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Creative Teaching

Do schools crush our creativity?

I'm not someone who sends several emails a day to people saying there's this Internet video you should watch, so I mean it when I say there's this Internet video you should watch (embedded below). The talk is from the February 2006 TED conference, and the talker is Sir Ken Robinson, a "creativity expert" who seems pretty smart, even when controlling for the fact that a British accent makes anyone seem pretty smart:

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The point of Robinson's talk is that the current education system is designed to squander creativity. Children are steered away from unusual instincts toward the traditional skills that will lead to secure jobs:

Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth-for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won't serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children.

When children enter school, Robinson argues, they do so without a fear of being wrong. He tells the story of a quiet girl drawing at the back of a classroom. Her teacher came up and asked what she was drawing. The girl said, "I'm drawing God." The teacher said no one knows what God looks like. The girl replied, "They will in a minute."

If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original. If you're not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. ... We are educating people out of their creative capacities.

That's nothing new to psychologists. Over at The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer recently wrote about a 1995 paper from the Creativity Research Journal (pdf here). The researchers took an agreed-upon list of creative characteristics and asked teachers, based on this list, to guess which students would be their favorites. Sure enough, the researchers found a negative correlation between creativity traits and preference for this type of student. They conclude:

As in previous research, the teachers in the present investigation appeared to have a negative view of characteristics associated with creativity. This in turn suggests that schools may provide an inhospitable environment for creative students.

But why? Lehrer points out that improvisation goes against the rules of the classroom:

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.

"Would you really want a little Picasso in your class?" he asks. In his TED talk, Robinson made a similar remark about teaching English to a young Shakespeare. ("How annoying would that be?")

So how do we encourage creativity in the classroom? The typical proposal is to increase funding for the arts. As great as that would be, such a measure falls short in my mind. These days creativity is tied to technology as much as anything else. Would more music classes have nurtured the instincts of Mark Cuban or Bill Gates?

New research set for publication in the July issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that something can be done to inspire creativity—that insight isn't, as we've always believed, entirely self-propelled (pdf here). On the contrary, the researchers were able to enhance insight on spatial, verbal, and mathematical tasks simply by exposing test participants to something as cliché as a lightbulb. They conclude:

Modern research on creative insight has likewise conceptualized it as highly personal, ultimately based in higher-order thought processes ... . This experience of insight, while highly personal, may follow from cultural events and artifacts. Indeed, the present results show that insight can be facilitated by a cultural artifact — an object that provides an external "flash of illumination."

I'm getting a vision of a teacher throwing lightbulbs at her students while they take an exam. This seems, at best, counterproductive, and, at worst, illegal. (At least in public schools.) But the root of this and similar research is that we can have a positive influence on creativity. I leave it to those with British accents to offer up just how.

A few bonus links:

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Follow me on twitter: e_jaffe

Science writer Eric Jaffe has covered behavior for several years and is working on a book about psychiatry during World War II.

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