Creativity and Dropping Out—Can We Stop It?

How do creative students fare in schools? Sometimes well. Some students are able to use their imaginations and flexible thinking to their advantage, particularly in classrooms where such things are recognized and valued. But, sadly, that is not always the case. Not long ago I had a depressing conversation with a friend, whose bright creative children both seem to have teachers whose highest priorities are neatness, timeliness, and following directions to a T. Predictably, the children are not faring well—despite the fact that they know the required content.

It is hard to think about those children managing through another 8 or 9 months in that situation. But what happens when the next year is the same—and then the year after that? Recent research by Kim and Hull (2012) examined the relationship between characteristics of a creative personality and dropping out of school. The results are preliminary, but suggest that an “anticreative school environment” can be associated with creative students choosing to leave school. It’s a scary thought for anyone who cares about either creativity or young people.

A 1995 article by Westby and Dawson has been widely cited in the blog world as evidence that teachers “don’t like” creative students. Such claims seem wildly overstated based on imperfect data from 13 elementary school teachers. But regardless of the research flaws, it must be admitted that opening our classrooms to creative responses, by definition, means opening them to the unpredictable and the unplanned. It means we won’t always know the direction a discussion may take, or the solution that may emerge. It means we must leave the comfortable position of always knowing the correct answer. It is not easy.

And yet, each time we put comfort ahead of creativity—or neatness ahead of imagination—I’m concerned a bit of a child’s creativity dies. Of course we need routines and order to survive teaching days. And of course children need to learn to produce legible work and keep track of their notebooks. But every time I hear a teacher say, “But in the ‘real world’ they will have to be neat (or organized, or whatever)” as a justification for emphasizing all that is wrong over all that is right, I am tempted to say “Really? Really?? Do we know anything about Steve Job’s handwriting? Do we care? Is even Martha Stewart’s office perfectly organized?” (OK, you may get me on that one—but she has a staff.) The point is, in the real world, the skills of being neat and organized and clear will be helpful, but not nearly as important as the ability to generate new ideas, envision a different future, and understand multiple perspectives. Students need schools that support both kinds of learning. If they don’t have those schools, soon, we may not have those students.

Kim, K. H., & Hull, M. F. (2012). Creative personality and anticreative environment for high school dropouts. Creativity Research Journal, 24, 2-3, 169-176.

Westby, E. L & Dawson, V. L. (1995).Creativity: Asset or burden in the classroom? Creativity Research Journal, 8, 1-10.

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