Business Research Comes to School

briefcasegirlI will admit I’ve frequently railed against using business models to design and evaluate schools. There are so many ways schools and businesses are different that attempting to translate one to the other risks assuming children are some kind of consistent raw material that can be transformed into a uniform product. I can see teachers rolling their eyes along with me.

And yet. When considering the types of environments in which creativity can flourish, business research has a lot to teach us–largely because they’ve spent a lot more time thinking about it. Last month I described Teresa Amabile’s Progress Principle and how it may relate to teaching and learning. Today I’d like to take another look at some of her earlier work and see what else we can learn from the world of business.

In 1998, Amabile published an article in Harvard Business Review titled, “How to Kill Creativity.” While its focus was on innovation in the business world, the problems described sound sadly relevant to schools. She describes businesses in which employees are mismatched with tasks, given little flexibility, faced with arbitrary or impossible deadlines, assigned to groups ill-suited to the job at hand, and provided with little motivational (or sometimes material) support. It is not surprising that, under those circumstances, creativity was on life support. Her suggestions for enhancing creativity are as applicable today as they were nearly 20 years ago.

Take, for example, her first recommendation: “Of all the things managers can do to stimulate creativity, perhaps the most efficacious is the deceptively simple task of matching people with the right assignments. “ Not surprisingly, assignments with too much or too little challenge afford few options for creative insights. Sound familiar? Similarly, her recommendation that managers give choice in methods for problem solving fits a school environment. Like teachers, managers must set goals, but they can allow many ways to meet them. Without a sense of choice and autonomy, neither workers or students are motivated to do their best.

happyboysmileThe business world also has things to teach us about the importance of mood. While teachers might chide fidgety children to “get down to business,” the truth is that constant focus and a somber disposition don’t make for good business, either (Amabile et al., 2005). Workers in a positive mood were found to be more creative in solving the real problems of the workplace. And the relationship between creativity and positive mood was potentially cyclical. Positive mood supported creativity—but then, doing something creative put folks in a more positive mood. That certainly sounds like a cycle I’d like to invoke in schools!

Finally, in a 2013 interview, Amabile cautioned businesses to “slow the work treadmill.” She described the process of trying to keep up with a stream of constant interruptions, meetings, and the “never-ending need to be more productive and creative.” (Again, sound familiar?) Under such conditions, progress on creative endeavors is extraordinarily difficult. She recommended that managers set aside time so that workers have daily opportunities for quiet reflection. It is interesting to think about how that might translate into schools—and how it might give the default network in our brains a fighting chance to operate.

So, for today, I’m contemplating what businesses have to teach us about creativity, motivation, and learning. Who would have guessed my teacher heart would be so inspired by Harvard’s Business School?


Amabile, T. (1998, September/October). How to kill creativity. Harvard Business Review.

Amabile, T. M., Barsade, S. G., Mueller, J. S. & Staw, B. M. (2005). Affect and creativity at work. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50, 367-403.

Leddy, C. (August 27, 2013). Slowing the work treadmill. Harvard Gazette.

One thought on “Business Research Comes to School

  1. Pingback: Creativity and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Morning | creativiteach

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