Creativity is not rewarded

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Everyone says they want creativity, but creativity is not rewarded:

There have been countless studies, too many to cite here, on teacher opinions of creative behavior in classrooms. In one example, a study by Westby and Dawson looked at characteristics of creative and non-creative students, then asked teachers to rate their favorite and least favorite students based on those traits.

First, teachers were asked if they valued creativity and enjoyed working with creative students, and they overwhelmingly answered “yes”. Next, they were asked to look at their own students and rate them on a variety of traits, ranging from highly creative traits, such as being determined, independent, individualistic, impulsive, and likely to take risks, to traits that are associated with low levels of creativity, such as peaceable, reliable, tolerant, steady, and practical. After they rated their students on these traits, they were asked to rate them from their least favorite to most favorite students.

Interestingly, there was a significant negative correlation between the degree of creativity of the student and his favorable rating by the teachers. This means that the most creative students were the least favorite of the teachers, across the entire sample surveyed. Additionally, the students that were rated as favorites of the teachers possessed traits that would seem counter-productive to creative behavior, such as conformity and unquestioning acceptance of authority. On the other hand, these are behaviors that fit well in a classroom setting. Even back in 1975, Feldhusen and Treffinger reported that 96% of teachers felt that creativity should be promoted in the classroom. However, when asked which students they actually liked to teach, they chose the students that were more compliant. Why the inconsistency?

Teachers say they want creativity, but that is not the behavior that is rewarded. In this study (as well as in many others), they found that there is a discrepancy between what teachers, and schools in general, say they value and desire, and what behaviors they actually reward and encourage. Teachers don’t want the student who is always raising their hand and questioning the assignment; they want the student who unquestioningly follows the outline given to them and turns the assignment in on time. After all, what a hassle it would be to allow a student to creatively revise an assignment, even if the new method still met the project objectives. Any type of questioning of the pre-set format is viewed as challenging and defiant behavior. Bad.

Unfortunately, once you leave school, society does not get much more supportive of really creative behavior. The most highly valued employees are the ones who blindly accept the ideology of the company, don’t challenge authority, and do the work that is required of them, no questions asked.

People don’t say what they think, Eric Falkenstein says:

Professors love creative students, as demonstrated by those who extend their work in predictable yet difficult dimensions. The ‘creativity’ is evidenced merely by embracing their-own paradigm shifting work. A truly creative person, like a true risk taker, is seen as a crank in real-time, and indeed on average they are. But sometimes they are right.

Like risk-taking, what these creativity lovers mean is, they like positive surprises. Risk-taking of a regular sort that leads to failure is considered just dumb, or worse, full of hubris. Creativity is great if it generates an obviously valuable thing, otherwise, it’s annoying, and just inappropriate.

I once read an article that accompanied an exposition on the Capital Asset Pricing Model, and its implication that expected return was positively related to risk (via the ‘beta’, now an anachronism). They asked a bunch of well-known portfolio managers about their greatest risks, and each one was an unqualified success. This gives one the feeling that risk is related to return, because in these biased samples they are. Kids, and adults, should know that risk-taking usually fails, and so the only key is to know when to stop, and to keep trying, learning along the way.


  1. Graham J. says:

    There’s also an interesting comparison to be made between the British and American educational systems (at least as regards higher education).

    My undergrad college in the US was very writing-intensive: for every seminar you were in, you met one-on-one with the professor every other week and worked on a ‘conference paper’ related to the subject of the class, but not specifically tied to a particular unit. Even for the normal class papers, you were generally given a single broad topic, and the thesis itself was up to you.

    For the Master’s I’m doing in the UK right now, it’s very different. Your paper topics must be pulled directly from a list of narrow questions. But that’s not even the part that bothers me. My US papers all had interesting titles, like “Privates and Patriots: Interpretations of the Battle of Concord,” and “For Love of Country? Britain, France, and the Multiethnic Imperial Army.”

    When I tried to write an interesting title in the UK that pretty clearly reflected the chosen question, “Is there an Anglo-American Special Relationship? If so, why?” I came up with “Forged in Battle, Sealed with Blood: Whither the Special Relationship?” I got points taken off. Apparently I need to just repeat the question so that the intellectual powers of the professor aren’t overly taxed.


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