Does school kill creativity?

This Tuesday I had the pleasure to attend a keynote by professor Barend Van Heusden who talked about creativity and arts education. He never mentioned that specific famous TED-ster, but he did explain that contrary to popular belief, creativity augments by getting older.

Wait a minute, so the idea that school kills creativity could be wrong? Well, it’s nuanced to say the least.

Barend based his explanations on the research mentioned in the book  “Explaining Creativity” by R. Keith Sawyer, do note that the professor of course checked the research himself.

First of all Sawyer notes in his first chapter on conceptions of creativity that there are indeed many different views on the concept an that these views have changed over time. The idea of the child as born creative and society gradually corrupting them as they grow up originates in fact “from the 19th-century Romantic era-belief that children are more pure, closer to nature…” (p. 25).

But is it true? If we look at the changes during childhood, the view of people as Piaget of Vygotsky is that when children are learning something new, they basically are constructing or creating new knowledge. Play also is an important element for creativity and for instance Sawyer describes how five-year olds engage much more in improvisational play than three-year -olds. So, a child isn’t necessary born creative, but by learning becomes more creative. But maybe not by learning after 6, when formal school really begins?

Well, first of all there is a ‘intriguing’ relationship between the amount and quality of pretend play and a child’s measured creativity years later. (correlation, not proven causation).

But as we learn more… most research indicates the we become more creative. Some research (e.g. Torrance, 1968) does mention a fourth-grade slump, but other more recent research didn’t find this slump. And if there is one it’s probably not because of school:

“Runco (2003) concluded that the fourth-grade slump, if it occurs isn’t due tot the highly structured school system, as Torrance thought; rather, if it occurs, it results from normal maturational processes, as children enter a “literal” or “conventional” stage in thinking and moral reasoning more generally, as part of a necessary developmental path towards the adult’s “postconventional” stage.” (p.74)

So Sawyer concludes:

“So it’s misleading to refer to developmental changes as “slumps”. The term persists because the belief that school squashes a child’s natural creativity aligns with Romantic-era notions of the pure essence childhood… as a pure state of nature, opposed to civilization and convention.” (p. 73)

But what about the role of schools? Well, there is a very relevant chapter on Education and Creativity that everyone should read, but one important paragraph I do want to share:

“I believe that schools are essential to creativity. We’ve learned that creativity requires a high degree of domain knowledge… Formal schooling is quite good at delivering this domain knowledge to students. Creativity research certainly doesn’t suggest that everyone would be more creative if only we got rid of all of the schools! However, schools could better foster creativity if they were transformed to better align with creativity research.” (p. 390)

I surely can recommend the book exactly as source for inspiration on this last element.

27 thoughts on “Does school kill creativity?

  1. Interesting post. Whether or not we follow Ken Robinson’s claim that schools kill creativity, we cannot deny that children’s curiosity and urge to explore decreases when they grow. Starting out as baby scientists, as described by Alison Gopnik, many children gradually lose their interest in learning, ir, at least, in the learning as offered by mist schools. I am greatly worried by this trend and, although I agree that ‘schools are essential to creativity’, that is only true under the condition that creativity has a place in all elements of the curriculum.
    I will read the book. Thank you Pedro for the tip.

  2. Dit is op X, Y of Einstein? herblogden reageerde:

    Voor de mensen die mijn Engelstalige blog nog niet ontdekten, in deze blogpost bespreek ik het onderzoek dat Barend Van Heusden aanbracht in zijn keynote-lezing op de Nederlandse Dag van de Cultuureducatie in Amsterdam vorige week. De inzichten staan haaks op de premisse die Ken Robinson naar voor schuift onder andere in zijn beroemde ‘Changing paradigms’-video/lezing.

  3. I visited the ´Dag van de Cultuureducatie´ on the 5th of November in Amsterdam. You got me thinking about a lot of things you said. This thinking will result in a presentation or workshop for my schoolteam to get them thinking as well. Thank you for your inspirational words.

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