Creativity Killers 3: Competition and the Progress Principle

Today I’d like to continue my comments on the so-called “Creativity Killers,” common classroom routines whose negative influences can loom unseen over our classrooms. If you recall, Amabile and her colleagues have worked for years to study the relationship between intrinsic motivation and creativity. In her early work she identified several practices as “Creativity Killers” because of their negative effects on intrinsic motivation and creativity: evaluation, reward, competition, and lack of choice. Sounds like most classrooms, right?

Fortunately, as the research continued, it became clear that all is not lost. Evaluation that is informational rather than controlling can be helpful. Students who are taught about the intrinsic benefits of an activity can be “inoculated” against the negative effects of reward. The key is, we need to be mindful of the risks.

In my mind, the impacts of reward and competition are linked. To the degree that students believe that they engage in an activity to “beat” someone else, rather than accomplish something, we risk teaching them that the activities are not worthwhile in themselves. Lots of inoculation needed!

But there are a number of competitive programs that successfully focus on creativity, for example, Future Problem Solving or Destination ImagiNation. So all competition cannot be bad. Perhaps the impact of those activities is tied to research demonstrating that between-groups competition is less problematic than within-group competition (Amabile, 1988; Amabile & Gryskiewsicz, 1987). To the degree that students work together against “outsiders,” the classroom atmosphere may be less negatively affected by competition. And competitions that give students information about the creativity they demonstrated may help students develop that ability.

The key, I believe, is to understand that all classroom competition comes with risk. If we use it unwisely, it will undermine the intrinsic motivation necessary to both creativity and real learning. In studying adults at work, Amabile discovered the Progress Principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive.

I believe that is true for young people as well—when they see themselves learning and growing in meaningful ways, they want to continue. (This has important implications for assessment, but more about that another day. Today we are thinking about competion.) To the degree students perceive themselves to be “losers,” they are less likely to motivated toward creative productivity. And if they see winning as the key goal, they are less likely to be motivated toward creativity, even if they win. The more students see themselves as productive, the more likely they are to feel safe taking the risks necessary for creative thinking. This means the use of competition is tricky. Like reward, we must use it cautiously. Here are some questions to ponder before engaging in a competitive activity.

  • Is the competition centered around a task that should/could be intrinsically motivating on its own? Competition for drilling basic math facts or cleaning the classroom may be less damaging than that around more creative activities.
  • Consider the messages sent by the competition. Do they suggest that creative or critical thinking activities are only worth doing for a prize? The greater the emphasis on winning over learning/creating, the greater the risk.
  • Consider the information gained by the activity. Are the messages only about winning and losing, or is there informational feedback that can help students improve? As students gain information that helps them improve, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated.
  • Have you provided sufficient “innoculation” activities that students understand the role of competition, but the greater goal of learning/creation? Do students understand the value of the activity outside competition?

Competition is part of life, and probably inevitably part of school. As educators, it is our job to use it wisely.

Amabile, T. M. (1987). The motivation to be creative. In S. G. Isakesen (Ed.), Frontiers of creativity research (pp. 223–254).Buffalo, NY: Bearly.

Amabile, T. M., & Gryskiewicz,  S. S. (1987). Creativity in the R&D laboratory. Technical report No. 30. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

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