Concerned that the Torrance test might not translate to real-life situations, Davis and colleagues collected examples of adolescent writing and visual art produced over a 20-year span, beginning in 1990. In the interim, the Internet became widespread and the focus of the U.S. educational system shifted. The researchers wondered how those trends might influence the creative output of young people.
To begin, the team collected more than 350 pieces of art published in a magazine called Teen Ink, which has showcased teen art, photography and writing since 1989. Half of the pieces ran in the early '90s. The other half ran more recently. Two trained visual artists rated each piece of art using a series of codes that assessed composition, background, stylistic approach and other details.
Compared to artwork produced two decades ago, the researchers reported, recent teen works were more likely to fill the whole canvas and include more stylized cropping. Figures tended to be placed off-center, and works more often incorporated collage, found objects and digital manipulation. All of those details suggested a rise in creativity, Davis said, likely as a result of exposure through the Internet to a more diverse array of art that could inspire students. Today, there are also many more options for using computers to produce art.
Creative writing showed the opposite trend. When the researchers coded and compared 25 recent stories with 25 older ones that were published in an annual literary magazine by a creative arts school in New Orleans, they found that the older stories were more experimental.
One story from the early '90s, for example, included a character who visited a psychologist, and the psychiatrist was a crab. At the end of the story, the protagonist grabbed the crab with a pair of tongs and threw it in his suitcase, saying, "Tonight I dine on boiled crab!"
More recent stories tended to be grounded in reality with scenes of uneventful Thanksgiving dinners and accidental shootings. Recent stories were also more likely to progress chronologically instead of jumping around in time.
Teachers are not to blame for the pressure to prioritize standards over creative thinking, Plucker said. Instead, it's a system-wide issue that will need to shift towards giving students freedom to explore ideas before we'll see a rebound in creativity.
Whether creativity is genetically determined or learned, he added, evidence suggests that just about all of us are underusing our imagination skills.
"Take any state accountability system, take No Child Left Behind, and show me any creativity or problem-solving indicators," Plucker said. 'They're not there. That tells you all you need to know."