In a recent survey of 1500 CEO’s by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, “creativity” was singled out as the most important leadership characteristic for businesses of the future.

Indeed, we all value and enjoy the creative output of designers, chefs, and out-of-the-box thinkers in all corners of the market.

And we celebrate innovative leaders and entrepreneurs and turn them into rock stars and celebrities.

But interestingly, there is quite a bit of research which suggests that many of us actually have a bias against creative people. As in, we don’t want them to be our leaders, we don’t want them working for us, and most shockingly perhaps – we don’t want them in our classrooms.

Wait….seriously?

Are we cultivating creativity in the classroom?

I think we would all like to believe that we nurture creative students, and create a learning environment that is conducive to fostering creativity.

But numerous studies have found that teachers actually prefer students who are “pleasers,” who have traits that are somewhat the opposite of creative types. And as much as I hate to admit it, I suspect I’ve been guilty of this as well. Sigh…

Who are your favorite and least favorite students?

Researchers from Union College and Skidmore conducted a study of 16 teachers (aged 25-70) from elementary schools near Albany, NY.

The researchers created a 20-item creativity “prototype” which consisted of 10 characteristics previously found to be associated with high creativity, and 10 characteristics found to be associated with low creativity.

Characteristics of creative children included qualities like:

  • Makes up the rules as he/she goes along
  • Impulsive
  • Nonconformist
  • Emotional
  • Takes chances
  • Tends not to know own limitations and tries to do what others think is impossible

Characteristics that were least typical of creative child included qualities like:

  • Tolerant
  • Reliable
  • Practical
  • Logical
  • Understanding
  • Good-natured
  • Sincere
  • Dependable

Teachers were asked to rate their favorite student on these 20 characteristics using a 9-point scale ranging from Least descriptive of this student to Most descriptive of this student.

Teachers were also asked to rate their least favorite student on these same 20 characteristics.

Unsurprisingly, the teachers’ responses to their favorite and least favorite students were quite different.

Their favorite students tended to have profiles consistent with characteristics that were least descriptive of creative children.

Their least favorite students had profiles which were more consistent with characteristics typical of creative children.

In other words, the teachers favored the students who exhibited fewer “creative” traits.

Side note for those who might be curious about the stats: There was a significant negative correlation between the teachers’ favorite student and the creative prototype (mean r=-.63, p<.01), and a significant positive correlation between the teachers’ least favorite student and the creative prototype (mean r=.49, p<.05).

Wait! It’s not what you might be thinking

So are teachers basically just a bunch of creativity-haters who wake up every morning to think up new ways to squash the creativity out of young minds?

Or are they just worn down by the lack of resources provided to them and simply want to keep students in line and get through the day?

No, teachers aren’t deliberately trying to discourage creativity of course. And it’s not even entirely about classroom management. Most say they enjoy having creative students in the classroom and believe that a part of the day should be devoted to developing creative thinking skills.

So why the apparent contradiction? As it turns out, there is something more subtle that seems to contribute to the larger picture.

In a follow-up study, the researchers took the same list of 20 characteristics used to create the creative “prototype” in Study 1, and asked teachers to rate the degree to which each of the items was characteristic of a creative child.

Lo and behold, the teachers’ responses revealed that their idea of what a creative child actually looks and behaves like was different than that of the researchers.

Here are some of the characteristics teachers rated as being most characteristic of a creative child:

  • Sincere
  • Responsible
  • Good-natured
  • Reliable
  • Logical

And the characteristics they rated as being least characteristic of a creative child?

  • Makes up the rules as he/she goes along
  • Is impulsive
  • Is a nonconformist
  • Is emotional
  • Tends not to know own limitations and tries to do what others think is impossible
  • Likes to be alone when creating something new

So it’s not that teachers simply want to extinguish creativity in favor of compliance. They actually have a different concept of what creative children behave like.

Creativity begone!

Nevertheless, ambivalent or negative attitudes towards students can have an adverse effect on performance, not to mention engagement. These “creative” behaviors could also be suppressed or eventually wither and die in an attempt to gain the approval of teachers and peers.

So what are we to do?

Take action

Private teachers, who have the privilege of getting one-on-one time with students in a creative discipline like music, dance, and drama, may be uniquely positioned to nurture and develop the characteristics that might not always be fully embraced in a classroom setting.

While there is certainly a need for discipline, technique, tradition, and structure, perhaps it is just as important to teach young minds how to break the “rules,” question tradition, and re-imagine the accepted way of doing things by taking a fresh look at things.

In your own teaching, what exercises, strategies, or means, do you use to provide young minds with an experience they may not always get in the classroom? How do you let them know that it’s ok to shoot for the moon and fall short? To be playful, try crazy impossible things, experiment, question your advice, and go against the grain?

I’d be really curious to hear what helps to get your students’ creative juices flowing. Share below in the comments!

Additional reading

John Cleese on the 5 factors to make your life more creative (yes, that John Cleese). Worth a look, even if only to see Cleese speak out of character on a more serious topic.

photo credit: Me2 (Me Too) via photopin cc

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About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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