Schools want students to be creative, but only on a Thursday afternoon

Tom Barrett
Sep 30, 2016 · 4 min read
Put away your books, time to be a genius

Right off the bat I just want to say, that this post will likely pose more questions than give you solid answers. In many ways though pursuing those questions on creativity and pondering on what they mean in our schools is a worthy call to action in itself.

Fascinated by anything related to the research on creativity, I stumbled on this post from Fast Company about some of the pointers we can get from science.

Admittedly there is some good stuff there amongst the usual mix of “daydreaming and trying new things is good”. What struck me was the parting shot about the resistance to unconventional ideas and the public reaction to non-conformist concepts.

Some of the best ideas are widely ridiculed before they’re revered.

My radar for this sort of stuff is heightened as I recently wrote about the bias against creative ideas we might hold if we are feeling high levels of uncertainty. Creativity bias is a real thing.

The article elaborated further, but started to stray to a slightly different path in closing:

Research suggests that whatever nonconformist tendencies we may have as children are often driven out of us by the rote learning and direct instruction utilized in schools, which may counteract our more exploratory and creative modes of thinking and learning.

We are on different track now. These last comments are about the characteristics of those who are creative — not the ideas themselves. It also, obviously, draws in the impact of how we learn and the environmental influence of school — not the ideas themselves.

A final reference to the resistance to those “creative types” points the finger at teachers:

teachers have been found to display a clear preference for students who show less creativity

Which led me to a stream of questions:

  • How strong was the influence of school on how creative we are whilst we attend?
  • What long term impact does school have on our levels of creativity?
  • How can teacher education help deepen the understanding around what creativity is and how it might manifest in the classroom?
  • How creative is the teaching profession?
  • What are the ideal conditions in school for creativity to flourish?

The body of research referred to here does indeed reveal that:

One of the most consistent findings in educational research into creativity has been that teachers dislike personality traits associated with creativity. Research has indicated that teachers prefer traits that seem to run counter to creativity, such as conformity and unquestioning acceptance of authority.

The commentary on this sort of research points to the futility of the alternative. Suggesting that if we did have a group of 30 young expressive, creative thinkers it would be some version of chaos.

This (preference for non-creative students) shouldn’t be too surprising: Would you really want a little Picasso in your class? How about a baby Gertrude Stein? Or a teenage Eminem? The point is that the classroom isn’t designed for impulsive expression — that’s called talking out of turn. Instead, it’s all about obeying group dynamics and exerting focused attention. Those are important life skills, of course, but decades of psychological research suggest that such skills have little to do with creativity.

Just to answer the questions posed here: yes, yes and absolutely yes.

For me this all points to the education system and not the individual teacher who has become a product of that system.

Compliance and conformity will only get us so far and they certainly don’t rank highly in environments that encourage creativity and innovation.

I recently re-discovered and re-read this lovely essay on creativity by Issac Asimov, in which he suggests some ideas for creating the conditions for others to generate ideas, which I have paraphrased below:

  • Daring cross-connection
  • Free of responsibility
  • Thoroughly relaxed
  • Deep knowledge
  • Discussing something of interest
  • Being by nature unconventional

Take a moment to consider each of these in relation to “school” and places of learning.

We suffer the fallout and collateral damage from too heavy a focus on explicit teaching, direct instruction, conformity and compliance, let’s throw in high stakes assessment whilst we are at it.

That damage is the marginalisation of the conditions for children to be strongly creative little souls and the conditions for innovative teaching.

In what ways might we expand these conditions from the margins? How might we establish a common understanding of the key environmental and cultural conditions for innovation and creativity? In what ways might we learn about creativity and use that to inform our teaching practice?

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Tom Barrett

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Helping people re-discover the curiosity they had when they were 6 years old; designing learning that uses that curiosity to change the world around us.

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