The Surprising Drop in Creativity among Teens Was Spotted by the OECD

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    What makes 15-year-olds feel less creative, curious, persistent, and responsible than 10-year-olds? And what could the consequences of this be for your future?

    These are some of the questions that a recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) addresses on socio-emotional skills that are considered crucial for the present and future development of school-age children and youth.

    To measure these skills internationally for the first time, the OECD conducted a survey in ten cities: Bogotá and Manizales (Colombia), Daegu (South Korea), Helsinki (Finland), Houston (United States), Istanbul (Turkey), Moscow (Russia), Ottawa (Canada), Sintra (Portugal) and Suzhou (China).

    Questionnaires were applied to 10 and 15-year-old students about their behaviors, attitudes and preferences, to assess whether they saw in themselves a set of 15 socio-emotional skills: from responsibility and curiosity to perseverance, resistance to stress, cooperation, tolerance, sociability, self-control and creativity.

    What caught the researchers’ attention is that, in general, 15-year-olds seemed to have much less developed almost all social-emotional skills compared to 10-year-olds. That is, there appears to be a significant drop in these skills as children reach adolescence.

    This drop was more marked in the girls in most of the skills analyzed: although on the one hand the girls showed more empathy, cooperative spirit and responsibility than the boys, they showed more emotional control, sociability and energy than the boys.

    “This drop (between the ages of 10 and 15) is very clear when it comes to creativity, which shows up at much lower levels among 15-year-old individuals,” said OECD Director of Education Andreas Schleicher, during a recent seminar. “It may be that these young people are more insecure and shy [than 10-year-old individuals], but it may also be that our educational systems are not fostering the creativity of young people”.

    Schleicher highlighted the value that these emotional skills have for the professional market of the future and for the behavior of citizens. “We know how important curiosity and creativity are in the world we live in. The ability to create is what differentiates us from artificial intelligence in computers”.

    Furthermore, he noted that creativity is not an isolated thing: “The most creative students also exhibit much higher levels of empathy, tolerance and responsibility”.

    Changes in adolescence

    During a webinar at the US National Center for Education and Economics (NCEE) on October 27th, speakers highlighted that adolescence is a time of great emotional and physical transformation for young people.

    Susan Rivers, a social-emotional skills researcher, argued that the OECD findings may not take into account “the role of puberty and brain growth during adolescence.” “It is also a magnificent, rich and challenging time, so it is not surprising that young people need stronger skills to navigate these waters”, she said.

    The self-awareness of creativity and curiosity ends up impacting the future aspirations of young people, says the OECD. This same observation is raised by other researchers. “Children have a type of requirement of their socio-emotional skills and then adolescence arrives and everything changes,” explains Ricardo Primi, researcher at the Laboratory of Educational Policies and Practices of the Ayrton Senna Institute in Brazil. There is an “emotional turmoil” that puts these skills in check in adolescence, causing young people to see themselves as less capable, Primi adds.

    At the seminar, Schleicher agreed that these factors are relevant. But he argues that even if this decline in creativity is mere self-awareness, what really matters is the impact it will have on these young people’s expectations of their own future.

    “Because if a 15-year-old girl perceives herself as less creative, or if a 15-year-old girl sees herself as less creative than boys, this will influence the decision she will make. It sucks”, said Schleicher.

    “The way we see ourselves has a lot of influence on our development, so the role of adults is to help during this period, to open doors to young people, rather than letting them close as a result of this self-awareness”.

    “Weapons against the greatest threats of our time”

    In its report, the OECD argues that “success in education today is not cognitive development, but character development”, and questions whether as children grow, schools are reducing the space for this development.

    “It is about curiosity (opening minds), compassion (opening hearts), and courage (putting our cognitive, social and emotional resources to work)”, says the text. “These qualities, called social and emotional skills, are also weapons against the greatest threats of our time: ignorance (a closed mind), hatred (a closed heart) and fear (the enemy of action)”.

    Developing skills such as tolerance, creativity, curiosity, perseverance and cooperation is considered crucial by the OECD to train citizens and professionals of the future.

    Another important point is that, according to the OECD survey, students with acute social and emotional skills tend to achieve better academic results. “Being intellectually curious and persistent are the skills most strongly related to (good) grades in school, for both 10-year-olds and 15-year-olds in reading, math and the arts”, the report says.

    For Andreas Schleicher, these skills must be actively (and intentionally) developed in children and adolescents, just as we do with traditional knowledge of mathematics, for example. And this is the great challenge for schools.

    For her part, researcher Susan Rivers highlighted that “there is already a great burden for educational networks and educators,” along with a lack of institutional support “so that children, teachers and families themselves can foster and nurture these skills “in young people.

    In Schleicher’s opinion, it may be necessary to redesign school curricula, giving more prominence to the development of these positive characteristics. “Some curricula are being radically redefined, like in Singapore, no longer with subjects (like math and languages) playing a central role and tracking socio-emotional skills”, he explains.

    “When you teach a physical education class in Singapore, you do not need to think about how sport makes students more athletic, but also how it can shape their character, create empathy and responsibility for themselves and others”, says the principal of education of the OECD. In the practice of sports, the development of socio-emotional skills is encouraged, experts point out.

    By the way, Schleicher views the loss of space in the arts and sports classes in the curriculum for adolescent students as a loss of opportunities to develop useful skills. “Children who participate in artistic activities demonstrate higher levels of creativity and curiosity, in all the places studied”, he says.

    Additionally, a pleasant school environment was identified at the NCEE seminar as crucial in allowing social-emotional ability to flourish, especially empathy and emotional control.

    Most of the students interviewed by the OECD said they like their school. But it is worrying that around a quarter of them said they “don’t feel like they belong in school, they do not make friends easily and they feel lonely”. Schleicher says that skills developed in art and sports classes are reflected in performance in science.

    Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, who studies the topic at the University of Illinois at Chicago and was also a speaker at the NCEE event, said her own research shows that stressed-out teachers or students end up “rubbing off” on each other with more stress and anxiety, which inhibits the development of emotional skills.

    “When the teachers were stressed and exhausted, an analysis of the students’ cortisol levels (obtained from saliva samples) indicated that the students were also under stress”, she noted.

    Finally, the OECD highlights that social inequalities play an important role. “It appears that students from less affluent backgrounds have more challenges to overcome and fewer opportunities and less support to develop these skills”, the report says.

    The people who showed greater capacity for self-management (such as perseverance and organization), confidence in their potential and openness to the new were those who had the most tools to overcome the obstacles imposed by poverty and low education. Thus, experts argue, teaching and promoting these skills from an early age, in childhood and adolescence, would help not only to improve the school performance of young people, but also to prepare them for the challenges of adult lif


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