Cory Roush

Dissonance and tension plus reflection and resolution equal intellectual growth

Piling On: Teachers Hate Creativity, Supposedly

A study published in 1995 is being dragged out of storage to create all new incendiary headlines for the upcoming weeks, which will undoubtedly prove once again that teachers are awful. Right?

The study itself is not at fault, of course (and rarely is). I did take issue with the researchers putting teachers in the uncomfortable position of actually choosing their favorite and least favorite students and describing them. Sure, we all play favorites, but I'm already wary of these teachers' disposition toward education if they can readily name their least favorite student in the classroom. I'm willing to bet that you'll find little Johnny in the back of the classroom, possibly facing the opposite direction of his classmates and working on uncompleted homework from the day before. But I'll get back to the point.

The results of the first part of the study showed that these teachers described their least favorite students as more creative (as defined by a list of characteristics deemed creative). Their most favorite students, on the other hand, were described as less creative.

At this point, the study could go in a few different ways, analyzing the elements of the classroom and our nation's schools that might lead to such results.

But that's not what the headlines are going to say.

Alex Tabarrok even titles his article on the study, Teachers Don't Like Creative Students, and uses this as an opportunity to promote "personalized learning" via the Khan Academy. Nothing says creative expression like watching a series of 10-minute videos on math and science. The ruse worked, though; in a year-end review of the most popular posts on his blog in 2011, this one came in at #2 and snagged him valuable pageviews and a boatload of Twitter buzz.

Fortunately, not all of the recent write-ups about this study have completely missed the point. Jonah Lehrer, whose post led to Tabarrok's follow-up, pointed out that it's the institution of public education, specifically standardized public education, that leads to this distaste for creativity. I'd go even further to pose the more important question: does society like creative people?

This 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.

Of course, daydreaming is less helpful when we're supposed to be learning our multiplication tables, or studying for a standardized test. In such instances, the lack of focused attention is a classroom failure, and not a potentially useful state of mind. The danger, however, is that we're teaching our kids a very narrow and stultifying model of cognition, in which conscientiousness is privileged above all.

I'd even go further to pose the more important question: does society like creative people? It's not as if children themselves created the public education system, and classroom teachers aren't wholly responsible for the nation's slow march towards a system driven by standardized testing. Maybe teachers are guilty of viewing creative and nonconformist children as obnoxious, but they aren't alone. And to what extent does the common classroom teacher (e.g. the ones who aren't already passionate about creating a flexible learning environment) have to make the necessary changes to promote creativity? Schools adopt district-wide discipline policies that throw a blanket rule over all children's behaviors, and subjects are being eliminated from the curriculum simply because they don't carry as much weight on the all-important standardized test. Those elements and more are to blame for the destruction of creative behavior in our students, not simply the teacher's own beliefs.

Powered by Squarespace.