Creative — and troublesome — students

Teachers don’t like creative students, who tend to be stubborn, critical non-conformists, writes Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution. He cites  Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom? (pdf), a 1995 review of the research.

. . . although teachers say that they like creative students, teachers also say creative students are “sincere, responsible, good-natured and reliable.” In other words, the teachers don’t know what creative students are actually like.  (FYI, the research design would have been stronger if the researchers had actually tested the students for creativity.)  As a result, schooling has a negative effect on creativity.

Creative students are hard to handle in a classroom with 20 to 30 kids, Tabarrok writes. They tend to be rule breakers with little regard for social conventions.

Would you really want a little Picasso in your class? asks Jonah Lehrer.

How about a baby Gertrude Stein? Or a teenage Eminem? 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.

Tabarrok hopes creative kids will thrive — without disrupting others — through personalized learning, such as the Khan Academy.

About Joanne


  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    A lot of Elementary school teachers define ‘creative’ as the kid who likes to sit quietly in her seat and follow directions and she cuts and pastes the perfect looking craft. Or who colors nicely. Or who enjoys stringing beads.

    Just like they LIKE the ‘creative writing’ about ‘If I had a million dollars for a day, I would buy puppies for all the poor children” and then freak out about the kid who writes about building an arsenal to take over Antarctica and then launch an attack on his annoying next door neighbor involving mutant bugs.

    Because, in many teacher’s minds, “Creative” means “Good” and “Good” means “Neat and Compliant and preferably female.”

    • Deirdre,

      I think you’re off the mark. I teach a gifted upper-grades class and leave a lot of room for independent projects and more relaxed, less scripted behaviors. Creativity can be messy and disruptive, but I don’t know too many teachers who define it as “enjoying stringing beads” or “good” or all the other (cliche, I might add) assumptions about teachers made in your post. Perhaps your own bitterness is bleeding into this assessment.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        I wonder how’d you react to a student who told you that he/she thought the environment of your g&t classsroom was banal and oppressive and objected to the independent projects, more relaxed style, and less scripted behaviors. That the entire g&t program was run by teachers whose collective IQ was less than his/her own?

        • Probably the same way they’d react to any rude person.

          • Wow, Stacy, you make a lot of unfortunate assumptions. I am open to criticism and feedback. Like most human beings, I prefer that it be done respectfully. Teaching children to express themselves respectfully and enabling them to self-advocate in constructive ways is not brainwashing, oppressive, or an attempt to squelch creativity. Was your response an indirect attempt to insult teachers? Forgive me if I read it incorrectly.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Actually, CATeacher, I didn’t make any assumption; I just asked a question about how you would react to a situation. You did read it incorrectly – my bad. How do you respond to children whose way of expressing themselves is to let you know they think the very strategies you use to reach them are BS?

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Yes, but I’m not a teacher. I would hope a teacher would react like an adult and a professional – not childishly

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        I did specify ELEMENTARY school teachers. And it’s not really MY bitterness– I’m not especially creative. Our high school magnet program did a much better job coping with the brilliant rule-breakers, I think. They didn’t necessarily get great grades, but the teachers appreciated them and didn’t try to quash them, either. (And would freely admit that some of these kids (who have gone on to do great things) were some of the smartest people they’d ever met.)

        But a lot of K-3 teachers do seem to prefer the kids who are just like them…..

      • I think Deidre is right-on. In 2rd grade, my son wrote a Tim Burton-style story that included Santa’s death. The teacher found the entire story unacceptable and changed it to a happy ending with Santa handing out gifts and dancing reindeer. The stories had been typed up and on display for the school. I was aghast when I found out what had happened. However, neither the principal nor the teacher thought there was anything wrong with her sending home work as my son’s that was not truly his.

        My little angel is not always an angel. He has moments. Whatever he has on his mind that bursts out in his excitement. But, given a paperclip, he will create a toy. Given time on the playground, he can create a complex game that include rules on how to evade teacher scrutiny.

  2. My seven-year-old daughter decided last night that she wanted to create a website. Because we homeschool in the mornings, she got her wish granted just now. Good luck trying to allow for creativity like that within the constraints of a second-grade classroom.

    • Of course it couldn’t happen, the classroom can’t be set up for the whims of individuals. That’s not the point of the classroom. I’m not sure why you are faulting something for being something it isn’t supposed to be.

  3. “The point is that the classroom isn’t designed for impulsive expression”

    Since when was creativity defined as impulsive expression? There are plenty of quiet, rule following creative people and plenty of rule-breaking creative people.

    I don’t think we have a good definition of creativity. Creativity looks different in different contexts, different subjects, etc.

    • Agreed. I’ve known numerous creative sudents who function well within the realms of civility and obedience to schools rules. Tabarokk’s piece is nothing more than an immature attack against societal rules, effectively judging rule-followers as being less than the creative free-thinker types. My guess is he still has some unresolved issues about his own youth.

  4. My seven-year-old daughter decided last night that she wanted to create a website. Because we homeschool in the mornings, she got her wish granted just now.

    Has nothing to do with homeschooling. Newsflash: any parent can get their kid a website. It’s nothing to do with the fact that you stay home and grant your kid every wish and then bore the world congratulating yourself about it.

    • There are 24 hours in a day. She slept during most of the hours between getting the idea and the fulfillment thereof. If she had been in a traditional classroom this morning, she wouldn’t have gotten her website and probably would have forgotten about the idea.
      You seem rather hostile to homeschooling. That’s too bad. It gives children a lot more flexibility to follow their interests, which seems key to encouraging creativity.

      • She would have forgotten the whole idea in 24 hours???? Wow. she must really have wanted to build a website…. thank goodness you homeschool.

      • My nine year old wanted to build a house in the backyard to live there. I don’t homeschool. Should i homeschool and build him a house in the backyard….

        • Yes, apparently, she homeschools her daughter not because her little girl is brilliant and creative, but has the attention span of a tiny gnat.

          Or, more likely, she’s so busy yammering about her own superiority that she didn’t realize she was insulting her little darling’s focus and perseverance.

          • Your rudeness is incredible. This post is on creativity. I was pointing out, from very recent experience, how freedom from the necessary constraints of institutional schooling allows for greater support of children’s individual projects. You have to strike while the iron is hot with little ones.

    • (As a side note, she’d laugh her head off at the intimation that I grant her every wish.)

    • Yes, I know. We are supposed to patiently ooh and aah as these moms go on and on about how they homeschool to save their precious children. They can insult schools without a shred of evidence, and promote their viewpoint.

      But heaven forfend if someone express the opinion that homeschooling moms are, as a group, excessively self-satisfied and oh, by the way, doing this all on someone else’s dime.

      No, that’s just beyond the pale.

      Why is it okay to attack schools and teachers who aren’t “here”, but it’s wrong to tell someone that they really aren’t doing their kid any favors with their chosen method of education, but rather giving into their own self-gratification?

      The idea that any of these women’s little preciouses would be worse off at public school. It’s absurd.

      • So many errors….where to start?
        1) This is an education blog. Whether the student body is 1 or 400, everyone’s sharing their education-related anecdotes, ideas, and observations. That’s hardly going “on and on”.
        2) Men homeschool, too.
        3) My daughter goes to public school part-time.
        4) Someone else’s dime? You’re ignorant about the economics of homeschooling if you think anyone’s paying homeschool parents. They are often giving up incomes to do what they do.
        5) Worse off at public school? With a teacher that exhibits your intolerance, hyperbole, and insulting behavior, she just might be. Long live freedom to escape teachers like you!

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          I’m confused about ‘someone else’s dime’ too. Heck, I pay property taxes, so are my dimes are going to the public schools! On the other hand, Homeschooling IS more affordable than sending my kids to the 10K/year Montessori school that I’d choose if money was no object. (Actually, because of book fees, lunches, activity fees, recess fees, technology fees, etc. Homeschooling is also cheaper than the lousy public school where half the kids enter Kindergarten having never held a crayon. (teacher’s statement, not mine.) But yeah, we’re a real drain on society. Just like those people who have vegetable gardens and compost heaps instead of going to Kroger.)

        • You should see if the school has a scholarship program. Unfortunately, due to the economic downturn, many schools have maxed out the number of scholarships they can give out, but many private schools do offer scholarships and it can’t hurt to ask.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Yes, how dare Catherine feel any sense of accomplishment or pride in her child or her ability to engage and meet her daughters educational needs at home.

        Catherine should just shut-up.

        So, should every teacher who comes here to brag about how wonderful they are at teaching their g&t, AP, SE or economically disadvantaged classes while half of our public schools are failing to meet minimum standards. Whether they’re bragging out right or bragging indirectly with the oh, so amusing comments and throw away lines about how THEY are successful.

        Also, every parent who drives around with a “My child is an honor roll student at Stupid Middle School” bumper sticker needs to shut the hell up.

        Let’s all be a bunch of bitter pills ripping apart everyones educational choices.

      • “the opinion that homeschooling moms are, as a group, excessively self-satisfied and oh, by the way, doing this all on someone else’s dime. ”

        Just make it clear that it’s just your opinion, and not something backed up by any data.

        “The idea that any of these women’s little preciouses would be worse off at public school. It’s absurd.”

        I’m guessing that there actually *is* a lot of data for this. I’m on various listservs for high functioning autism, and there are tons of kids (though I’ve never heard them called “precious”) whose parents are pulling them out of school because they are suffering when they could be thriving.

  5. If some creative people are obnoxious, that does not mean that the inverse is true, i.e., all obnoxious people are creative. I think the unearthing of a 16 year old study is being used to criticize teachers needlessly.

    “Well, of course Mrs. X doesn’t like Johny. He’s so creative, you see, and teachers are known not to like creative children.” I rather think the mother who trots this one out will open herself to her friends’ scorn. Sometimes a difficult child is just a difficult child, who will become a difficult adult.

    There are many more jerks in this world than there are van Goghs.

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    I think creative is the wrong adjective. Iconoclastic is better. People in general say that they value “critical thinking” and “questioning authority”, but they actually despise it. As long as the questioning is done in prescribed channels than teachers love it. When it goes to places that actually question the cherished assumptions the reaction is profoundly negative. But the differences between an iconoclast and a narcissist can be indistinguishable, and authority feels justified in rejecting it as selfish, mean, or self-indulgent.

    Kids who are really creative/iconoclastic have a VERY hard time in school.

    Christopher Hitchens is an iconoclast, a very good one, too. People familar with his work usually have strongly conflicted feelings about him.

    • This is exactly right.

    • The point is that no one wants someone rudely accusing them in front of a group of people.

      I don’t mind making changes or revisitng situations a student didn’t like or that I may have misunderstood, but I do not like being verbally attacked by a student in the classroom. The time to discuss that is in private.

      Lots of people have a hard time in school, but it’s not an excuse to be a jerk.

  7. “I think creative is the wrong adjective. Iconoclastic is better.”

    Well if they are iconoclastic then it is a good lesson for them to learn that questioning others’ authority/assumptions will rarely be met with praise. I would bet most iconoclasts have the same negative reaction when others question their authority/assumptions. This is kind of the reality of iconoclasm.

    Kind of like people engaging in civil disobedience complaining about the authority reacting to their actions. Well, of course.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      That’s right. We’re doing them a favor by getting them used to the way society really works.

      It hurts us more than it hurts them.

      It’s for their own good.

      • Thats not the point. Nobody, and I mean nobody, likes it when another person challenges what they deem to be correct. If a teacher believes that something should be done a certain way (even if it is crazy) they are not going to respond positively to being challenged, until the challenge opens their eyes.

        I’ve changed as a teacher because of some iconoclastic students but I didn’t just respond, “oh great, you are questioning my authority, how wonderful!” It took time and reflection to see that the requirements were not beneficial to learning. I’ve also not changed due to some other iconoclastic students because I never came to the conclusion that they had a point.

      • You’re right. I’ll just go ahead and pass my students who have skipped most of my classes so far this semester… wouldn’t want to harm their self esteem. One of the biggest gifts I can give my students is the ability to prejudge their actions based upon their audience and the desired reactions. If they don’t mind pissing others off, go right ahead. Want to maintain relationships… well, you need to finesse it. They still need to learn that early on.

      • I think your confusing corporal punishment with understanding that no one gets their own way all the time.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    I suppose a creative kid could be mischievous. For example, he could pull together articles about Climategate 1.0 and 2.0. He could refer to the fate of the editor of “Remote Sensing” who ran an article disclosing that satellite measurements discovered that Earth was losing heat faster than the AGW folks’ models could stand. (He resigned in shame). Or how the CERN results having to do with cloud formation and radiation were sat upon for some time.

    One of the things truly creative people do is go outside CW. Problem is, some kinds of CW are pretty much mandatory in the public square.

    My brother, decades ago, beefed some color from All Quiet on The Western Front for an essay. The teach missed the plagiarism but called my father in to talk about how this kid is sick and dangerous. My father, an Infantry veteran of Europe’s second big idea of the first half of the century, managed not to annoy her further. Wonder what my brother’s file showed.

    I suppose explaining how to build an atomic bomb is pretty much so twentieth century. But a kid might detail how to make a homemade shaped charge. The Munro effect, I believe it’s called. And if he mentioned it in the context of the gov of Nl Carolina seriously suggesting Obama cancel the next round of elections, the kid might not be seen again.

    Real creativity is really, really upsetting to CW. It’s supposed to be. And some CW is not to be trifled with.

    Maybe the kid could line up a cause of the year–to pick on AGW again–with Hoffer’s “True Believer”. Oh, boy.

  9. georgelarson says:

    I believe it was Lucy Van Pelt who said

    “Everyone is critical of critical people”

  10. Let us not forget Socrates’ reward for going about questioning the CW.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Yeah. I wonder how many really creative people kept themselves to the straight and narrow for reasons of hemlock.

    • There are also many, many creative people who are quiet, polite, or reserved. Some prominent poets I’ve worked with are the most reserved, kind people you will ever meet, and they are incredibly creative.

      There’s no one consistent behavioral manifestation of creativity.

  12. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I don’t know that “like” is a good word to use here. How important is it that I “like” certain types of students? What’s important is if I can teach them. I’ve done a fine job with plenty of kids I couldn’t stand. Snotty girls make me nuts, but I still teach them (and I “like” them far, far less than than the rule-breaking, creative iconoclasts, whom I don’t always teach very well, but enjoy).

    And I agree very much with Parker. Learning tends to be an uncomfortable place — things are shifting — so it is often kids we don’t enjoy that we learn from — but not instantly.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      You don’t remember being in school as a student, do you?

      Being liked by the teacher (or at least flying under the radar) was a pre-requisite to doing well about half the time.

      Yes, I said it: Fifty percent of teachers (at least the teachers I had) let their personal feelings about students’ behavior interfere with their grading of academic work. The only time I’ve seen students able to completely escape this phenomenon was in law school with blind exam grading where the exams are 100% of your grade.

      That’s why I’m a *huge* proponent of that sort of system that Khan’s been talking up recently, where the learning and the evaluation really are kept separate. But that’s another issue, that I’ve discussed previously here.

      And no, I didn’t do a study. No I didn’t double-regress. Yes, my assertion is based purely on personal experience and hearsay. But I think 50% is probably about right based on my experience.

      • Michael,

        Your statement has truth in it. And yet how is that different from the working world? A person’s relationship with his/her boss is highly likely to impact the boss’ perception – and evaluation – of him/her.

        In my own classroom, I try to cultivate a positive relationship with each child. I’m not always good at that, but I make an effort all year. I make that relationship – or try to – because a child is more willing to take risks in an environment that is supportive and nurturing.

        My point is that affection and kindness are not always about people-pleasing, and more about learning to work in a larger community. Brilliant or iconoclastic, most people must work with other people most of the time. Of course there are exceptions to this, and they deserve their own consideration, but I’m speaking in general here.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          You’re absolutely right that this happens in the working world. I would point out, though, that the working world has certain built-in incentives. Employers who regularly go with affability over competence in their employment decisions will suffer somewhat for those choices. Sometimes the jerk who’s a genius with the torque wrench is the guy you want.

          Schools don’t have those incentives built in. They have to depend on personal will — the will of parents to complain, the will of administrators to demand fairness, and the internal code of the teacher — to have those types of incentives in place.

          Nevertheless, I take your point, CATeacher. Yet even in your well-intentioned, well-reasoned position, there’s that strain of thought again, the one Parker brought up above: we’re hard on the nonconformists in part for their own good, or at the very least, our being hard on them has a good side effect. In other news, we’re doing them a favor because, really, they need to learn to go along to get along.

          And here’s the rub: I’d agree with you if it wasn’t for the fact that students are mandated by law to show up in classrooms, classrooms that well-meaning people like you and Parker freely admit are designed in part to indoctrinate students into a particular sort of social life.

          That seems perfectly permissible to me if the students want that, or even if the parents want that (at least when the child is young enough). But teenage students are old enough to know who or what they want to be, and if they don’t want to be that sort of person, I think it’s morally wrong to force it on them, and not all parents are going to want that for their very young children, either.

          I think it’s a mistake to ignore the compulsory nature of our educational system when we’re discussing moral issues like this.

          (I’ve tried to be colloquial and brief in this comment… but this pretty much the topic of my dissertation so I’d like to apologize if I was overly technical or went on too long.)

          • Michael,

            Thank you for making your point so clearly. If I may clarify (so that I can be sure I’m understanding you), you’re trying to tell us that “the particular sort of social life” that schools require is not the sort of social life that suits all kids. And those kids for whom that social life doesn’t fit, they have a hard time with it, and they shouldn’t be morally obligated to adjust their personalities to match. Does that sound right?

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Yeah… pretty much.

            You’d be amazed what a revolutionary position this is in some circles (though obviously we’re glossing over a lot of intricacies.)

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Actually, let me make one small correction.

            Instead of “they shouldn’t be morally obligated” I’d rather you said, “Morally, they shouldn’t be obligated.”

            Much better.


          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            A second caveat: I’m not 100% sure I like the use of the word “suits” in your explanation of my position. That makes it sound like I’m arguing at least in part on the basis of some sort of utilitarian calculus — that indoctrination is good because it “works” with certain kids.

            The word “suits” is fine, I suppose, so long as we understand that the criterion I’m using here isn’t one of results, but of will. Do the children (or their parents) want to be that sort of person? Do they recoil against it?

            It’s a question of autonomy, not of utility.

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        Well, it was several decades ago, Michael, but I do. But, working with teenagers all these years has taught me whether or not they think a teacher “likes” them doesn’t correlate remotely with the truth. I have kids I like just fine who think I don’t like them because I told them they were wrong about something or “gave” them a B. I’ve also had students I thought hated me the first year I had them who puzzled me by choosing to take me again — and I found out it was because they loved me. And just because I don’t like a kid doesn’t mean I grade differently — some kids who rub me the wrong way are A+ students. This is just far too subjective to take seriously.

        FWIW, I don’t think public schools meet the needs of all kids.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          I think you’re probably right about the ability of most students to gauge the “like/dislike” quotient of teachers. But I wasn’t unaware of my own biases when I was a teenager… and I’ve continued to observe this sort of behavior as an adult.

          You are also probably one of the teachers who successfully self-regulates this sort of thing.

          So while I grant everything you say (with the qualification I just noted) I stick by my assertion.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Ah, damn. I got the link code wrong.

    Here’s the previous discussion of the learning/evaluation split:

  14. I’m confused about ‘someone else’s dime’ too.

    Oh, come now. Is she on welfare? If not, her husband foots the bill of her hobby. Mothers who homeschool are, by definition, educated and wealthy, those who have the luxury to stay home and not support their kids directly because someone else is paying for them. Wives who don’t work are dependents that don’t pay their own way.

    Their kids will do just fine regardless. Now, if crack whores or 18 year old welfare moms with 8 kids start homeschooling, then we can worry.

    It’s a hobby. Like knitting. Perfectly okay if your husband wants to humor you (or your wife, depending on who’s paying for you), but not a serious answer to educational policy and not something she should be congratulated for.

    Yes, how dare Catherine feel any sense of accomplishment or pride in her child or her ability to engage and meet her daughters educational needs at home

    It’s not about what she feels. It’s about what she posts. Which, I dare to dream, ought to be about what she THINKS.

    But if she wants to post about what she feels, and if she wants to bring every single issue back to her life and her choices, then fine. But why is no one allowed to criticize her post, her life, and her choices? She’s not telling her friends. She’s telling the public. The public ought to be allowed to post back.

    Incidentally, while I have nothing but scorn for homeschoolers who natter on about how great they and how wonderful it is, I don’t really care if people homeschool. I just don’t see why I’m supposed to consider her choice immune from criticism.

    And while all homeschoolers are boring on the topic of homeschooling, some of them aren’t determined to insert their choices into every single post. So apparently Dierdre homeschools, but she’s not a boring poster.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Cal, I think you must have a very different understanding of a marriage than I do, if you think that the parent who stays home (doesn’t have to be the wife) is doing it on ‘someone else’s dime.’

      In a partnership scenario, all the dimes belong to BOTH people. And in most stay-at-home/homeschooling situations, the parents have decided together that one full time income and one stay at home parent (who may or may not work part time) is the best decision for their family. (There are insane families where one spouse decides to stay home or home school against the wishes of the other–that usually ends… poorly.) So, for most stay at home parents, it’s more of a division of labor issue than a ‘someone else’s dime’ issue. Think “the Sims”—your Sims accumulate money and prestige faster if one person focuses on the career path and the other focuses on the community, the kids, and the house. Reality often works that way too, especially since it’s easier to be thrifty if someone takes the time for thrift.

    • I home school my daughter, teach 2-3 graduate-level classes (one or two are online classes), design linguistic software for autistic children, and find that I actually have to spend about the same amount of time working directly with my daughter that I had to spend when she was in school. The difference is that my time is no longer spent coaxing her through innane, high-ratio-of-effort-to-learning projects, and more time teaching her stuff she enjoys learning.

      In other words, if you can work from home (as more and more people do), it’s possible to home school *and* support your kids financially. And if the school you’ve removed your kids from assigns large amounts of busy work that your child won’t do unless you coax him or her through every step, you may find that you don’t end up spending any more time homeschooling than you did when your child was in school.

  15. Of course, if I’m going to tell people they’re idiots, I ought to be able to post it in the correct spot! I have no idea why my last post appeared before an earlier one.