How to Kill Creativity in the Classroom

Have you ever found yourself thinking these thoughts?

I wish my students would take fewer risks.

My students should really stop coming up with new ideas.

I need to structure my classes to reduce creativity.

If you have, then you’re on your way to becoming a good teacher. Every teacher should try to find ways to kill creativity in the classroom before it becomes a problem.


Juuuuuust kidding!

Of course I don’t think that. I don’t think there are many teachers who do (although they might be out there, and they’ll be very disappointed while reading this article).

I spent last Fourth of July weekend chatting with a friend of mine who is in an MBA program. He told me that he’s taking classes about motivation and fostering creativity. Wait a minute, I thought. I’m the creative one: I teach language, read fiction, and write short stories. What does this business guy know about creativity? Isn’t business all about number-crunching and climbing the corporate ladder?

Of course not. Businesses need to be creative too.

My friend shared an article from one of his classes with me:

How to Kill Creativity.

It’s in the Harvard Business Review, so it’s not geared directly towards teachers or education necessarily. But the concepts discussed in the article are very applicable to our field. Even though our students are often our customers (or the children of our customers), we teachers are also the bosses and organizers and our students “do work” for us. So maybe these business people know a thing or two about about getting people to be more creative.

The author of the article, Teresa Amabile, says that six types of management practices were found in research to be conducive to creativity. Let’s look at them point by point.

#1: Challenge

Amabile writes about how employees need to be assigned tasks that are challenging for them: not too difficult, and not too easy. She states that managers often hastily assign the hardest tasks to the most capable people and then go from there, which often leaves various employees with other tasks that don’t match their levels of expertise.

This idea is not new to educational research: it’s called the ZPD. How do the bosses in the classroom handle this situation? By taking time to accurately assess students and then creating classes based on their levels. Of course, if you’re teaching a large class, the difference in abilities might be so varied that you will inevitably have tasks that are too easy for some students and too hard for others. We’ll see how we can address that a little later.

#2: Freedom

There’s a great metaphor the author uses about this point: managers should choose which mountain to climb, and employees should be allowed to decide how to climb it.

Problems happen when goals are changed or not defined clearly; there’s no point in having freedom of process if they don’t know where to go. Another potential problem is giving freedom in name only, but actually creating a very narrow scope of ways to accomplish goals.

Teachers are guilty of poorly structuring freedom in the classroom as well. I’ll use a few examples from my experience teaching presentations at the intensive English programs I’ve worked at.

In the past, I’ve given out very vague presentation assignments, such as:

Talk about an important person in your life for about two minutes.

Goals like this are not clear for students. I had some students who gave eight minute long presentations during which they used Power Points with several slides. And I also had students who talked for 1 minutes and 59 seconds completely in the present simple.

Then I over-compensated:

Give a presentation in which you talk for 2-4 minutes about a person in your family. Talk about their physical features, their hobbies, and their favorite food. Use three vocabulary words from the textbook. Use the past tense at least once and use the present progressive at least twice.

Yikes. I don’t know if I’d be able to complete that checklist in my head while speaking in English either. This led to lots of memorized, boring, and pretty awful presentations.

#3: Resources

According the the article, creativity requires time and money (which just so happen to be two things teachers have very little of!). Since most teachers teachers work within institutions and have very little control over the allocation of money, I’m going to look only at time.

Deadlines are crucial to businesses performing well. Creativity needs enough time to blossom. The final version of a product might be the culmination of a hundred shower thoughts and eureka moments gathered over a long time and put together. But deadlines can also spur frenzied creative thought. If you want to beat out that competitor and get your product on the market first, you’re going to wrack your brain for new ideas and pull things out of your mind that you didn’t know existed.

As teachers, we can leverage deadlines in similar ways. Since I talked about speaking in the last example, let’s look at writing this time.

Giving students plenty of time to work on an essay can lead to some really nice work. If they have time to reflect on their ideas and brainstorm, their arguments and examples will be much richer and potentially more creative. They’ll also have time to wordsmith and fine-tune their grammar and vocabulary.

However, timed writing also has its benefits. It can put a student’s brain into overdrive and force them to just go with whatever pops into their head, which can lead to some really interesting (and sometimes even better) essays as they try to tie things all together under time pressure.

#4: Work-Group Features

The article talks about why diversity is important for work groups: people from different backgrounds and different ideas come up with creative ideas by sharing and combining what they know. Business managers often create homogeneous teams because it’s easier. Things go smoother and the teams finish their goals sooner. But there is little growth among the team members and often very little creativity.

In our ESL classes, the advantages of heterogeneous groups is obvious: students won’t be tempted to speak their native languages if they’re with people who don’t speak that language. But in any type of classroom, a mixed group of students leads to many more learning opportunities.

The other features that a work group should have, according to the article, is a clear set of goals, a common motivation, and defined roles.

Let’s do reading this time. Book clubs are a great way to get students to work together as groups. The goals can be simple (read and understand the book) or more complicated (give a presentation, write a report/review, etc.). The common motivation would be the content of the book. You can group students based on which book they want to read. And if you are assigning a task along with the book, a presentation for example, you can give students different tasks within the group that they have to collaborate on: one student could talk about the setting of the book, one student could talk about the characters, and another student could talk about their group’s opinion.

#5: Supervisory Encouragement

The article states that managers are often so busy that they forget to praise their employees’ accomplishments. Or they react to new ideas with criticism and skepticism. Implementing new, creative ideas is hard after all. And other underlings are often seen in a good light if they can explain why a creative new idea won’t work for whatever reason. Of course, this type of behavior leads to a culture of negativity and fear in which everyone is trying to find the downsides to new ideas because it’s easy and makes them look smart. All creative initiatives are subsequently given up or squashed.

Administrators at educational institutions probably have more to learn from this point than teachers do. Depending on the institution, praise for instructors can be few and far between since administrators are often too busy with other issues (Butt-covering time: this is not true of the institution I work at currently. The administrators here show their gratitude towards instructors often).

On the other hand, teachers can also benefit from this advice. Most teachers I know are praise-machines, and if you’re not, you should learn how to become one – positive feedback feeds intrinsic motivation. What teachers aren’t always good at is holding back criticism at the right times.

This is an especially tricky balancing act in language learning. We want to correct students’ grammar and pronunciation to help them improve on what they do wrong. But we don’t want our feedback to interrupt their ability to be creative with language. In general, if a student is stretching her/his linguistic ability in a creative way in order to convey a new idea, we don’t want to stop them because they didn’t pronounce a theta correctly or left out a third person “-s” ending. Make a separate time and place for productive feedback and don’t extinguish creativity with nitpicking.

#6: Organizational Support

Recognizing creative efforts and encouraging collaboration both foster a creative culture within an organization. Management, the article states, needs to support this type of culture. Collaboration and cooperation are especially beneficial for weeding out negative politics. They also support the three components of creativity:

  • Expertise: sharing what different people are good at.
  • Creative-thinking skills: sharing different ways of looking at and solving problems
  • Motivation: sharing encouragement and recognition and creating a team spirit

Educational institution administrations should heed this advice as well: teachers work well when they’re sharing each of these components of creativity. If you’re a teacher working in an institution that doesn’t foster these three things, then try to collaborate and cooperate anyway. Teachers are so much more successful when they do.

Inside the classroom, collaboration and cooperation are important for the same reasons. For example, if you assign students to give a presentation or write an essay, have them get in groups take turns brainstorming ideas for one another. Each person will bring their own expertise and creative-thinking skills, and this breath of fresh air will lead to motivation.

Be a creative manager/teacher

As teachers, we’re not just dispensers of information. We need to manage our students effectively and create learning environments. Language is a creative subject – it’s all about creating words from sounds, sentences from words, and longer discourses from those sentences. The last thing that teachers want to do is kill creativity.


Image Credits: and Robbie Sproule

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