Creativity isn’t learned in class

Japanese visitors asked Fordham’s Mike Petrilli how the U.S. produces innovative leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s not a school thing, he replies. It’s an after-school thing. While Japanese adolescents are going to cram school, American kids are doing “sports, music, theater, student council, cheerleading, volunteering, church activities, and on and on.”

If you are looking for sources of innovative thinking, leadership and teamwork skills, competitiveness, and creativity, aren’t these better candidates than math class?

Or course, some “are just hanging out, smoking pot, getting in trouble, etc.,” Petrilli writes. But “some of these young people end up creating successful start-ups too!”

And then there’s the American parenting style. U.S. parents don’t teach their children self-discipline and delayed gratification, asserts Pamela Druckerman in Bringing up Bebe.

This, she suggests, fosters out-of-control toddlers and may lead to serious problems down the road, particularly for kids growing up in neighborhoods where community bonds have frayed.

On the other hand, by allowing our young to negotiate endlessly with us and stand up for what they want, we are also teaching them a form of self-assuredness. Treating little kids as equals might wreak havoc in the short term, but it’s possible that it creates non-hierarchical, confident, transformational leaders in the long run.

Certainly, Steve Jobs exemplified the brilliant brat, but I’m not sure that self-discipline and creativity are antithetical.

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  1. “Japanese visitors asked Fordham’s Mike Petrilli how the U.S. produces innovative leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.”

    I’m also wary of basing education decisions on how an extreme minority turned out.

    What was North Carolina doing right to provide for the creation of Michael Jordan? Why don’t other places replicate that so that we can create massive amounts of Michael Jordans?

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      We already produce massive numbers of Micheal Jordans (or near MJ). It’s called the NBA.

      • Really.

      • Not really – MJ has more class AND talent.

      • peripherally relevant, from

        The sports China excels in, ping pong, badminton, diving, weightlifting, etc., are all sports that are focused on a repetitive motion. Practicing the same motions 1,000 times a day, day in day out will perfect your skills and lead to success. Soccer doesn’t work that way, it isn’t possible to “teach” the game in the same way. Players need to be creative, anticipating not only what the opponent will do but what their teammates will do, and everyone needs to work together as a team, not just 11 individuals. In China, more often than not, the team’s play a rigid form of soccer, lacking the creativity and the flair you see elsewhere in the world, and when players display that flair, it often fails because teammates don’t expect it. Young Chinese talent needs to go overseas to train and play against other people, to build up that mental database of different ways to play and different systems.

    • tim-10-ber says:

      Also called work and dedication of countless kids that love their sport or craft…this happens on their own time outside of school but the with encouragement from people that are important to them…a teacher, coach, parent, etc…even if they don’t turn pro they learn skills, self-reliance, self-determination and persistence…all of these skills can be applied in whatever they pursue in life…this is what we need to teach in school…that hard work, dedication and perseverance truly do pay off…this is not taught in school today…it, in general is too easy, with little if any accountability…

      • Agreed. In athletics and in the arts, it is a given that the foundations must be MASTERED, through hard work, repetition, self-control and overcoming frustration, before creativity can flourish. You have to have the knowledge, the skills and knowledge of the rules before you can “appear” to discard them in order to combine them in new ways.

      • But TIM – we require school and there’s no skin in the game. If you’re not paying for something, is it priceless or worthless? I fear too many youngsters hold the latter opinion of school.

        Also, the consequences for failure aren’t that high and the rewards aren’t really all that great. There are plenty of PhD’s out there making less than Port Authority officers or longshoremen. Sure, there might be some outsized rewards, but they’re not all THAT significant a part of the population.

  2. I”m not sure that teaching delayed gratification and self-discipline hurts their self assertiveness. The key here being self-discipline.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      I don’t believe Jobs, Gates, or Zuckerberg have more or less self-discipline than the average person. In some respects as semi-iconoclasts they probably have less. What they all possess in addition to creativity or original thinking is assertive (bordering on aggressive) personalities, high IQ’s, and two parent financially resourceful families.

      Those of us that aren’t lucky enough to get handed those particular cards would do well to develop some self-discipline, though. It does come in handy.

  3. The French are amazingly creative–so much for the whole “structure inhibits creativity” line of argument.

    School inspires creativity, by giving students an opportunity to learn.

    To create, a person must have knowledge but forget the knowledge, must see unexpected connections in things but not have a mental disorder, must work hard but spend time doing nothing, must be competitive while afflicted by self doubt. These and other paradoxical ideas about creativity and the brain were explored by a panel of two leading neuroscientists and two nationally known creative artists during a public meeting Nov. 14 at the Dana Center.

    It may be inborn, and run in families–the US may have creative people because our ancestors didn’t fit in their original cultures.

  4. “Certainly, Steve Jobs exemplified the brilliant brat, but I’m not sure that self-discipline and creativity are antithetical.”

    I agree with that notion. A person who has self-discipline is able to commit themselves to whatever particular goal they start and make constant and consistent progress towards its satisfaction. I think the best kind of person is one who has thought of an idea that no one else has thought of before but is self-disciplined, and thus persistent enough to one day make that idea a reality.

    • It’s interesting that somebody would attempt to explain “Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg” by speaking of “sports, music, theater, student council, cheerleading, volunteering, church activities, and on and on”. In each case you have a person who, as a child, displayed significantly above-average skill in computer science and who were given the opportunity to advance those skills at a young age. Jobs time hanging out at HP and listening to lectures, in a sense, extracurricular. The same can be said for Zuckerberg’s early adolescent time spent with a private tutor who helped him learn to program. But these aren’t the after school club social butterflies the author seems to speak of – they were what the popular kids too often call “nerds”, “eggheads”, and the like.

      Who was it that said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”? Oh yeah… Steve Jobs. You don’t need an idea nobody has thought of to become a great business leader or build a multi-billion dollar company. Few such companies are built around original ideas – once you scale to that level it’s virtually impossible. Bill Gates didn’t invent the computer operating system, the spreadsheet, email, word processing. Jobs didn’t invent the GUI, portable music player or smart phone. Zuckerberg didn’t invent the social network. But they all took existing ideas and found ways to radically transform them – and to effectively market their products. Sometimes the most transformative ideas, the greatest opportunities to add value, come at the margins.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I think Picasso said it originally. Similarly, T. S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

  5. It’s not a school thing at all. It’s an opportunity thing. There aren’t a lot of societies on Earth where someone like a young Steve Jobs would have been taken seriously.

    • Really? You are aware that Steve Jobs was something of a prodigy, to the point that he built a personal connection with William Hewlett (of Hewlett Packard) at the age of 12?

      • Aaron,

        Yes, I am. He ended up as a summer employee of HP a few years later, if I recall correctly.

        You’re aware that by his early twenties Steve Jobs was a temperamental college dropout who didn’t believe in bathing because he thought his diet eliminated body odors, right? You’re also aware that it was this Steve Jobs who was working with Wozniak to found Apple?

        How many cultures on the face of the planet are meritocratic and tolerant enough that an investor would overlook Jobs’ and Woz’s idiosyncrasies and co-sign on a $250,000 based on the power of an idea? I can’t think of many.

        That’s my point about opportunity. Jobs would not have been a world changer without both Woz and Mike Markkula. Woz had the technical chops, while Markkula could access the money. Take one piece away, and Apple doesn’t happen.

        • Steve Jobs wouldn’t be the only eccentric genius who was kept in something of a bubble because of his significant contributions to his company. “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness” – Aristotle.

          Jobs and Wozniak got funding from Mike Markkula because they had developed the Apple I computer and were in the process of developing its successor, not because they merely had an “idea”. Markkula was in fact buying 1/3 of the company with that investment. He also protected his investment, and brought in Mike Scott (not Jobs or Wozniak) as President. For what it’s worth, Scott told Jobs to bathe more often.

          Stating that you need money, opportunity, a market, or that even geniuses need help is fair, but those are universals. They’re certainly not unique to Jobs.

          • Aaron,

            You still manage to miss my point. Congratulations.

            Jobs and Wozniak got funding from Mike Markkula because they had developed the Apple I computer and were in the process of developing its successor, not because they merely had an “idea”.

            Went back and looked, and you’re right that they were prototyping the Apple II at that point. That said, had Don Valentine just rejected Jobs outright, instead of referring him to Markkula, then who knows when or how Apple would have happened. If it was that close a call here in liberal Silicon Valley, how about elsewhere? That’s my point.

  6. Creativity might not be “learned” in the classroom but the classroom does often force students to identify their own strengths and weaknesses which in turn teaches them how to best utilize both ends of their skill spectrum. In doing so, students are learning creative ways of how to “play up their strengths and minimize their weaknesses” which I argue is one of the biggest keys to success in American culture.

    “The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.”–Oscar Wilde

    • It should be otherwise, but I don’t think most classrooms challenge students enough for them to identify strengths and weaknesses well. They can “succeed” by just drifting along. This is probably most true of the kids in the upper quarter or third, unfortunately. Challenging them with more and deeper work and a faster pace would benefit all of us, but would widen the dreaded achievement gap.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Tiffany, I’m sorry but your comment sounds like pablum to me. Classrooms help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and then utilize them successfully? No, not really. Maybe true for a handful of affluent students attending the very best public schools or extreme high performers who are outliers. Whatever strengths we have left within our culture is in spite of public education in the USA not because of it. The number of barely literate and numerate graduates, high school drop-outs, remedial classes offered at community colleges, and the stagnant SAT/ACT and PISA scores illustrate this.

      Not to mention, the number of completely lost young people with little or no idea of what they will pursue after graduation from both high school and college. We do a horrible job of help students prepare for after high school.

  7. Agree with Mike Petrilli about the after-school component of creating innovative thinkers in the U.S. As program director for Adobe Youth Voices, an initiative in hundreds of after-school programs in the U.S. and globally, I’ve seen outstanding creativity, innovation and inspiration emerge when high school students get training and tools and are empowered to express their thoughts, visions and stories through digital media. A great example is the work of Matt Calvin, a high school student in Toronto, who was disengaged and depressed following the death of a relative. In creating a video about his journey with depression and healing through creativity, he not only experienced an incredible catharsis but experienced an approach to innovation and creativity that I think Petrilli was referring to in his comments. See his work and read his story: