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Know-How and Know-Why

kgould's picture

Know-How and Know-Why

American schools are falling behind both their international counterparts and behind themselves when it comes to the realm of creativity. According to Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores (a test geared toward gauging divergent and convergent thinking, a major feature of creativity), has found that creativity scores had been rising alongside IQ scores up to 1990 but, since then, CQ scores have been declining steadily and significantly (Bronson and Merryman).

Schools as they are today:

Jonathon Plucker of Indiana University recently reviewed the data from the Torrance study, finding a heavy correlation between childhood creativity and lifetime success, almost three times stronger than the correlation between childhood IQ scores and lifetime success. Despite this information, it seems that American schools are going backwards from what relevant studies are telling us about creativity in school curriculums. Plucker, having recently toured schools in Shanghai and Beijing, was asked by Chinese university faculty members to identify trends in American education in the focus of the present and the future. Plucker’s reply? “[A focus] on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing” (Bronson and Merryman). The Chinese faculty’s response? Laughter.

That’s because elsewhere in the world, amid all of our international educational counterparts, those in Great Britain, the European Union, and China have been changing from the systems that emphasize standardization, rote memorization, and nationalized testing to ones that lay stress on idea generation, problem-based learning, and real-world inquiry.

While the rest of the world is interested in moving toward the programs and processes that heed the kind of data brought to light by the Torrance study, the American education system seems to be moving backward towards the kinds of study that every other country seems ready to abandon.

My own experience with high school education was very prescribed, very rote, very standardized. Pushing beyond what we were expected to know in class was rewarded with a pat on the head, but not emphasized and not recommended. For the first half of high school, being in Massachusetts, we were trained to take the MCAS, a standardized test that we needed to pass in order to graduate in high school. Taken in 10th grade, the test was not that difficult. Consisting, at least in 2005, of reading comprehension, math, and writing sections, the material did not challenge us to think comprehensively. They wanted the basic five paragraph essay, memorized vocabulary terms, and practiced formulas. After the MCAS, school was much the same, except now we were being trained for the SATS. More memorizing, more practicing unsophisticated writing styles—but little room to branch out into comprehensive spaces. If you had the inclination to try something different, you did so, but you were not told to and there was little encouragement. I remember one English teacher telling me that he wished our school had a creative writing class for me to take, but as it was he would have to give me a failing grade for a paper because I didn’t stick to the formulaic essay everyone else used. It has to be said: I used part of that essay to apply to Bryn Mawr.

But when you’re not encouraged, even reprimanded for coloring outside of the lines or thinking outside of the box, what are we sacrificing? What are we gaining?

America is, in a sense, ignoring the kinds of “facts” that seem so heavily belabored in classrooms all over the country. If the data is there, if it has been and is being analyzed by researchers, and if the evidence stands up to their criticisms, why are we ignoring the importance of creativity in the classroom?

Why rote memorization and standardized tests don’t work:

It is foolish to dismiss the importance of a large knowledge base for students in education. It is useful to know dates in history, movements in society, the intricacies of sodium-potassium pumps, and what Milton was trying to say in Paradise Lost. But a compilation of facts alone does not an intellectual leader make.

Quoted in a paper called “Creativity- Its Place in Education”, Michael D. Higgins, former Irish Minister for Arts, Culture, and Gaeltacht, says “The sheer volume of facts to be digested by the students of today leaves little time for a deeper interrogation of their moral worth. The result has been a generation of technicians rather than visionaries, each one taking a career rather than an idea seriously” (Morris 2).

What Higgins is emphasizing is an all-too-real feature of the education system that American students are living in today. While they may have the broad knowledge base that schools are emphasizing, students lack the ability to integrate their knowledge, parse facts into smaller parts, and apply them to larger, seemingly unrelated concepts that are important for solving problems in the future.

“A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future” (Bronson and Merryman).

Yes, you know the chemical composition of oil, how it interacts with other molecules and compounds. You know how oil is drilled, the system that brings it to the surface, how it is refined. But can you take that knowledge and provide a viable solution to the oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico?

Can you take those dates, places, and information on religion to help bring peace to the Middle East?

Can you utilize your knowledge of medical history in the United States, the protocols and practices of major hospitals, and incorporate that information with your knowledge of economics, federal tax programs, and the societal climate in order to help improve health care?

These are the real problems we’re going to be expected to challenge when we leave our colleges and universities, not quite as simple as the multiple choice exams and vocabulary tests we’ve been inundated with since elementary school.

Creativity has a place outside of an art class, in the brain:

We all knew of the “creative kids” in high school. Maybe we even were those creative types. They spent a lot of time in the art studio, drew on everything from notebooks to handouts to the pant legs of their jeans. They were “deep” and read poetry that they wrote themselves.

But, according to research done by individuals at the University of Western Ontario and Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Georgia, creativity has as much a place in engineering, music, mathematics, athletics, and life in general as it does in the fine arts. 

It all comes down to convergent and divergent thinking. This is an activation of both the left hemisphere (traditionally: Science, Math, “fact-based” thinkers) and the right hemisphere (traditionally: Fine Arts, Writing, “feeling-based” thinkers) of the brain. While this cycling between the two halves of the brain will be looked at in greater detail in the next paper, which focuses on the brain in the context of education, it is important for us to see here that not only is creativity a function of the brain, but it is something that we can all do, something that can be applied in all fields of study or work and, most importantly, it can be learned.

“University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung has concluded that those who diligently practice creative activities learn to recruit their brains’ creative networks quicker and better” (Bronson and Merryman). Real improvement, practicing “creative thinking,” comes from the everyday application in work and school.

So what does creativity look like?:

According to “Creativity- Its Place in Education,” when students are being creative in the classroom:

  • They are curious, they question and challenge the rules
  • Think laterally and see connections between things that aren’t usually associated with each other
  • Ask “what if?” and picture alternatives to a problem or issue
  • Play with ideas, keep open minds, and continue to modify their ideas
  • Review progress, criticize constructively, and make perceptive observations (Morris 4)

The same paper describes the teacher’s role in teaching creativity as “using imaginative approaches to make learning more interesting, engaging, exciting and effective,” as well as “using forms of teaching that are intended to develop students own creative thinking and behavior.” This includes high motivation, high expectations, expertise in their fields, stimulation of curiosity and the raising of confidence in students (Morris 5).  

What this means, in the end, is this:

We've talked about it class. We've looked at some studies, some papers, done our own research. We can only hope that we're performing the combination convergent/divergent thinking that has been emphasized here. We need to be creative.

We need to branch out. We should move away from rote memorization and standardized curriculums and towards systems of education that promote diversified learning and the integration of seemingly unrelated ideas. We need a little more freedom for our students to push against what they know and to move beyond the textbook. We need comprehensive understanding to supplement knowledge of facts. We need know-how and know-why. Industry commentators are saying that for a successful future we need people who think creatively and innovatively (Morris 5). And, right now, that's not what we're teaching. Let’s give them those people and then some. We can all be creative thinkers. It’s just a matter of learning and practice.


Works Cited

Bronson, Po, and Ashley Merryman. "The Creativity Crisis - Newsweek." Newsweek - National News, World News, Business, Health, Technology, Entertainment, and more - Newsweek. N.p., 10 July 2010. Web. 26 Sept. 2010. <>.

Morris, Wayne. "Creativity- Its Place in Education." Creativity- Its Place in Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2010. <>.

Smartt, Ernest. "Ways to define creativity in education - by Ernest Smartt - Helium." Helium - Where Knowledge Rules. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2010. <>.



Paul Grobstein's picture

situating creativity

Maybe the key here isn't "creativity" in its own right but creativity in relation to other things?  Creative problem-solving?  For more along these lines, see Creativity and Utility, and my comment following.  Maybe information acquisition was once grist for creativity but somehow the link between the two has gotten broken in contemporary education?