Creativity is the ability to produce new ideas and to find innovative solutions to problems. It is crucial for economic growth because creative ideas translate into new products and more efficient technological processes, which, in turn, generate new (more productive) jobs and better (more competitive) products.
Besides, the “creative class” (e.g. scientists, engineers, writers, artists, designers, painters, actors, film producers, musicians, choreographers, and just anybody able to think out-of-the-box) affects economic performance in a myriad of indirect ways, through knowledge spillovers that boost labor productivity and innovation activities throughout the economy. It is well-documented that innovative ideas are often born over beer!
While we all love creativity and innovation, the million-dollar question is how to raise a new generation that will think creatively. This is related to another question: can creativity be learned or, else, is it an innate talent?
CHILDREN ARE CURIOUS AND CREATIVE!
Children are naturally curious, observing and questioning everything they see and hear. Moreover, the vast majority of children have very well-developed imagination capability which is key for creativity. To measure just how creative children are, George Land used a test similar to the one he devised to help NASA select innovative engineers and scientists. His results are truly mind-boggling! Around 98% of 4-5-year-old children have very strong creative imaginations and fall into the “genius” category according to the NASA test. When the same children were re-tested at the age of 10 and 15, however, only 30% and 12% of them, respectively, had the creative capability. Still worse, when re-tested at the age of 31, the share of creative individuals shrank to only 2%!
SCHOOLS KILLING CREATIVITY?
Sir Ken Robinson, an education specialist, argues that creativity and talent are effectively killed by … schools. Modern schools have been created in the 19th century to deliver basic education to the illiterate masses. What is increasingly needed in the 21 century, however, is an individual approach.
Robinson’s favorite example is Gillian Lynne, a renowned ballerina who was diagnosed with a learning disorder at the age of eight. Lynne’s teachers were annoyed by her constant fidgeting and a lack of concentration. A psychologist who was asked to examine her case was clever enough to turn on music and leave Gillian alone in the room to observe her behavior. His verdict surprised Gillian’s parents: “your daughter is not sick – she is a dancer”. Gillian went on to a ballet school and became one of the greatest choreographers in history, authoring such musical productions as "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera”. What Lynne’s story illustrates is the obvious advantage of an individual approach to education, an approach that encourages curiosity and develops innate talents.
AN EXPERIMENT IN NURTURING GENIUSES: THE CASE OF JUDIT POLGAR
Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian cognitive psychologist, believed that “any healthy born child has the innate capacity to become a genius”. Driven by this idea, he examined the biographies of 400 great intellectuals and concluded that “geniuses are made, not born”. To test this theory, he chose to marry a Ukrainian foreign languages teacher who agreed to run an experiment. As crazy as it sounds, the purpose of the experiment was to check whether they could turn their children into geniuses using a very simple prescription: “early and intensive specialization in a particular subject”. Being homeschooled, the couple’s three daughters (Susan, Sofia, and Judit) specialized in chess at the age of 6. By their early teens, the Polgar sisters started dominating the female chess world. In particular, Judit is considered to be the best woman chess player in history. She has also fascinating memory and is among the top 10 most intelligent people in the world according to an IQ brain test. Susan and Sofia came to be ranked 2nd and 6th in the world. Polgar and his wife said later that “they could do the same thing with any subject, if a child starts early, spends lots of time and gives great love to that one subject”. In other words, they believed that innate talent is less important for success. Instead, greatness is all about curiosity and hard work.
With ‘literacy’ and ‘knowledge’ no longer being the key challenges facing humans, we have to make sure that tomorrow’s schools are fit for tomorrow’s challenges. Which is all about creativity and innovation. Incidentally, this very idea has not been lost by one of Georgia’s greatest educators, Ilia Chavchavadze. The main purpose of a school, he would often say, is not to endow knowledge but to enhance children's curiosity. And what was true already at Ilya’s time is especially true today, at a time when ‘knowledge’ as such is easily accessible through the internet. What is demanded nowadays is the ability to synthesize, to connect seemingly unrelated pieces of knowledge, concepts, and theories, and come up with new solutions.
AND GEORGIAN SCHOOLS?
It is worth considering that Georgian schools still follow the basic 19th-century school model with its emphasis on memorizing standard texts and formulas rather than independent thinking. Students are rewarded for giving good (standard) answers rather than for asking good (original) questions. Achievement is measured based on standardized tests and grades.
In other words, learning is supposed to be driven by extrinsic incentives (e.g. tests and grades), whereas curiosity and creativity are always a function of intrinsic motives such as a passion for a subject. This may be a key reason for poor attendance and, generally, a lack of interest in education that we often observe among Georgian schoolchildren (particularly in rural areas).
An additional problem with this outdated-school education model is that creativity requires a mindset that considers failure as a legitimate part of the process, which is clearly not how Georgian schools operate. As Sir Ken Robinson suggests, “children are creative because they are not afraid to make mistakes, but they are educated out of it with systems that make them afraid of making mistakes”. This is certainly true for most Georgian schools.
BUT AREN’T WE, GEORGIANS A CREATIVE PEOPLE?!
Georgians are a very artistic people. When a Georgian man suddenly discovers he has only one more day to live he decides, rather creatively, to throw a huge party (as the Georgian classic ‘Ar-daidardo’ knows to tell). Indeed, Georgians have an international reputation for being very good in arts and design, as well as in dancing, singing, and winemaking (and wine-drinking). Importantly for the purpose of this essay, most Georgians are themselves convinced they are a talented nation, believing, in addition, that talent is passed on genetically from generation to generation.
For a typical Georgian, success is rarely achieved through hard work. Moreover, as some popular jokes and stories go, those people who work hard demonstrate a lack of talent. The role model for many Georgian boys is the “talented but lazy” Natsarkekia, the main character of a popular fairy tale, who spends all his time sitting in front of a fireplace (hence his name, which literally translates as "Cinder-man") and doing nothing. Natsarkekia finally gets his act together when thrown out of his house. Using his smarts he defeats evil giants and becomes very rich.
In contrast to Georgia, talent is not assumed in the Korean culture. Instead, Koreans believe in hard work and discipline, sometimes at the expense of creativity. By copy-pasting and efficiently applying existing technological solutions, Korea has been for many years considered a miracle of economic growth. Its development, however, has slowed down once true innovation was required in order to remain competitive.
Lacking organizational skills and discipline, Georgia would not have any comparative advantages in trying to copy-paste existing technologies. We can only rely on our fabled talents. Maybe, just last Natsarkekia, we are waiting to be kicked out of our house before outsmarting the evilest giant of all giants, our own laziness.