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7 reasons educators secretly fear creativity

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. - Apple Inc "Think Different" ad.

Developing creativity in the classroom, in the school, in the district is not particularly difficult. Simple teaching techniques can spur divergent thinking. Innovation can be a part of all content areas and disciplines. Any project can have recognition of originality in its assessment. But creativity tends to be actively suppressed by teachers and administrators*. Here's why.

Educators actually fear creativity - whether we like to admit or not, whether we're conscious of it or not.

Off the top of my head, I can think a number of reasons...

  1. It upsets the organizational status quo. Creative approaches to education mean change. And change always means there are winners and losers - in power, in budgets, in comfort levels. Even if one has been only modestly successful in one's role at school, with change it could get worse. Any truly creative approach to solving a problem runs a real risk of making things worse, rather than better. Educators don't like risk.
  2. It changes relationships. Hugh MacLeod accurately reports that "a big idea will change you." We may like or dislike any individual student, but at least we "know" them and how to deal with them. Creative students grow in unpredictable ways. Creative people can just plain be uncomfortable to around. And we as educators love our "norms." (See Why Robots Make the Best Students.)
  3. It offends sensibilities. Artists (visual, musical, etc.) have always had the ability to shock. I'll bet that the Cro-Magnon (probably a teenager) who used two sticks to beat on a hollow log was driven from the cave. My dad couldn't stand rock-and-roll and I find rap tough to appreciate. Language or visuals one's own generation may find obscene or distasteful are often perfectly acceptable by kids - like it or not. 
  4. It makes us feel inferior. When the tech department asks us to use a creative means of using a tool, we may feel inadequate. As librarians we all know we have a lot to learn about e-resources. As parents ask to be contacted using social media, our learning curve rises. Ask a person to do something new usually means learning on our parts. Why does your being creative always seem to mean more work for me?
  5. It undermines our efforts to create good test takers. The antithesis of creativity is asking for the "one right answer" which is exactly what educators ask students to regurgitate on standardized tests. (Ever wonder why they were called "standardized?) Tests are timed; creativity takes time. Tests are supposedly objective; creativity is often subjective. Tests demand respect for the authority of the test-takers; creativity questions and often defies authority.
  6. It's hard to measure. Which is more creative? A new vocal interpretation of a classic song or an new computer program that helps a diabetic monitor his blood sugar? The song will be assessed by music critics - and by the music-purchasing public. The software will be judged by a single factor - it works reliably or it doesn't. You can't place students or their ideas on a creativity bell curve. There are no creativity lexiles. Teachers especially have been led to doubt the value of their subjective judgments about their students.
  7. It may mean we adults are expected to demonstrate creativity as well. School cultures that value creativity ask for it from students AND staff. But I am doing everything perfectly now. Why change?

So are there antidotes to creativity aversion? Hmmmmmm....

  1. For the risk adverse, think small step approaches.
  2. Instead of "change," think of students growing and improving through creative approaches to problems, know they are practicing real-world dispositions.
  3. Think of how much a geezer you are when you start a sentence, "I can't believe today's kids' tastes in ______________." And try to remember what your parents hated about they way you dressed, what you listened, how you wore your hair, etc. (But you probably really shouldn't have gotten that tattoo.)
  4. Think upstream costs vs. downstream time savings. Yes, it may take some time to learn a new social networking tool for communications, but in the long run, more effective means of communication always saves time.
  5. Creativity also demands what I call "craftsmanship." Content knowledge, good skills, and other testable kinds of stuff is still necessary for creative individuals. Think assessment balance - although I know our politicians make this tough. More on craftsmanship in a future post.
  6. As educators, we need to reexamine the value of subjectivity when we deal with kids and their accomplishments. We are forcing way too many "round" kids into very "square" holes. Think personalization of education - taking evaluating each person's accomplishments personally, as well as their interests.
  7. If you don't want to try new things, take some risks, be adventurous, have a divergent (even subversive) thought now and then, you need to find a new line of work since you've lost your passion for education and are just collecting the paycheck. Think of a field far away from children. Thanks.

* Loved The Lego Movie's perceptive take on creativity and conformity. It's a must see.

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Reader Comments (8)

Doug, I've been following your blog for a long time and I rarely comment on your insightful posts, but this one really hit me. As a music teacher who has the privilege of teaching a subject where creativity should be encouraged, I find that it's easy to be guilty of the "7 deadly sins" you mention above. Good teaching that requires attention to encouraging creativity requires a tremendous amount of planning and curation of resources. You can't wake up on a Monday morning and expect creativity to happen during your week of teaching if you don't have a plan in place. I have been guilty of putting a bunch of classroom instruments in a pile and expecting the students to be creative with an original composition, but have no plan in place to help students do this other than, "Hey grab an instrument with a partner and make up a song about your favorite food." Creative cacophony not a creative composition will be the result. There is a perception that creativity is unorganized, free flowing, and "just happens." It's related to your antidote in number 5, craftsmanship. And every creatively challenged person should read "Steal Like an Artist" that you recently mentioned in a blog post here. I am buying this book for my son who is an art major in college and every person who says to me, "I really want to be creative in my teaching, or help my students be creative, but I'm not a creative-artistic-risk-taking-type."
I will be sharing this post with my colleagues who have been chosen to open a new creative arts options school here in Seattle. We will be entering a brand new building and get to CREATE a school culture around the arts and enrichment programs. My apologies for the long post. In the words of Austin Kleon, author of "Steal Like an Artist", "In the end, creativity isn't just the things we choose to put in, it's the things we choose to leave out." I look forward to reading more about your thoughts on craftsmanship in the future and your quest to help us understand what it means to be creative teachers, students and learners.

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKen Pendergrass

Actually, teaching creatively is rather spontaneous and can just happen if we just plan to let it be that way, let the students express themselves in perhaps a quasi-planned activity where the educator can be there simply to guide by observing and asking questions that truly just spring from their own ignorance on any given subject in hopes of creating a mutual learning experience, an environment of freestyle learning by creative osmosis. What may start out as seemingly disconnected will weave into something almost magically synchronious as a whole. Creativity is relative, isn't it? What one may judge as creative cacophony, another may regard as a creative masterpiece. It is a bit like the saying, "you must have some chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star" by Nietzcshe. I am no expert and this could be in its entirety, a hypothesis. However, I am pretty sure the students will enjoy the freedom and everyone will learn something new...even if it be at the least, something about themself. : )

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEllis


Thanks for this great post. As educators, we often say that we want our kids to be more creative, but are we really taking the steps, both individually and collectively, to make that possible? I think a big part of this equation is sharing the story of our students and schools using social media. The more that parents (and other teachers) are exposed to amazing, creative student work, the more they will start demanding that our current system change to encourage this kind of learning and teaching.

February 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris Rogers

Hi Ken and Ellis,

I believe structure and knowledge is necessary to be productively creative, so your comments resonated with me. The literature is all over the place - some say creativity requires naivete; others say it requires knowing all the rules so you can break them wisely!

Still trying to figure this out myself!


Hi Chris,

I agree that sharing student work and our teaching techniques that encourage creativity via social media (PLNs) will be important. The recommendation will be part of one of the final chapters of this book.

Appreciate the comment,


February 18, 2014 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I encourage all music educators who are interested in systematic creativity in the music classroom through a sequenced arrangement of curricular craftsmanship to read: Music: The New Curriculum, Dorough and Gordon, Stipes Publishing, LTD. 1994. You may find this philosophy and curriculum interesting, even helpful.

February 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris Gordon

I guess I was lucky then. I started writing when I was 12, and in my first year of high school I wrote an outline of the story I had been writing for my exam. I got an "A" :) My English Teachers were always encouraging of creativity.
However, this was back in the 80's, before the Education system started to be attacked by Conservative/Republican governments - the days when schools could still afford to stock supplies for their students rather than parents having to foot the bill.

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Hi Elizabeth,

You were lucky indeed to have teachers who encouraged you creativity. And while I would agree that over-emphasis on testing has had a negative impact on the role of creativity in schools, I believe that was very much a bipartisan effort!

Thanks for the comment.


February 20, 2014 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Good article. I think a lot of the concerns brought up here are definitely legitimate and man parents don't realize how much has to change for even one small thing. Saying that, change can definitely be for the better, but it's up tot he administration to make sure everyone is properly trained and confident in what they're doing.

December 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Gibson

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