Teachers, Stress, and Creativity: Are We Really Afraid?

In a recent blog on the Scientific American site, Maria Konnikova asked Why Are We So Afraid of Creativity?

I’ve been thinking about that question ever since. Are we really afraid? And if we are, why? Konnikova cites some interesting research that suggests that under conditions of uncertainty, individuals are likely to have an implicit (unconscious) bias for practicality over creativity—despite their explicit (conscious) beliefs to the contrary. They thought they valued creativity, but when feeling uncertain, appeared to let that value to go by the wayside. They also appeared less likely to recognize an idea as creative. In the research, the sources of uncertainty, while appropriate for research, are pretty minimal. For example, in one study participants were told that they’d be entered into a drawing for possible additional payment for participation.

This is just one set of studies, reflecting a small number of undergraduate students and a clever instrument designed to identify implicit beliefs. It does not tell us how those individuals would respond in a real-world situation, but it made me think. If such a small manipulation may bias participants against creativity (“When you are finished, your name will be entered in a drawing for payment”), what happens in the face of real-life stresses? Don’t many of the situations in which we most need to be creative entail considerable stress? The authors themselves say:

Our findings imply a deep irony. Prior research shows that uncertainty spurs the search for and generation of creative ideas …yet our findings reveal that uncertainty also makes us less able to recognize creativity, perhaps when we need it most.

Of course, this also made me think about teachers and schools. There has been a lot of talk in the blog world this year about teachers’ supposed dislike of creative students. I don’t believe it, at least not based on the 1995 study currently being touted as evidence of teacher-guilt. But that’s a discussion for another day. For today I wonder what today’s educational climate is doing to teachers’ ability to act on their valuing of creativity.

When teachers feel stressed (read: fearing their jobs may rest their students’ test scores), it shouldn’t be a big surprise that they sometimes choose test preparation over deep learning. But the research cited above suggests that the levels of teacher stress may also inhibit teachers’ ability to think in creative ways about how to manage deep learning and test prep simultaneously. And, of course, it also seems likely that teacher stress would make it more difficult for a teacher to recognize a student’s unexpected answer as a truly creative response rather than an annoying distraction. I’m not sure if recognizing our possible natural inclination to turn away from creative thinking when stressed will help us reverse it—but it can’t hurt.

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