There is a meme among educationalists and other people who like unverifiable but inspirational quotes. It goes like this:
One can find an endless number of popular articles repeating this claim:
- Evidence that children become less creative over time (and how to fix it)
- 98% of 5-year-olds are ‘creative geniuses’
- The end of education
- Study Shows We are Born Creative Geniuses but the “Education” System Dumbs Us Down
- You’re 96 Percent Less Creative Than You Were as a Child. Here’s How to Reverse That
- One can find this claim repeated in 100s of Books
You get the point. So what is the source? It seems everybody got it from this. TEDx talk. Yes, I know.
George Land is some typical professional pep talker, and apparently in 1968 he did some study for NASA. But there’s no source given. Where is the description of this study? Which children were sampled, where, which test, how were they scored? These are obvious questions. Google Scholar didn’t produce much work by George Land, so it has to be some other kind of write-up. A Google Books search finds 3 books by him (Worldcat doesn’t find any more just some DVDs), and his newest book isn’t exactly signaling scientific talent:
Unfortunately, no copies of his book are available on Library Genesis. But archive.org has copies of the first two books (only available on ‘loan’) and the last is on Google Books:
- Breakpoint and beyond: mastering the future–today (2nd version), 1992
- Grow or die: the unifying principle of transformation, 1973
- Nature’s hidden force: joining spirituality with science, 2014
The first book has this section:
Gone is the reference to NASA! There are no sources given here, but since the author referred to is “he”, it must be George Land, not the female coauthor Beth Jarman (his wife). The book does have a reference section, but nothing fits this claim:
OK, let’s try the 1973 book, which even has a blurb by Margaret Mead:
I searched through the book for various things like “creativity”, “headstart”, “NASA”, but there’s nothing in this book about this supposed study. Also notice that the author changed his name, this book is published under George Thomas Lock Land, but later he is listed as George T. Ainsworth-Land or just George Land (on TEDx). The 2014 book does not seem to have anything either.
Beth Jarman published her own book in 1986, but I couldn’t find a copy of this anywhere. Since the study was explicitly mentioned as being done by a man, it can’t really be in this book anyway.
So where is this mysterious study? NASA has an online archive that one can search, but I find nothing in it by a George Land. Google Books search does not find any other older mentions of the 1600 children study than Land’s 2 books we already checked. I’ve looked through hundreds of results on Google Scholar, and found nothing relevant. George Land died in 2016. It seems the trail ends here. The remaining options I can think of:
- Contact Beth Jarman, his widow, who is on LinkedIn. I don’t have a paid account, I don’t think she will answer anyway, and she probably doesn’t know.
- Contact NASA to ask about any such report by a George Land. I did this already.
Anyway, is the claim true, even if we cannot find this mysterious NASA/Headstart report? No, it is false. We can make a very strong guess based on our prior from the known age patterns of cognitive ability, which is that they rise from birth to young-mid adulthood, then decline until death. But there’s also specific studies of creativity, and they don’t find any magical early childhood abilities in this domain. There’s even a meta-analysis of creativity tests in children:
- Said-Metwaly, S., Fernández-Castilla, B., Kyndt, E., Van den Noortgate, W., & Barbot, B. (2021). Does the fourth-grade slump in creativity actually exist? A meta-analysis of the development of divergent thinking in school-age children and adolescents. Educational Psychology Review, 33(1), 275-298.
The development of divergent thinking (DT) in school-age children and adolescents has received considerable attention in the educational psychology literature since the 1970s. A body of research has outlined the existence of slumps (i.e., temporary declines) in this development with, however, conflicting findings concerning the magnitude and timing of these slumps. This study is the first to meta-analyze prior research findings regarding DT development from Grades 1 to 12, with a particular emphasis on the widely controversial fourth-grade slump. A total of 2139 standardized means from 41 studies involving 40,918 subjects were analyzed using a meta-analytic three-level model. The findings showed an overall upward developmental trend of DT across grade levels, with some discontinuities. Specifically, there was no evidence of a general fourth-grade slump; rather, evidences for a seventh-grade slump were found. Moderator analyses indicated that a fourth-grade slump might be observed depending on DT test, task content domain, intellectual giftedness, and country of study. The existence of the seventh-grade slump was also moderated by DT test, task content domain, and gender. Together, this study deciphers a longstanding debate regarding DT development, a prerequisite knowledge to support age-appropriate educational strategies that encourage creativity development. Implications of these findings for creativity research and practice are discussed.
Their results look like this:
There’s also a meta-analysis of adults, finding that creativity generally tops in early-mid adulthood, as expected.
Children are not creativity geniuses. The available evidence shows that creative thinking tests show the usual age pattern seen with all other cognitive tests. George Land’s claim is totally contrary to other research, and there is no evidence it exists. It is likely that George Land made it up.