The Most Creative Kids in the World?

Wherever I go, from Santiago to Seoul, I am always comforted to hear one consistently positive thing said about Americans: we may not be the wisest or the thinnest people on the planet, but we can think outside of the box! The world will give us that.

Usually, this assertion is accompanied by a passing reference to Steve Jobs or Google, and no one argues the point. In fact, each year, officials in places like South Korea and Singapore leave their higher performing education systems to come study how we Americans cultivate creativity in our schools and universities. Never mind that the actual Steve Jobs loathed school for much of his childhood. There must be somethingwe are doing right here!

Today we got a bit more data to put this assumption to the test--through a new, fairly sophisticated test of creative problem-solving administered in 40 countries in by the OECD. This computerized test, a subset of the organization’s larger international exam (known as the Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA), attempts to measure how well 15-year-olds can creatively solve realistic, 21st century problems with no obvious, standard solutions.

Try out a few of the questions here and see for yourself. Personally, I’m not sure this test even begins to measure the important and more operatic aspects of creativity (from optimism to risk-taking), but it is still intriguing. Relative to the vast majority of tests, these questions do seem better designed to assess our abilities to identify patterns, to tolerate doubt and to use intuition and initiative to sort out a workable solution.

One sample question features a new air conditioner system—one that comes with no instructions. It’s like an IKEA Rorschach test, one that’s all too real for most adults. The unit features three unlabeled controls, as well as a digital display of the current temperature and humidity. The student’s job is to figure out how to work it—interacting with the sliding control knobs on the screen to try to suss out what does what.  

Admittedly, these are probably not the skills that lead to Hollywood stardom (though I look forward to that PISA test…), but they are the kinds of skills that good jobs now demand: the ability to quickly process lots of ambiguous information in order to make a judgment call and act; the skills to adapt when things don’t go the way you expect.

The results, it turns out, are not entirely demoralizing for the U.S., which is a nice change from other international tests. U.S. teenagers actually do slightly better in problem solving than they do in math, for example, and even a bit higher than other kids from other countries with similarly mediocre math, reading and science skills.

So we are creative! Right? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, these results do suggest that our teenagers are more creative than they are learned, which is worth something in an era when knowledge is cheap and thinking is priceless.

Then again, we are not as creative as everyone seems to think—and certainly not exceptionally creative relative to the rest of the world. The Asian education powerhouses trounced us on this test, just as they do in math. Canada, Australia and Finland also scored well above the U.S.

We rank somewhere between 12 and 21 on the list, around the same level as Italy and Germany. South Korea ranks at the top of the world, up there with Singapore, even though Korean students, parents, teachers and politicians all universally told me that their system stifled creativity—by focusing too much on rote learning and test scores.

So what to make of it all? For me, the takeaway from these results is that creativity—just like grit—does not occupy a separate sphere from academics. In the best of all worlds, these things interact, and that’s where great innovation happens. After all, all over the world, teenagers who did well on this test also tended to do well on the main PISA test of critical thinking in math, reading and science. They are comfortable identifying connections, building mental models and remaining flexible when things change.

There is no short cut, in other words. Creativity requires a foundation, one that includes self-discipline, deep learning and the ability to reason—all of which are taught to great effect in rigorous classrooms.

It may be that Korean students are doing less rote learning than they think—or it may be that they are doing a lot of all kinds of learning. Whatever they are doing, Korea’s system is leaving students—even large numbers of poor students—with remarkably strong higher-order skills, in a wide range of disciplines. (Poland, by contrast, does very well on the main PISA subject tests but worse than the U.S. on this new problem-solving exam, suggesting that the Poles need to work harder to help students transfer academic skills to unfamiliar, real-life problems.)

For the U.S., our so-so results are neither depressing nor affirming. They suggest that we “do not make the most of student potential in core subjects,” as the OECD analysis puts it, rather politely. If we did make the most of our student potential, imagine what we could do! We could do math and movies, and maybe the next Steve Jobs wouldn’t dread elementary school as much as the first one did.

EducationAmanda Ripley