovation policies. Over the succeeding ten years, these companies’ overall return to shareholders grew by 160%, compared with an average for their peers of just 24%.
Yet even this study is misleading. The practices reported in the questionnaire included R&D investment, which of course has a very real cost. More work is needed here to build out a robust evidence base of the correlation between a population or a workforce’s creative fluency and a country or business’s economic performance.
Whatever the true nature and scale of the ‘creativity effect’, there is one key economic point we should consider. Bringing about a re-focusing of educational methods is more or less a cost-neutral measure. Teachers have to be trained anyway; changing the orientation of their training carries no economic cost. And as we have seen, we are not proposing a change to school timetabling, or the loss of an academic subject. The same subjects will be taught, just in a different way. Equally, the political cost to an administration of bringing about such a change would be minimal, at least compared with wholesale changes to the tax system or similar measures.
In conclusion, we have argued that the capacity of individuals to think creatively is key to the growth of individual businesses and the economy at large. We have seen how the US ignored this phenomenon to its cost, while China, now the world’s dominant economic power, has made creativity a key plank of its educational curriculum. Lastly, we have argued that creativity isn’t a subject in its own right, but that it can and should be taught as a way of tackling problems in any field of knowledge.
A new generation of Torrance Kids could be leaving school and expanding the wealth of the UK within the lifetime of one administration. To make this happen, just one creative act is needed: To start now.
1 It’s important to define what we mean by ‘creative’. Often creativity is seen as synonymous with ‘expressive’, thus confining its scope to the arts. However, a more academically accepted definition is that originally proposed by Professor Jonathan Plucker, namely: ‘The production of a perceptible product that is novel and useful’. I have personally taken the good professor to task over his use of the word ‘useful’. Is the Mona Lisa as useful as a Dyson vacuum cleaner? He argues that it is: That the evocation of emotion in an observer through an aesthetic stimulus is itself a utility. But to get back to the point, creativity isn’t confined to the worlds of interpretative dance and progressive jazz. It can equally be applied to original or applied science.
2 Contrary to what many still think, raw creative potential can be measured almost as accurately as intelligence. A typical test of ‘divergent thinking’ is the Alternative Uses test, in which a subject is asked to generate alternative uses for an object such as a house brick. The volume and originality (defined by objective criteria) of ideas are measured, as well the speed with which they are generated. (In the house brick example, its use as a weapon by the subject against the researcher isn’t counted as an idea.) Research into creativity measurement continues, with more granular and culturally-neutral tests emerging all the time.
3 The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, Creativity Research Journal, 2011.
4 The Effectiveness of Creativity Training: A Quantitative Review, Creativity Research Journal, 2009.
5 You can play with a lovely interactive infographic showing the longitudinal trends reported by this study here: https://www.bcg.com/publications/collections/most-innovative-companies-2018.aspx