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Stifling creativity 101: The next generation of entrepreneurs has been left behind

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Stifling creativity 101: The next generation of entrepreneurs has been left behind

By: Steve Sadler, CEO, Allegiancy

May 26, 2015

The Currency of Savvy: A blog series from Allegiancy CEO Steve Sadler, featuring practical, provocative thoughts on business, economics, education and government policy. And whatever else is on his mind.


An entire generation of American innovators and creators is being stifled. In classrooms across America, an emphasis on testing and accountability of teachers, administrators and school districts as a result of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act has fostered a public education culture that values passing tests over broad-based learning that fosters creativity.

It’s no secret that in many school districts, once the end-of-year standardization tests are completed, the classroom becomes a de facto movie theater. The testing is complete and even though there’s two weeks of classes left — or more — the educational rigor is finished because the tests are over. So fire up the DVD players and let the kids bring their own popcorn.

Imagine in the workplace if a project or presentation was finished on Wednesday. Would that mean everyone gets the rest of the week off?

No Child Left Behind and its prior federal educational policy iterations has indeed left something behind — creativity. And it’s having devastating effects on the innovation and entrepreneurship that has made this country a world economic leader.

A 2011 study by College of William & Mary Prof. of Education Kyung Hee Kim noted the decline of student creativity from K-12 over the last few decades. In analyzing scores from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, Kim finds that children have “become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.”

Less is hardly more.

In Forbes Magazine, Raul O. Chao and Cristinia Lopez-Gottardi of the University of Virginia, write that “over the last few decades, we have witnessed both a steady decline in the number of startups, as well as an increasing number of studies that suggest America’s education model fails to promote the kind of creativity, risk-taking, and problem solving skills necessary for entrepreneurship, and for a world and labor market that is in the midst of profound transformation. These are very worrisome trends.”

Worrisome? I’ll say. With business deaths exceeding new formations for the first time in our history, according to a recent Gallup survey, America needs entrepreneurs like never before. If you stop to think about it, you will recognize that most of the technology innovations that become the products we use to improve our quality of life are brought to us by entrepreneurs.

Here’s what Peter Gray in Psychology Today says is happening: “Creativity is nurtured by freedom and stifled by the continuous monitoring, evaluation, adult-direction, and pressure to conform that restrict children’s lives today. In the real world few questions have one right answer, few problems have one right solution; that’s why creativity is crucial to success in the real world. But more and more we are subjecting children to an educational system that assumes one right answer to every question and one correct solution to every problem, a system that punishes children (and their teachers too) for daring to try different routes.  We are also, as documented in a previous essay, increasingly depriving children of free time outside of school to play, explore, be bored, overcome boredom, fail, overcome failure — that is, to do all that they must do in order to develop their full creative potential.”

And, more to the point, the education of our youth has been ‘institutionalized’ — to the extent that most of our schools more closely resemble a prison than hives of creative exploration. We now have an education culture that places compliance with ‘the rules’ far above questioning and exploration. With metal detectors and zero tolerance policies in place we have created (or allowed) a frightening culture of conformity and Political Correctness where kids routinely get arrested and handcuffed for minor infractions. Hijinks have become high crimes. There’s not much chance of creativity flourishing in a toxic environment like this.

Edward de Bono, considered one of the fathers of creativity and lateral thinking, said that as “competition intensifies, the need for creative thinking increases. It is no longer enough to do the same thing better … no longer enough to be efficient and solve problems.”

Following instructions is good, but it is not sufficient. I need employees who can think. I need staffers who can expand on an idea, extend a concept and innovate. I need people who can troubleshoot and problem solve and, especially, who are willing to take the risk and actually make decisions while being responsible and accountable for the outcomes. We are not creating very many of these independent thinkers and I suspect there will be hell to pay.

The decline in creativity has far-reaching effects. Innovation, long a hallmark of American businesses, dies. New businesses aren’t launched, meaning new jobs aren’t generated. A raft of federal programs such as Medicare, Social Security and others that are “fund as you go” are completely dependent upon the Millennial work force — a work force that’s not creating jobs, not starting new businesses, not innovating and ill-equipped to “fund as you go” because their creativity was stifled in the formative years of their education.

And it’s only getting worse as the measurement of creativity in our young students continues to decline.

It’s time to leave behind the emphasis on standardized tests that are smothering creativity. Let’s foster entrepreneurship in our schools. Let’s teach kids to take risks, even if success isn’t guaranteed. We should let them — gasp — fail and encourage them to get back up and try again. And again. And again. Let our kids tackle projects in teams, learning to work together to overcome together what they can’t do individually.

It’s time to bring some innovation and creativity to our education system. It’s only our future that’s at stake.

Background reading:

—Psychology Today:

—Forbes Magazine:

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