Everybody wants a creative child – in theory. The reality of creativity, however, is a little more complicated, as creative thoughts tend to emerge when we’re distracted, daydreaming, disinhibited and not following the rules. In other words, the most imaginative kids are often the trouble-makers.
Eric Barker recently referred me to this interesting study, which looked at how elementary school teachers perceived creativity in their students. While the teachers said they wanted creative kids in their classroom, they actually didn’t. In fact, when they were asked to rate their students on a variety of personality measures – the list included everything from “individualistic” to “risk-seeking” to “accepting of authority” – the traits mostly closely aligned with creative thinking were also closely associated with their “least favorite” students. As the researchers note, “Judgments for the favorite student were negatively correlated with creativity; judgments for the least favorite student were positively correlated with creativity.”
This shouldn’t be too surprising: Would you really want a little Picasso in your class? How about a baby Gertrude Stein? Or a teenage Eminem? The point is that the classroom isn’t designed for impulsive expression – that’s called talking out of turn. Instead, it’s all about obeying group dynamics and exerting focused attention. Those are important life skills, of course, but decades of psychological research suggest that such skills have little to do with creativity.
Look, for instance, at daydreaming. It’s hard to imagine a cognitive process that’s less suitable for the classroom, which is why I was always castigated for staring out the window instead of looking at the blackboard. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, daydreaming is derided as a lazy habit or a lack of discipline, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. It’s a sign of procrastination, not productivity.
In recent years, however, it’s become clear that daydreaming is actually an important element of the creative process, allowing the brain to remix ideas, explore counterfactuals and turn the spotlight of attention inwards. (That’s why increased daydreaming correlates with measures of creativity.) Virginia Woolf, in her novel To The Lighthouse, eloquently describes this mental process as it unfolds inside the mind of a character named Lily:
“Certainly she was losing consciousness of the outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, her mind kept throwing things up from its depths, scenes and names, sayings, memories and ideas, life a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space.”
A daydream is that “fountain spurting,” as the brain mixes together ideas, memories and concepts that are normally filed away in discrete mental folders. The end result is a kind of subterranean creativity, as the mind makes new connections on its own.
Of course, daydreaming is less helpful when we’re supposed to be learning our multiplication tables, or studying for a standardized test. In such instances, the lack of focused attention is a classroom failure, and not a potentially useful state of mind. The danger, however, is that we’re teaching our kids a very narrow and stultifying model of cognition, in which conscientiousness is privileged above all.
The solution, I suppose, is rather banal: we really do need arts education in our schools, if only to give kids a break from this one-size-fits-all model of thinking. Because sometimes we need to daydream. And sometimes we just need to let it all out, even if we haven’t raised our hand.