Executive Summary

European youth’s ability to think originally, come up with unique and diverse ideas and elaborate on them is decreasing. While some studies show children’s imagination and fantasy being increased, it is clear that the divide between play and schoolwork has become more prominent. Children are to a larger degree performing how they think teachers want them to perform, leaving a decreasingly smaller room for individual thought, problem identification and problem solving.

The European Union (EU) has, ever since the Erasmus programme of 1987, introduced initiatives and projects to increase the quality and cooperation among European education systems. These initiatives, however, play a small role in everyday life in European schools which are more likely to be dominated by the national curricula and standardised tests. If the EU is changing its strategy to educate workers that have the skills the workforce of tomorrow demands, it needs to increase the understanding of intercultural dialogue, multilingualism, arts and crafts as well as science, technology, ICT and digital media.


In 2011, medical researcher Kyung Hee Kim published an article on what she called “The creativity crisis”. Research going back several decades revealed a trend of falling creativity among children and young adults, including the ability to come up with original ideas, many ideas and the ability to elaborate on these ideas. The trend started in the late 1980’s and has progressed ever since. Most worrisome for dr. Kim is the fact that the fall in creativity is most notable among the youngest children, from preschool up into sixth grade, possibly causing long-term challenges for society as youth progress further into the education system, and eventually the workforce.

The graph shows the decline in creative strength, which is a measurement on a wide array of creative personality traits such as humour, energy, imagination, unconventionality and passion, and elaboration, which measures the ability to elaborate on ideas.

However, a study conducted by a university in Ohio found that children’s imagination and fantasy has actually increased since the 1980’s. The researchers, however, acknowledge there is less room for imagination and play in children’s everyday lives now, especially in the education system. Other experts point to worldwide high creativity among youth, especially in regards to their use of digital media. An important aspect of creativity and the development of creative thinking is interpersonal communication, and digital and social media has made interaction more widely accessible online. This new way of communicating is less verbal and expressive, however, and can also be seen as a contributing factor to make communication less personal, and further a factor in the decrease of creative thinking. 

At the same time as researchers have been documenting a decrease in creativity among youth, they have also documented higher levels of IQ. In the US, SAT scores have consistently increased over the last few decades, showing the success of the education system in making children smarter. Being smarter does not mean children become more creative, however, and the very testing that has revealed the increase in IQ and school performance has also gotten much of the blame for the decreasing creativity in the classroom. It has been called an educational hide and seek, where students try to match their performance with what they think the teacher wants, and the teacher being bound by nationally and internationally imposed standardised testing.

The education system has experienced massive changes in the 21st century, with the aforementioned increase in standardised testing, increased performances among students and a groundbreaking digitalisation of education, especially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is an education system that largely succeeds in increasing performances, the question arises whether the European education systems are preparing their students well enough for an ever-changing working life, where creative thinking and problem solving is increasingly being recognised as key traits. 

Legal Frameworks

Education and youth is a supportive competence of the EU, which provides the lowest level of influence over Member States’ policies. This means that the EU institutions can provide legislation that supports Member States’ educational policies through coordination of activities or through complementary legislation to the national legislation, but does not allow EU legislation to require harmonisation of policies. The supportive competence in education and youth has an emphasis on raising the quality of European education, multilingualism, ensuring free movement in the field of education and providing Member States with an exchange of best practices. The area of creativity and innovation is one of the EU’s main aims in its education policy.

Key Actors

European Commission

This institution has the power of introducing European legislation and initiatives in the education sector as a supportive competence to the Member States. The Commission represents the Union as a whole, and has a long history of introducing EU-wide education initiatives to further coordinate European education policy. Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel has also stated the Commission’s desire to give culture and innovation more importance in European education.

Member States

As education is a supportive competence of the EU, Member States have substantial power in shaping their own education policy. The educational systems in different European countries and Member States vary greatly, showing education as a policy area where Member States will  exercise their sovereignty to accommodate differences in needs and funds. EU programmes that serve as an addition to national education policy is often very welcomed, with the popularity of the Erasmus+ programme as an example.

Education sector

The education sector consists of the public and private schools and pre-schools across Europe. These schools are subject to their national education policy, but are also the ones partaking in the many EU education programmes. Sometimes these can come in conflict, as some curricula do not leave enough room for European schools to engage in the broad range of EU projects, leading some schools to wish for more independence from national curricula.


Employers are the ones looking for a workforce more capable of creative thinking and problem solving. With the demanded competence in the private sector increasingly changing due to automation and competition, private employers are looking for an adaptable workforce ready to solve the challenges of tomorrow in new ways.


Standardised testing has been an important aspect of the European education systems since the 1990’s, becoming an integral part of the assessment of individual children, schools and national education systems. Today, all European countries have at least one form of nationally standardised test to measure performance, as well as the PISA standardised test rolled out through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These tests are important for schools and teachers to identify struggling students and give them the guidance they need, and they may also be important for education authorities to identify weaknesses in their education system. However, standardised testing, in addition to the danger of over-testing and an excessive focus on the tests in everyday life in European schools, risk eroding creative thinking and problem solving. Having many tests with set answers, often even multiple-choice, can make it harder for European students to individually identify problems and produce original solutions.

The figure shows the year of implementation of national standardised testing in various European countries. The graph shows a clear uptake in testing, starting in the 1990’s.

Through its many education initiatives, the EU has provided European students and schools with several opportunities for extra-curricular activities and projects, like the eTwinning programme. However, many schools report that they are not able to take advantage of these initiatives because of strict and specific national curricula. Creating more open curricula giving schools more individual liberties will make it easier for them to provide their students with this kind of innovative education, but also risk national authorities losing control over the academic quality of their education system. 

As Europe is making its education sector ready to meet the demands of tomorrow’s employers, it will be important for European lawmakers to have an understanding of what the demands of tomorrow are. With an ever-changing situation in the private sector, forecasting what is needed in the future becomes increasingly more difficult.

Further, the policies put in place in the education sector to foster creativity and innovation must also be transferable into the workforce.

Lastly, the policies, initiatives and projects being put in place to foster more creative thinking must take into account the digitalisation of the economy. Information and communication technology skills will continue to grow as a leading requirement for employees, something students of today are already experienced with. Youth’s digital creativity and ability to solve digital problems is substantial, due in part because of digitalised education. However, dr. Kim pointed to the less personal digital communication as one of the reasons for diminishing creativity among youth. Creative thinking might be dependent on the ability to engage in intercultural dialogue, take part in arts and crafts or more project-based education.

Measures Ahead

With creativity among young people steadily decreasing, what should European states do? Standardised testing has been an important part of the increasing academic performance of European students, but has also been under criticism for the overall effects on education and student wellbeing. When possibly also contributing to a decrease in original thinking, should the EU get rid of standardised testing? And if so, how can we still ensure the academic quality of European education?

The EU already has put in place several opportunities for European students and schools to engage with each other in projects and initiatives. How can the EU strengthen these programmes and the European educational cooperation? Should these extra-curricular activities be focusing on culture, languages and the arts, or on digital solutions, ICT and science? Should such aspects be combined?

As the education system should educate the workforce of tomorrow, to what extent should employers and worker unions be involved in the forming of the European Education Area? Should individual schools and EU initiatives cooperate with the private sector, like the EIT does? 

Finally, as the decrease in creative thinking has been most prominent among the youngest children, while the EU initiatives have been substantially directed towards older students, what parts of the education system needs changing? Is there a need for more playtime in European pre-schools, or should pre-schools start focusing on problem solving to put the creativity at work?

Essential Reading

Why has the UK ditched participation in Erasmus+? – University World News (approx. 2 pages)

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Should we get rid of standardized testing? – Arlo Kempf – TED-Ed (5 minutes 40 seconds):

Why being creative is good for you – BBC News (approx. 5 pages)

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Standardized Testing – Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (18 minutes)

‘Open all schools!’ ‘Close all schools!’ What England really needs is creative thinking – John Harris – The Guardian (approx. 3 pages)

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Creativity and innovation in European education. 10 years eTwinning. Past, present and the future – Stamatios J Papadakis – University of Crete (15 pages)

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Do schools kill creativity? – Sir Ken Robinson – TED Talk (20 minutes)