Teachers and Creative Students

By Alex Tabarrok:

One of the most consistent findings in educational studies of creativity has been that teachers dislike personality traits associated with creativity. Research has indicated that teachers prefer traits that seem to run counter to creativity, such as conformity and unquestioning acceptance of authority (e.g., Bachtold, 1974; Cropley, 1992; Dettmer, 1981; Getzels & Jackson, 1962; Torrance, 1963). The reason for teachers’ preferences is quite clear creative people tend to have traits that some have referred to as obnoxious (Torrance, 1963). Torrance (1963) described creative people as not having the time to be courteous, as refusing to take no for an answer, and as being negativistic and critical of others. Other characteristics, although not deserving the label obnoxious, nonetheless may not be those most highly valued in the classroom.

….Research has suggested that traits associated with creativity may not only be neglected, but actively punished (Myers & Torrance, 1961; Stone, 1980). Stone (1980) found that second graders who scored highest on tests of creativity were also those identified by their peers as engaging in the most misbehavior (e.g., “getting in trouble the most”). Given that research and theory (e.g., Harrington, Block, & Block, 1987) suggest that a supportive environment is important to the fostering of creativity, it is quite possible that teachers are (perhaps unwittingly) extinguishing creative behaviors.

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  • Dan jones

    Ir was 1985 I think and I answered Off The Wall to the extra credit question ‘name a Michael Jackson album.’ Of course, EVERYONE else said Thriller. The teacher marked me wrong and it cost me the ‘A’. I raised my hand to plead my case and she hammered me and was completely uninterested. I was thoroughly embarrassed and pi***d. I hated that teacher after that but I most certainly learned the priority of conformity over creativity. Btw. She was the music teacher and the semester was Rock History.


  • TSG

    It’s not just with teachers and in classroom environments where creative personality traits are disliked.

  • Robert Martin

    As a parent of two creative children, I am SOOOO glad to have teachers that recognize that and allow the expression.

    And, TSG, amen to that…just watch creative people try and think outside the box in a church planning context and watch folks cringe and shuffle and say things like, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Or “Well, that’s not quite in keeping with our congregational character.”

  • It may extinguish creativity for some, or push others out of the educational system. If this is true overall it is even more true of defensive theology professors.

  • This is where home education really shines. I have loved, loved, loved fueling the creative spirit and firing a love of learning. I know it is not the answer for everyone, and not every child has access to it – but – it is truly a gift for the creative soul.

  • David Philpott

    As a teacher, I can see some room for this argument as when I’m teaching if kids are incessantly questioning everything, I can get irritated. However, the vast majority of districts have developed Gifted and Talented programs just to rectify this issue. The creativity test that is mentioned in the article is one of the diagnostics that is used is my district to identify G/T kids. We also use an IQ test and a standardized test. We have a separate elementary and middle school system for these kids so they can really thrive. As a G/T kid when I was growing up I was a goody-two-shoes and so did not develop behavioral problems in class. At home, however, I railed against how much of a waste of my time most of the assignments in my classes were. However, I had ample opportunity in G/T programs to expand my horizons in other ways in things like Mock Legislature, Model UN, Honors and AP classes, etc. etc.

    The one issue I can see is if our G/T programs too heavily emphasize intellectual creativity at the expense of other forms of creativity. I think the selection criteria are evolving to deal with those issues, however.

  • I find it interesting that most of the research cited is 25+ years old–not that formal schooling has changed much over that time. What would be interesting would be to see if teacher preferences varied dependent upon their educational philosophies. Is creativity more appreciated in a constructivist, progressive classroom than in a traditional, essentialst environment? I wonder.

  • TJJ

    Totally agree that this is what most schools/teachers do. My first three children went to typical public schools. My last three are going to private non-traditional schools, and the difference is night and day! They are thriving in a way the others were never able to do.

  • discokvn

    re #1 — Off The Wall was a better album than Thriller….

  • Fish

    I have to believe at least some parents are the same way. I see a lot of parents coming down on kids who are obnoxious, won’t take no for an answer, and get in trouble (to use the ‘criteria’ in the article).

    My ex-wife was raised in a very conformist household and she wasn’t very tolerant of our kid challenging her authority and pushing the boundaries. I was raised in a very permissive environment, so I was more OK with an creative rebel, for want of a better term. It caused conflicts in our parenting.

  • DRT

    My artistic engineering school 18 year old says the high school teachers are quite against creativity, but his experience in college is the opposite, they support it.

    Disclosure – my wife is an artist and we all have no choice but to love creativity 🙂 One day we took the kids to the childrens museum and after they spent some time in the art room they ran back out to her and explaimed “Mom, this place is wonderful! It’s just like home!”

  • Phillip

    This is a sincere question: How do we teachers discern those who “defy social conventions” because they are creative and those who do so because they are spoiled, self-focused, or jerks?

    Also, do we not need to keep some kind of order in the classroom, esp. when class sizes are often rather large? Indulging the disruptions or differences of the creative seems more workable in a small class than in large ones.

    Help me so that I don’t squash the creativity out of my students.

  • Dan Jones


    True ‘dat…


  • Vicki

    Great stuff, only wishing it was a more recent study…

  • I have two creative, daydreamer-type, smart kids and they struggle in school, not because they are misbehaving or questioning everything, but rather because they are bored. They don’t (apparently) test into the gifted & talented world, but they aren’t being reached well. This makes me sad. I feel the pain of teachers as well, though, because their classrooms are over full and they have to teach to the middle. Our home is full of active creativity, movies, and scripts, and music making, the difficult thing is getting them to do their (busywork) homework.

  • DRT

    Phillip, most excellent question, and the single best answer I can think of is to encourage rational discussion and not one way teaching. My experience is that teachers tend to try and impart learning on students but great teachers try to impart thinking on students. Obviously quite easy to do if you are someone who is not a professional educator, like me 😀

  • You know, thing is, it’s not just so-called smart kids (gifted and talented) who are creative. ALL kids can be creative.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Let me get this straight: “creative” students, characterized by behavior that is “obnoxious” lacking patience and courtesy towards others, who “refus[e] to take no for an answer,” and are “negativistic and critical of others,” are being punished?

    Wow. Shocking. What kind of world do we live in where students such as these are being punished?

    Please don’t think me too harsh, but I’m saying this as someone who scored high on creativity in elementary and middle school (haven’t taken one since 8th grade, that I can recall). Truth is, many “creative” qualities are encouraged when they’re punished. Creative students like to go against the grain – it helps them establish themselves as unique, which is what most of them (us) want. Punishing students for marching to their own drumbeats often invigorates and empowers them to continue in their creativity. What good is non-conformity without pushing against “The Man” who is trying to make you conform?