George Land and Beth Jarman, in their 1992 book, "Breakpoint and Beyond," describe a longitudinal study that Land conducted beginning in the late 1960s. It employed repeated administrations of eight tests of divergent thinking that had been used by NASA to measure the potential for creative work by its engineers and scientists.
Divergent thinking tests, based on the work of J.P. Guilford in the 1950s, measure an individual's ability to envision multiple solutions to a problem. According to Guilford, divergent thinkers not only can quickly generate multiple approaches to solving a problem, but they are also able to simultaneously consider the utility of a variety of alternatives and, in the process, come up with truly original notions about how to solve a vexing problem. As you might suspect, an individual's divergent thinking test scores do not correlate with their
IQ scores, as the tests measure distinctly different abilities.
In the Land study, 1,600 three-to five-year-old kids were given the divergent thinking test battery and 98 percent of those tested scored in the top tier; a level they called creative "genius." When the very same cohort of kids was tested five years later, only 32 percent scored in this top tier. After another five years, only 10 percent of the same kids scored in the top tier. By 1992, 200,000 adults had taken the same battery of tests and only 2 percent scored in the top tier.
Why? What happened to the nearly universal mental flexibility and
creativity of those preschoolers and kindergarteners in just a few short years?
We know that our mental models--psychologists like to call
them "schemas"--are profoundly shaped by our schooling experiences. The schemas we learn, in and out of school, facilitate problem solving and help us to quickly process the flood of information coming into our senses.
The "goals-and-objectives" model of schooling strongly encourages
students to adopt fixed mental models of how things work and endlessly requires them to demonstrate that they can apply these models in practice. We punish students who can't or won't master the approved set of mental models by labeling them as stupid or "not college material."
In life, the first thing we do when we face a new challenge is to seek the counsel of others. In Schoolworld, we call that cheating. In life, we discover that solving real-world, messy, ambiguous problems often yields an endless myriad of possible answers with a dizzying array of associated consequences. In Schoolworld, we call that kind of thinking "fuzzy" or disparage it as subjective thinking.
Could it be that this protracted period of mastering other people's mental models--and the associated plug-and-chug that goes along with them--dulls an individual's ability to generate divergent notions on the fly? Could it be that letting these early gifts of divergent thinking and creative wonder lie fallow for so long actually puts our students at risk of being unable to adapt to the maelstrom of social and professional change that lies ahead of them? For their sakes, I hope not.