A few years ago, the blog world seemed entranced by a 1995 article by Westby and Dawson* suggesting that teachers “don’t like” creative students. To me, such claims seemed wildly overstated based on data from 13 elementary school teachers, particularly because the descriptors for creative children were more negative in tone than those deemed “less typical” of creative students. But now, new evidence suggests Westby and Dawson were on the right track. A more recent study** of 371 teachers across grade K-12 found that when asked to rate potential student characteristics from “very undesirable” to “very desirable,” teachers, as a whole, rated characteristics associated with creativity as significantly less desired in the classroom. Oh dear. And it didn’t matter what grade the teachers taught or how much experience they had—students characterized as “reliable” “practical” or “prefer[ing} routines and consistency” were seen as more desirable in a classroom than those who are “independent” “like to take chances” or “try to do the impossible.”
If we are honest, those results should not be surprising. Teaching poses many demands. Not the least of these is keeping large groups of young people calm, orderly, and engaged. Independent or risk-taking students don’t make that any easier. And, of course, most teachers (at least in the U.S.) feel the constant pressure of preparing students for standardized tests and required curriculum objectives. Students who prefer ambiguity or want to pursue the impossible may not be the most motivated test-preparers. The truth is, 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 sometimes must leave the comfortable position of knowing the correct answer. Even in these days when many teachers recognize the importance of creativity as a life skill, the theory may be easier to embrace than the practice.
So, what to do? One place to begin is to recognize the problem and try to push back against the easy impulse to reject behaviors that make classroom routines more difficult. We can’t always allow students to follow every creative impulse. We do need to maintain control and address curriculum goals. But even when we can’t allow students to take another path, we can recognize their desire as flexible thinking and not just an annoyance. And we can provide times and places where new paths are welcome, at least part of the school day. Working to see our students’ creative characteristics as assets rather than undesirable traits—sounds like a good New Year’s resolution.
* Westby, E. L., & Dawson, V. L. (1995). Creativity: Asset or burden in the classroom? Creativity Research Journal, 8, 1–10.
**Kettler, T., Lamb, K. N., Willerson, A.& Mullet, D. R. (2018). Teachers’ perceptions of creativity in the classroom. Creativity Research Journal, 30(2), 164–171.