2013-10-02

Co.Exist

Can Playing With Lego Make You More Creative?

Creativity is in decline around the world. But a new school built by the toy block company that focuses on play might unlock the secret to a solution.

If successful companies and societies of this next century are defined by their ability to innovate—a trope repeated constantly in business seminars, surveys, and speeches—then the U.S. may be headed for a rough time: On average, Americans’ ability to think creatively has declined.

This trend has been called “the creativity crisis,” and was defined by a major study in 2011. Researchers looked at a common measure of creativity in 300,000 kids and adults over time and found that, unlike IQ scores, creativity had been declining since 1990. The effect was most marked in elementary-school-age kids.

Why exactly creativity measures are declining is still anyone’s guess, although evidence and intuition points to the growing emphasis on testing in education as a factor. Kids are taught to learn by understanding “the one right answer” they need to find, and what they need to do to find it. (On tests of how kids do at brainstorming ideas, 98% of three-year-olds register as “creative geniuses.” By the time they are 25? Only 2%).

“There’s an immense and growing pressure to be able to standardize approaches in the school to ensure quality. And this is an interesting contradiction, because standardization never leads to quality when we talk about learning. We’re not producing products. We’re trying to educate children,” says Randa Grob-Zakhary, CEO of the Lego Foundation.

The foundation, endowed by the Lego Group, is now focused on revamping education systems to try to shift this dynamic at all ages—mainly by incorporating structured, hands-on “play” that fosters creative thinking. “A lot of work [in education] is focused on how can we better teach and more quickly teach reading and math—literacy and numeracy,” she says, speaking with Co.Exist at the United Nations' Global Compact summit in New York City last month. “There’s still a very big gap in defining how can we better equip our children with creative and critical thinking skills to equip them to face tomorrow’s challenges.”

Last month, the Lego Foundation opened its own international school in Billund, near the company’s headquarters in Denmark, where the foundation will attempt to rigorously test and measure some of these ideas by incorporating “hands-on learning” into the curriculum wherever possible—with Lego bricks, but also with other toys, building materials and even robotics technologies. The school will build on the work of the foundation's existing projects around the world. One, in South Africa, is where today 40,000 kids in grades K to 12 at 25 schools are working with a curriculum that includes play. Anecdotal evidence from this project shows that tests scores have gone up and teacher turnover has been “transformed," says Grob-Zakhary, though no rigorous studies have been done.

She envisions a key role for the foundation in building a network that moves educational and psychological research on the topic of play and creativity out of academic journals and into the hands of teachers and policymakers. She is also looking to attract buy-in from the business world, which often invests in workforce training in college programs but rarely focuses on early childhood.

She believes that businesses need to start taking a longer-term view. “If we don’t start in those first five years, we have much less possibility to create that workforce we need. And yet very few businesses who would benefit from that kind of agility and adaptiveness built in the early years actually invest in it. It’s a really significant issue.”

[Image: Flickr user Tom Carmony]

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6 Comments

  • Cynthia Davis

    Might want to check out the teachings of Fredrich Froebel and Montessori as this is where such ideas on creativity and learning were generated and popularized at least for select elite schools.
    The problem is that old industrial beliefs are still considered good enough for the vast majority here in the US.
    The result is a considerable decline in true intelligence in favor of standardized and sanitized memorization that discourages "dangerous" free thought in order to maintain the status quo and control of a devolving society.
    It's a scandalous waste of talent and potential.

  • Terry Silvey

    This is amazing! I put Legos in the hands of my high school boys, football players, just today and they loved it! We were brainstorming on ways to include them in my game-based learning classrooms of Spanish I and II. If you have connections, I would love to work with them. I too feel that creativity is a problem. The many students have no imagination which I believe leads to the lack of creativity.

  • connie726

    I have taught creativity as well as designed and facilitated creative problem solving sessions professionally for nearly 20 years, primarily to adults via the pioneering Synectics approach.   One of our learnings on adult creativity is how much physical stimulus (such as toys, Legos, and other manipulatives) help unlock verbal creativity.  When working with engineers and scientists, who are often less verbal and forthcoming with public ideas, I always bring these pieces and the physical dramatically improves the creativity of the output of the participants.  My personal opinion is that it allows the brain to bypass some of the censors or filters that keep a very beginning idea, not yet well thought out solution or direction from emerging.  I am interested the learning from this research on creativity and play with young people and admire Lego for its initiative.  Can't wait to hear more as the research progresses.  

  • Leroy jenkins

    "Why exactly creativity measures are declining is still anyone’s guess..."

    Not so.  This is a well understood problem for anyone who has taken a critical view of life in the information age.  Ironically, teachers and academics continue to try to structure the learning process when structure itself is the problem.

    The loss of creativity among children is just like a canary in the coal mine, showing us that we're in danger of imminent suffocation due to information overload.  Sadly, there is almost no way to shelter kids from all of these bad influences.  All we can do is teach them to avoid them.

  • Mike MacCana

    There's a small error in the title: 'Legos' isn't correct, the plural is either 'Lego' or 'Lego bricks'. Great  article though!