Every school will tell its students and teachers that they aim to promote creativity in their classrooms.

What their teachers might however not be aware of is that, in practice, they don’t actually want their students to be creative.

Might it be possible that even though teachers think that they are encouraging their students to be creative, that their actions and behaviour actually discourage creativity in their classrooms?

Sadly, the answer is yes.

In a breakthrough 1995 study, teachers from grades 1 -5 (students aged 6 – 11) were asked to assess their favourite and least favourite students against criteria that describe a typical creative individual.

The following list of descriptors of a creative child were put analysed and put together by university psychology departments, based on previous research into similarities seen in creative individuals:

  • Most Typical of a Creative Child:
    • Makes Up the Rules as He or She Goes Along
    • Is Impulsive
    • Is a Nonconformist
    • Is Emotional
    • Is Progressive
    • Is Determined
    • Is Individualistic
    • Takes Chances
    • Tends Not to Know Own Limitations and Tries to Do What Others Think Is Impossible
    • Likes to be Alone When Creating Something New
  • Least Typical of a Creative Child
    • Is Tolerant
    • Is Practical
    • Is Reliable
    • Is Dependable
    • Is Responsible
    • Is Logical
    • Is Understanding
    • Is Appreciative
    • Is Good-Natured
    • Is Sincere

Then, the teachers in the study were asked to rank their students from their favourite to their least-favourite [Note: I’m not sure how ethical that would be nowadays…] and compare each of their students against each of these descriptive criteria. The aim was to see which descriptions would be common for favourite students, and for the least favourite students.

The results were fascinating.

Teachers consistently ranked their favourite students with the descriptors for non-creative children, and their least favourite children with descriptors for creative children!

As the researchers concluded:

There was a significant negative correlation between the favourite student and the creative prototype. Conversely, there was a significant positive correlation between the least favourite student and the creative prototype

Or to put it more simply: Creative children were the teachers’ least favourite.

What is even more interesting is that the teachers were not even aware of this.

When these teachers were asked to list out what they thought would describe a creative child, they came up with the following list:

(I have highlighted the descriptors which are the complete opposite of the actual prototype characteristics of a creative child, listed above).

  • Teachers List: Most Typical of a Creative Child:
    • Is Individualistic
    • Takes Chances
    • Is Progressive
    • Is Determined
    • Is Sincere
    • Is Appreciative
    • Is Good-Natured
    • Is Responsible
    • Is Logical
    • Is Reliable
  • Teachers List: Least Typical of a Creative Child:
    • Is Practical
    • Makes Up the Rules as He or She Goes Along
    • Is Emotional
    • Is Understanding
    • Is Tolerant
    • Is Impulsive
    • Is a Nonconformist
    • Tends Not to Know Own Limitations and Tries to Do What Others Think Is Impossible
    • Likes to Be Alone When Creating Something New
    • Is Dependable

As you can see, teachers were listing characteristics like “is logical”, “is reliable”, “is responsible” for creative children, when in fact this was completely wrong.

What teachers thought they were describing the characteristics of a creative child, they were in most cases actually describing the characteristics of non-creative children.

This paradox, that teachers say they like creative children when in fact creative children display their least-favourite characteristics, has been seen in several other studies (1999 and 2013) as well.

But why does this paradox exist?

Well, it seems to be related to the anti-creativity bias.

People think that they should like creativity, but they do not like the reality of the challenges that come with dealing with creative individuals.

In the classroom, some of the characteristics of creative children, like the fact that they are non-conforming, emotional and making things up as they go along, can make the job of a teacher trying to impart knowledge on an entire classroom at once more challenging.

They are likely to be interrupted, questioned, challenged and distracted more than with more conforming, less creative children. This is often called out as being “disruptive” to the flow of the class and hurting the ability of other children to learn.

[As a side note, I want to tell a quick story. When I was in school, I was extremely curious. I was constantly raising my hand to answer and ask questions in almost every class. This irritated one of my teachers so much that she set a limit on me only being able to ask up to 3 questions per class! And once she told this to my other teachers, they thought it was a great idea and also limited my ability to ask questions! As a result I needed to get even more creative and learn ways to get information through probing statements and requests rather than questions…]

This means that creative children take more mental effort to teach, compared to less creative children. As a result, teachers prefer teaching less creative children, as seen by the “favourite student” assessment above. And children pick up on these cues, slowly noticing that prototypically creative behaviour is frowned upon, while less creative behaviour is more positive.

And this is likely also a reason why schools actively try to train the children to act in a way which is characteristic of a less creative child: Just memorise what we teach you and give the correct answers on the test.

So while teachers might outwardly say they support creativity in their students and their classroom, and while they actually believe what they say, their actions represent the opposite.

As a result, creativity scores appear to be falling across the world as schools punish creative behaviour and try to focus children on getting better test scores by memorising answers.

So if you are a teacher, headmaster or even a manager looking to continue the development of your people, please take a moment to look inward and ask yourself:

Am I willing to expend a little bit more mental energy dealing with the disruption which is a natural part of creativity, in order to continue really encouraging the curiosity and creativity of my students & team?

Or am I willing to shut down their creativity just so that I can have an easier job?

I hope you make the right choice.

Nick Skillicorn: I help teams and companies just like yours unleash the creativity and innovation potential that already exists in your people.

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Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time
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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.