Do schools squash creativity?

Back in the 1960s, when the pioneering creativity researcher Paul Torrance examined the scores of children on his creative thinking test, he noticed an intriguing trend: The scores declined in fourth grade. Torrance called it the fourth grade slump. He concluded that the rigid and regimented nature of school was reducing children’s natural creativity. Torrance’s “fourth-grade slump” is widely cited, but there’s very little empirical evidence for it. Other researchers have tried to replicate Torrance’s results, but without much success.

A new study,* in the latest issue of the Creativity Research Journal, also finds no evidence for the slump. The study assessed 2,476 Hong Kong Chinese students using a new electronic version of a creativity test (the Wallach-Kogan), and found an increase from grade 4 to 5; a decrease from grade 5 to 6; a decrease from grade 6 to 7; and an increase from grade 7 to 9. Overall, creativity increased; the largest drop, at grade 7, corresponded to a school transition in Hong Kong from primary to secondary school. This new study is consistent with the latest review of all of the studies to date, done in 2009 by Mullineaux and Dilalla, which concluded that children’s creativity continually increased, on average, although with occasional fits and starts.

It’s provocative, but misleading, to refer to these developmental changes as “slumps.” But the term persists because the belief that school squashes a child’s natural creativity aligns with Romantic-era notions of the pure essence of childhood, of childhood as a pure state of nature, opposed to civilization and convention. The fact, however, is that children’s creativity increases during development, just like every other cognitive capability. I’m one of the first people to argue that schools could be doing more to foster student creativity; but I’m relieved that there’s no evidence that schools are reducing creativity.

*Lau, S., & Cheung, P. C. (2010). Developmental trends of creativity: What twists of turn do boys and girls take at different grades? Creativity Research Journal, 22(3), 329-336.

Mullineaux, P. Y., & Dilalla, L. F. (2009). Preschool pretend play behaviors and early adolescent creativity. Journal of Creative Behavior, 43(1), 41-57.