Creativity killers. Sounds pretty scary—my immediate image is of brain-sucking aliens or some such thing, draining creative energies from the people around them. The reality is less dramatic but still pretty frightening.
Last week I talked about the importance of intrinsic motivation in creativity. In fact, Amabile proposes a three-part model of creativity in which intrinsic motivation is an essential part of the process. So of course, things that affect intrinsic motivation also can affect creativity.
In her early work, Amabile and her associates identified several factors that have been dubbed “creativity killers.” These factors have two key attributes: (a) they have been associated with reduced student creativity and (b) they are a major part of many classrooms. The factors are evaluation, surveillance, reward, competition, and lack of choice. I can just picture those of you who may not have seen this list before going, “Oh boy. Not good.”
I must admit, the first time I read Amabile’s research, I felt discouraged. Developing creativity in classrooms is important to me, yet some of the factors she designated as creativity killers are so much a part of the ebb and flow of classroom life that it is hard to imagine classrooms without them. As research continued and it became evident that motivation and creativity interact in more complex ways than originally thought, I felt less discouraged—but possibly more confused! The key when considering this research is to not to try to eliminate these factors from our classrooms. Few teachers will be able to—or want to–eliminate all rewards from the classroom. Students can’t always choose what they want to do. And how can we assess student work without evaluation? Clearly we can’t. But what we can do is think carefully about the ways “creativity killers” operate in our classes and do what we can to minimize their impact on students’ intrinsic motivation.
It will take me several weeks to blog my way through the creativity killers and their potential role in assessment, so today let’s just consider two: evaluation and the related surveillance. There is evidence that students whose creative efforts are evaluated express less creativity in their next efforts even if the evaluations are positive. But we can’t expect students to improve in their creative efforts without feedback. The trick is to provide the type of feedback that is most helpful.
There is a difference between feedback that is basically informational and feedback that is controlling. We might mistake these classifications with the distinctions between formative and summative assessment, but there are key differences. Both formative and summative assessment are important. Summative assessment lets students know how the teacher assesses their progress. It answers the students’ frequent question, “How did I do?” It comes at the end of some section of work and is used to make judgments. Formative assessment is assessment “on the fly,” assessment that is integrated with instruction and helps both teacher and student know what is going well and what the student needs to do to improve.
In controlling feedback, whether formative or summative, the teacher is the primary and usually the sole judge of students’ success or failure. Students are told “A,” or “Good work!” or “You can do better than this,” or even “I’m disappointed in you,” but not much else. Such comments let students know where they stand in the teacher’s eyes, and probably how they stand in relation to others in the class. They do not, however, give students any information that will help them. This type of feedback can be called controlling because the teacher is the arbiter of good and bad, successful and not successful, valuable and not valuable. Because students have no helpful information, their progress feels out of their control. And remember, a sense of control and increasing competence are key to intrinsic motivation. And doesn’t that make sense? If I have no clue how to get better, why bother?
Informational feedback, whether formative or summative, assumes that students are in charge of organizing and evaluating their own learning. It provides useful information for their guidance. It addresses the questions “What did you learn?” and “Which parts of this can help you learn more?” For example, “Good work!” is controlling. It tells students that their work was good, but not what made it good or how to make it better. Compare that comment to the following: “The character of Danny was really believable. His dialogue was realistic and sounded just like a real 12-year-old.” “The description of the forest on page 2 became a bit wordy. Try to paint a clear picture with fewer, well-chosen words.” “Good work multiplying fractions. You seem to be having some trouble with division. Read page 67 again and then see me.” Each of these comments gives students information for action.
Fortunately, there are a lot of resources about assessment these days, with an emphasis on providing useful information to both student and teachers. I particularly like many of the formative assessment resources from ASCD, but there are many other good ones as well. Regardless of whether the particular task is essentially creative or not, the classroom atmosphere you create with a focus on informational feedback is one in which creativity has the opportunity to flourish. One creativity killer down!