Who’s Smart?

kindergartenAll creativity involves some risk. We know that. Any time we try something new, there is risk of failure, of ridicule, or getting ourselves in over our heads. And yet, if we want to make creative choices, we persist. How do we decide when to risk? One factor is our creative self-efficacy, that is, how confident we are that we can do creative things.

Recently I read an article in Science that made me think about this dilemma—and worry. The article investigated the question: How do children think about who is “really really smart,” and who is not? While smart is not the same as creative, I suspect the issues are related.

In the studies, the researchers started by telling students a story about a person who was “really really smart.” No clues to gender were provided in the story. Then students were asked to choose a picture of the “really really smart” people from a collection of photos. Several similar studies followed. Students were asked, given photos, to pick the person most likely to be really really sadgirlsmart. The results showed a disturbing trend. At age five, boys and girls associated high intelligence with people like themselves—boys thought males were likely to very smart and girls thought the same about females. But at ages six and seven, boys still chose male figures, but girls were significantly less likely to choose females as demonstrating brilliance.

Does it matter how children think about these things? In later studies, the researchers presented children with games, describing some as games for “children who are really really smart” and other as games for “children who try really really hard.” Girls expressed less interest in the game for smart children than boys, where there was no difference in interest for the “try hard” game. If girls believed they needed to be smart to play, they often opted out.

I found this disturbing, particularly because we know from other research that there are fewer women in careers perceived to require exceptional ability. What if that difference happens because, beginning in childhood, girls somehow some to believe they are not very likely to be very smart? It is not a big leap to then assume those same girls might be less likely to believe they can invent or do other creative things that appear to require intelligence. In fact, just today I looked through some professional illustrations purporting to show children doing creative things. The illustrations were clever, but guess what? They were all boys.

So, what to do? We know that simply telling children they are smart is not the solution, particularly as that can foster a potentially debilitating fixed mindset. I have two ideas and hope you have more. First, we can make sure that the stories we tell and the pictures we display represent brilliance across racial, ethnic, and gender lines—beginning in kindergarten. Second, we can make sure that we tell stories of great achievement that include the struggles. When students understand that great scientists, or authors, or other creators have struggles and fought to over come them, it gives a clearer picture of what creative achievement requires. It also may help students become more interested in the content (more on that next time).

But I’d love to hear more ideas. What do you think? How do we help those very young girls hold their sense of women as potentially bright people?


Bian, L., Leslie, S, & Cimpian, A. (January, 2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355, 389-391.

2 thoughts on “Who’s Smart?

  1. Pingback: Remember the Ladies, for Creative Self-Efficacy | creativiteach

  2. Pingback: Butterflies, Mathematicians, and Creativity | creativiteach

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