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Does Education Stifle Creativity?

Does school really kill creativity?

Experts in creativity are sometimes damning about the stifling effects of education on creativity. In a comment on his own post on The Seven Deadly Sins that Prevent Creative Thinking, Psychology Today blogger Michael Michalko comments "Unfortunately, I've come to believe that education is a great inhibitor of our natural creativity... To me it seems that in the real world those who know more, create less; and those who know less create more". He is not alone in his criticisms of the stifling effects of the educational establishment. The Learn in Freedom website, which advocates home schooling, contains a page of quotes from Nobel Laureates entitled "Nobel Prize Winners Hate School". The website TED frequently hosts talks with titles like "Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity".

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Most educators, of course, would deny that they labour day and night to instill a strong sense of dull mediocrity and ‘thinking inside the box' among their students. Many argue that its extremely difficult to be creative in a field in which you are not already an expert. Without being familiar with the work of others, how would you know whether your idea was actually new?

The idea that formal education reduces creativity appears to be supported largely by anecdotes rather than scientific evidence, although it is sometimes cited as if it were a well established fact.  The use of quotes from historical geniuses as evidence that education stifles creativity is less than convincing. For starters, these individuals went to school at a time when the educational environment was quite different (for example, corporal punishment was frequently used). Also, it's perhaps not surprising that exceptionally bright and individualistic students might chafe against the constraints of their school environment; yet their eventual achievements are proof that their school experiences were not fatal to their creative potential.

What evidence is there that might cast light on this dispute?

1) This list of Nobel Laureates suggests that many of them have survived encounters with higher education with their ability to produce ground-breaking research or original literature intact. (I tried unsuccessfully to find a clearer list of the educational qualifications of Nobel Laureates. If anyone is aware of such a list, please post the link in the comments section. I would suspect that regardless of field of endeavour, most laureates are highly qualified).

2) Research shows that people working in creative and artistic fields are twice as likely to have college degrees as people in the workforce in general.

3) There is evidence that creativity is dependent on extensive depth of knowledge in a field (see Chapter 12 of the Handbook of Creativity).

4) Countries where people are more educated tend to produce higher levels of innovation.

None of this evidence conclusively disproves the idea that education stifles creativity, but it should be comforting to those who spend time in educational institutions.

When researching this article, I was surprised not to be able to find more direct evidence on the differences in creativity between more and less educated individuals (it'd make a good topic for a graduate student thesis). However, quite a lot is known about how educators can promote creativity. One primary method is to rely principally on positive reinforcement and encouragement to motivate students, rather than punishment. Robert Sternberg's book, "How to Develop Student Creativity" contains 25 suggestions for fostering creativity in students, including modelling creativity, questioning assumptions, allowing time for creative thinking, rewarding creative ideas and products, and allowing mistakes. If one of your goals for your education or the education of your children is to develop creativity, it would be wise to select your teachers accordingly.

My own experiences suggest that many teachers and university lecturers do encourage creativity, although certainly not all. What's been your experience? Leave a comment if you'd like to share your thoughts.

Carl Beuke, Ph.D., is a psychologist working in management and leadership. He works with the New Zealand Prisons Service and Ministry for the Environment, among others.

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