Fleeing The Tiger Is No Time To Get Creative

There was a recent series of posts about creativity and children on the Creativity Post website that have made some concepts gel for me.

In September Dr. Peter Gray made a post about declining creativity scores in school aged children. In part he blames an education system which increasingly focuses on the concept that solutions are either right or wrong rather than providing free time to experiment and play. Given the research he cites, parents that over schedule their kids’ time also share some of the blame.

As much as we in the arts tout the benefits of creativity, you may be surprised to learn how important it is to success in life and how significant the decline is:

According to Kim’s analyses, the scores on these tests [Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT)] at all grade levels began to decline somewhere between 1984 and 1990 and have continued to decline ever since. The drops in scores are highly significant statistically and in some cases very large….

…but the biggest decline is in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT, for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984. Yikes.


Indeed, the TTCT seems to be the best predictor of lifetime achievement that has yet been invented. It is a better predictor than IQ, high-school grades, or peer judgments of who will achieve the most.

In a post this month, Gray continues on this theme discussing how important it is to allow a child to create in a non-judgmental environment. He cites some interesting research on the impact of judgement in home environments on the creative development of children.

My ah-ha! moment came after Gray discusses how people will generate a more creative product if they don’t know their work will be evaluated. People tend to edit themselves in order to please the evaluator and out of fear and anxiety about being judged. (my emphasis)

“If a tiger is chasing you, your best bet is to use well-learned or habitual ways of escaping from the tiger, not to dream up new creative ways of doing so. Creative ways always run the risk of failure, so we are biologically constructed to cut creativity off when failure has serious consequences.”

Many in the arts, myself included, have written about how important it is for arts organizations to embrace the risk of possible failure by experimenting with new approaches to the creation of art, audience/visitor experience, marketing, pricing, etc.

In the context of Gray’s observation, it isn’t that arts organizations are simply risk averse about new experience the way kids are worried about the first day of school or audiences are anxious about attending their first classical music concert.

Rather the fear engendered by financial consequences evokes a hard wired primal fight/flight reaction that actually shuts down our ability to think creativity.

The idea that this situation is biological was as illuminating to me as Neill Archer Roan’s observation a few years ago that emotional satisfaction engendered a diminished sense of responsibility for self-/professional development in arts professionals.

I think it is helpful for arts organizations to be aware the fear of experimentation in the face of perceived threats is not only probably irrational, but also a genuinely visceral reaction. Knowing this, they can endeavor to create a decision making environment where the influence and presence of these threats are diminished.

Likewise, it is important for arts organizations to know these things when providing and advocating for arts education. Creativity is cultivated by arts instruction that provides opportunity for wholly free expression alongside direction and evaluation.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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