Why schools punish creativity

During my K-12 years, I had several teachers who alternately told me that I was incredibly smart, talented, and imaginative, and that I was lazy and stupid and doomed to fail at life. They told me these things without any apparent contradiction in their own minds, but I’ve always thought it was strange that the teachers who disliked me most intensely should be those who made the biggest point of telling me how smart and special I was.

Well, I’ve finally read something that helps me to make sense of it. Here is a research paper about how elementary school teachers perceive creative students: Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom?

The writers of the paper, Westby and Dawson, asked groups of elementary school teachers to divide a list of traits into those “most typical” and “least typical” of a creative child, and then compared the teachers’ lists to the prototype for creative individuals based on previous research. They also asked the teachers to rank their students according to how much they liked them. (There was more involved in the studies than this, but I’m trying to keep it brief.) The results were fairly unsurprising to those of us who suffered in the public school system:

“The adjectives included as most typical of creative children by the teachers that differed from those of previous research were sincere, responsible, good-natured, reliable, and logical. Perhaps even more telling are the characteristics that teachers rated as least typical of the creative child: ‘makes up the rules as he or 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,’ and ‘likes to be alone when creating something new.’ It is interesting to note that this list includes the 4 characteristics most highly associated with creativity.” [emphasis added]

I find this hilarious, along with the following related tidbit:

“A study of teachers in England and Wales found that only about half viewed divergence as an important aspect of creativity. This is puzzling given that divergence is fundamental to most definitions of and tests for creativity.”

In other words, what Westby and Dawson found was that teachers perceive themselves as liking and fostering creativity in their students, but don’t actually like the traits associated with creativity. To cope with this contradiction, they unconsciously redefine creativity as … whatever traits they do like. Creativity is a good thing, so surely creative children must be reliable, logical, and good-natured. Right? These teachers’ self-perception would be damaged if they understood that this volatile, moody child who disobeys rules “because they don’t make sense” and asks questions about everything, often embarrassing the teacher in front of others – this unpredictable, exhausting, difficult-to-manage child whom they dislike so much – is actually the most creative student in their class.

I think this dynamic shaped my relationship with some of my primary school teachers, or rather, their relationship to me. They recognized in me something that they liked and wanted to support (creativity), and yet not only was I difficult to manage in the classroom, but my whole personality was wrong. They liked the idea, and perhaps the products, of creativity, but they didn’t like the process and all that it involved. In my case, it involved intense emotions, challenging authority, self-isolation, and overthinking test questions to the point of paralysis.

“Children who were the teachers’ least favorite students showed a pattern of behavioral characteristics that was quite similar to the pattern for the creative prototype.”

Of course, not everyone is the same, and the existence of more adaptable creative students gives teachers and others a model to justify their perceptions. But:

Although some creative children are clearly capable of excelling in a traditional classroom, some of the most creative students may remain unrecognized or may even be punished.”

How are students punished for creative thinking? They are made to feel stupid when they ask questions. They are marked down for assignments in which they give unconventional answers or determine that there is no answer. They are heaped with meaningless busywork that does nothing to fulfill their intellectual curiosity, and when they neglect the busywork in order to pursue endeavors that do fulfill that curiosity, their grades decline and they’re told they are lazy, failures, underachievers. Their refusal to accept pat answers is treated as a problem with authority. And ultimately, if they are unable to adapt (i.e. to be intellectually coerced), they will develop problems with authority, not to mention some serious issues with self-confidence.

This is not just about a subset of “highly creative” or “gifted” students. This is about all students. Because nonconformity, independent thought, curiosity, and the willingness to question everything threaten the traditional classroom structure, these tendencies are suppressed; and yet these tendencies are key to a self-directed learning that can continue beyond formal schooling. Ultimately, what is suppressed is love of learning, love of knowledge, love of thought.

In my experience, the teachers that do encourage these things are constantly at war with the school board, constantly being threatened with the loss of their jobs. My favorite teachers in high school – the ones who encouraged discussion, had creative lesson plans, and were passionate about their subject – would tell us to keep certain things secret because they feared losing their jobs. These were very benign things, like reading books not on the official curriculum.

This paper was written 20 years ago, and I have no doubt that the problem identified then by Westby and Dawson has gotten worse and will continue to get worse. As more public school funding is cut, as classrooms grow larger and curriculums more rigid, as more and more emphasis is placed on standardized testing, teachers will have to focus even more on managing their classroom and controlling their students. As busywork increases, students are left with less time to actually think and question and wonder. Those teachers who are themselves creative and prize independent, original thought in their students are already leaving (or being fired) and seeking other careers. What will happen when they’re all gone? What will happen when there is no time in school to discuss books, to ask questions?

And I suspect that this is what the political establishment actually wants. If you can shape how people think, censorship of what they read is much less important. If you can create a generation of unquestioning, uncurious people simply by cutting school budgets and pushing standardized tests, you can go ahead and boast about how free your country is because you don’t ban books. And of course, these things are always worst in the poorest school districts, because underprivileged people thinking independently and questioning authority is obviously more dangerous than rich suburbanites doing so.

This may sound like a conspiracy theory, but I’m not even saying that politicians are necessarily conscious of pursuing policies for these reasons. Just as teachers in traditional classrooms unconsciously privilege and encourage students’ traits that make their own jobs easy, elected politicians pursue policies that make their jobs secure. Every political establishment has an interest in protecting its own status. Creative people will always be inclined to challenge the political establishment, to ask “What’s wrong with this?” and “How can we do this better?” And the answers they offer won’t be tiny, incremental changes to existing policies. Their answers will involve an overhaul, a total reimagining. Is it any wonder that politicians are not rushing to implement policies that would make public schools hotbeds of creativity and free thinking?


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