Schools Aren’t Creative

A few weeks ago I reported:

In forming my view that school functions in part to help folks accept workplace domination, I rediscovered the view of the ‘76 book Schooling In Capitalist America:

Here is some evidence from that book:

Getzels and Jackson … subjected a group of 449 high school students to an IQ test and a battery of exams which purport to measure creativity. They found no appreciable correlation between measured IQ and measured creativity. The top 20 percent in IQ on the one hand, and in creativity on the other, were singled out and asked to rank certain personality traits (a) on the degree to which they would like to have these traits, and (b) on the degree to which they believed teachers would like the student to have. … While the high IQs “preferred traits” correspond closely to their perception of the teachers’ values, the high creatives’ ranking of preferred traits was actually inversely related to the perceived teachers’ ranking. The high creatives do not fail to conform; rather they do not wish to conform. …

[Our] review of this literature … support[s] the following interpretation. Students are rewarded for exhibiting discipline, subordinacy, intellectually as opposed to emotionally oriented behavior, and hard work independent from intrinsic task motivation. Moreover, these traits are rewarded independently of any effect of “proper demeanor” on scholastic achievement. …

John L. Holland undertook a study of the determinants of high school success among a group of 639 National Merit Scholarship finalists. … While the group’s high academic rank is doubtless related to their above-average IQs, difference in scholastic achievement among them were not significantly related to their grades. … Many of the personality variables were significantly and positively related to grades. Most important were teachers’ ratings of the students’ Citizenship and the students’ self-evalution of Drive to Achieve. Neither of these variables and any significant impact on actual achievement measures! …

Students who are ranked by their teachers as high on Citizenship and Drive to Achieve are indeed more likely to be diligent … and socially popular … But they are, in fact, significantly below average on measures of creativity and mental flexibility. … These same traits of creativity and mental flexibility are directly penalized in terms of school grades, holding constant test scores, Citizenship, and Drive to Achieve. (p40,41)

This all fits with my Myth of Creativity oped. The modern economy doesn’t want much creativity; it instead rewards self-control (= social control).

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  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Well-written op-ed, I think it lives up to your blog’s mission better than most of your writing.

    Perhaps space for creative expression can be seen as sort of a workplace compensation (think Google’s infamous policy), and in the individual, a luxury spending.

  • Michael Giberson

    The commencement speaker at our graduation in May said, “Self control is the opposite of self indulgence,” but I initially (mis-)heard “Self control is the option of self indulgence.” I think you are right, what most people mean by showing self control is that you show submission to cultural norms. I think the misheard version is better.

  • mjgeddes

    But far mode is precisely creative intelligence. Schools aren’t creative, that makes them near-mode.

    For achieving well-defined external goals, the economy doesn’t need creativity it just needs goal optimization, indeed that (rational intelligence) doesn’t require creativity. This type of intelligence is best suited to big well-established businesses which are not doing anything radically new.

    But what of creative intelligence, which doesn’t conform to the standard definition of intelligence? Creative intelligence generates and defines new goals, best suited to small start-ups?

    * Rational intelligence, near mode, decision theory and computable algorithms are one thing.

    ** Creative intelligence, far mode, categorization and consciousness are quite other thing (all equivalent in fact).

    Those things in the ** sentence are not a redundant ‘add-on’ or ‘luxury’ used purely for the brain’s PR purposes as many here seem to think. Rather, they are are a completely and qualitatively new form of intelligence. Creative intelligence subsumes (is more general than) rational intelligence. And I’ve already put my finger on the exact function of creative intelligence – it is finding effective representations of goals by minimizing cognitive complexity – this is perceived as beautiful (aesthetically pleasing).

    • KrisC

      The “minimizing of cognitive complexity” is not for the direct benefit of the creatively intelligent individual. That simplification is needed to convey the ideas of the creatively intelligent individual to an audience.

      The distinction is not trivial to the non-normative individual. In many instances, to know something for oneself is good enough. Only when hoping to convince others of an idea’s validity is a reduction to a common form of expression necessary.

      I mean to say that I find more beauty in a coherent, explanatory, memorable thought than in the tortuous act of conveying that same thought to an audience whose prejudices must be overcome.

      • mjgeddes

        Your own mind is not a single unitary agent. Different sub-agents in your brain need to communicate, and you cannot have a ‘coherent, explanatiory, memorable thought’ experienced as beautiful without your brain aiming for complexity minimization of its own internal mental processes. Different internal representations of your values need to be reconciled. You are both the creator and the audience to your own thoughts.

        The ‘Less Wrong’ crowd couldn’t have been more wrong about everything. Creativity is more powerful than rationality and wraps and subsumes it completely. Goal optimization (as performed by decision theory) is merely a special (minor) case of the complexity minimization process I describe, and Bayesian Induction is also just a (very minor) case of the far more powerful categorization process reconciling and generating different (cross-domain) representations of goals and values.

    • Tim Tyler

      Is “creative intelligence” defined somewhere? Surely ordinary intelligence is “creative” – by definition.

      • Jess Riedel

        Most people consider being good at arithmetic, logic, or social relationships a sign of intelligence, but those aren’t very creative.

      • Chris T

        Jess – Why ever not? Running into a novel math or logic problem requires applying old ideas in new ways. Isn’t that the very definition of creativity?

      • mjgeddes

        This is truly astonishing. The cognitive blindness of some folks here is far worse than I realized. Replies seem to be denying that ‘creativity’ even exists. Let me provide precise definitions. The difference between creativity and rationality is as follows:

        Rationality is concerned with determining how the world is and making decisions resulting in external actions that achieve pre-defined goals. Rationality is concerned with the external world

        Creativity is concerned with creating novel representations of things that ease conscious thought by providing cognitive short-cuts (effective summaries). Creativity is concerned with internal thought proccesses.

        Rationality is not creativity. Yet clearly it exists. Examples of ‘novel representations’ include all art (stories, paintings, music etc.), ontologies (domain models), engineering blueprints, clustering (logical categories), natural languages and signs and signals. Rationality alone will not make you good at producing the things I’ve listed.

      • Chris T

        Creativity without rationality is useless.

        Rationality without creativity is pointless.

      • mjgeddes


        There is no rationality without creativity. Creativity is the primary medium of cognition and rationality is merely a subcomponent. There is no such thing as concept free general intelligence, despite what SIAI folks may try to claim. All general intelligence relies on explicit or implicit mental concepts or categories, and the generation and updating of these concepts (domain models, ontology, representations) always requires creativity.

        To wit,reality itself is not ‘concept free’. The universe itself deploys a ‘self-representation’ system, and thus exhibits ‘creativity’. What do you think the 4D block universe (space-time continuum) of relativity theory is? It is both the fabric of reality itself and a creative representation of reality!

        Concepts (creative representations) cannot be excised from any description of reality! Creativity is the fountain-head of all we survey.

      • Chris T

        I thought my formulation was elegant enough. I agree with what you said, but would point out that rationality is required to bring ideas to fruition, else all you have is randomness. Hence my first statement.

        Conversely, without creativity, there is nothing to rationalize.

    • KrisC

      {Note: I have seem to hit a nesting comment limit, this post is in response to mjgeddes June 27, 5:27am. Since I was also bothered by two different interpretations of the phrase “creative intelligence” in the context of the discussion, I will mention those to maintain the comment tree.}

      Ah, yes. It was the use of the term goal that prompted my reply. I thought you were speaking of external goals. Now that you add the context of decision theory some of the ambiguities. I had believed you were referencing aesthetics as being based in perceptions of another individual.

      I was going to add a bit about multiple voices inside the head, but it wasn’t central to my point. I agree that generally intelligence can be thought of as the correlation of correlation of remembered sense impression into predictions of the future. I suspect we agree on the way intelligence is built from stored experiences to modules of expectations to interactions between brain regions interacting to form consciousness.

      Simply, however, the (conscious, will-driven) mind need not be involved in the simplification; the (automatic, biological) brain is sufficient to carry out the simplifications. As such I would decline to call this simplification a goal, but I would accept that it could be considered one.

      I suspect you might be able to convince the LW crowd that rationality is distinct from applied abstraction. If you are careful in your definitions, then you can call rationality a Teacher’s Password. Certainly society labels as rational many irrational behaviors.

      Some of the divergence is rooted in the possible definitions of creative intelligence. Is creative intelligence th ability to manipulate multiple degrees of abstraction? Or is it the ability to create novel forms of expression? The ability to create intelligence, or the intelligence to create external meaning?

      But to my point, I hold that there is an acceptable degree of complexity in beauty, speaking of beautiful thoughts. If my brain can hold constructs with 5 abstract connections in familiar subjects, I need not reduce to the more conveyable comparison of 2 abstract connections in categories of general knowledge. As long as I can maintain the model, I can work from the model and generate work. The beauty is not in the details of the work but in the understanding of the whole.

      Examples of high degrees of abstraction generating meaningful product: computer programming, diagnosis of mechanical problems from sensor data, detective work as portrayed in fiction (and possibly RL, idk), confidence scams. Each allows jumping from deep understanding to meaningful detail without knowing each connection between the work and the goal.

  • mk

    Agree with it all, but you have to admit, this part is quite funny:
    “and a battery of exams which purport to measure creativity.”

    I very much agree with the thesis, but using that ‘evidence’ to suggest “the high creatives do not fail to conform; rather they do not wish to conform” … thanks for telling me that A (IQ test) is not B (creativity test), and being good at A makes you dislike B and vice versa.

  • Joseph Hertzlinger

    When I see the term “creative” I start wondering if the creative people are more or less likely to join a “herd of independent minds.”

    • Chris T

      Heh, sounds like ‘Free Thinkers’.

  • Henry

    I am reminded of a section in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers where students were asked to list as many uses for a blanket as possible. One student, who was highly academically successful, wrote just a handful of utilitarian answers (sleeping, rudimentary clothing, etc). Another student, who was modestly academically successful, came up with many novel ideas (the one I recall was a means of covering up illicit sex in the woods). Gladwell’s thesis was that the latter student would be much more likely to achieve great success.

  • tom

    To connect to your previous post on cars, maybe the Consumer Price Index does for innovation and reliability improvements what normal schools do for creativity. (Also, is there any evidence that schools directly quash creatives? Isn’t it more likely that they just fail to reward and encourage them?)

    Finally, I think your school stuff is focused on Fairfax County, Montgomery County, and similar places with a huge base of high-smarts kids in stable families. It has little to with the 80% of schools that have few smart and stable kids. You are criticizing them for focusing on the building block of creativity and higher-level learning–discipline and sustained focus. But it’s similar to what Michael Giberson misheard per his comment above: “Self control is the option of self indulgence”. Creativity requires a pretty high base of discipline and focus.

    You are absolutely right that public schools undereducate those who are smart and stable, and that when those schools have large groups of those kids, they could do better by them. But you should be clearer that you are really talking about the education of the elite and near-elite.

  • littlestar

    One of the many reasons I homeschool!

  • Indy

    Can we please reproduce their test for creativity? Are we all sure we all agree on what creativity is – or that their test is a good way to measure it? My personal experience is that their is “field bias” in what people call “creative”.

    Artistic and Literary efforts, especially for young people, are labeled “creative” even when they are banal and derivative. Technical problem solving or methodological-seeming organized innovation is “not creative”. Skill at rapid Linguistic brain-storming of the kind I’ve seen on a few tests simply is not a meaningful proxy for “creativity”.

    A little skepticism is in order.

  • TGGP

    “a battery of exams which purport to measure creativity”
    I’ve heard a lot about the predictive value of IQ tests in a variety of domains, but I’m less familiar with creativity tests. How confident should we be that those tests measure what they purport do, and what predictions are made from it?

  • Douglas Knight

    An accepted test that might be compared to creativity is openness. Unlike these tests, openness correlates with IQ. Openness is irrelevant to income, which suggests that controlling for IQ, it lowers income. This seems like a reasonable mechanism.

    But it seem like a red flag to me that they find the creativity tests not to correlate with IQ. It would be useful to design such tests not to correlate, but that’s not what they claimed to do.

    • Chris T

      I suspect what many of these tests are actually measuring is randomness. A high IQ individual may be assessing and filtering different ideas for practicality when answering these tests.

      • michael vassar

        That sounds likely to me as well.

        I wish I had data that clarified whether Openness lowers income controlling for IQ or simply doesn’t impact income controlling for IQ.

  • Bruce G Charlton

    According to extensive work over many years by HJ Eysenck (eg his book Genius, 1995) Creativity and self-control (aka the personality trait of Conscientiousness) are pretty much opposites – people high in one, tend to be low in the other.

    So modern culture’s ever-increasing selectivity for self-control (e.g. through increased bureaucritization, changes in examinations towards ‘continuous assessment, and lengthening years of formal ‘education’ prior to independent work) would be expected to reduce creativity in the leadership who have been through these selective sieves – and I believe it has substantially done so:

    • Matthew C.

      I really agree with this analysis, Bruce. Thanks for linking it. I am one of the refugees from modern bureaucratic “Science” who had always wanted to be a scientist, until I saw first-hand how the academic sausage gets made. I had no desire to put myself through that political environment and boredom and tedium and unimportance for the next 10 years of my life (always subject to having your career utterly destroyed by someone who didn’t like something about you), sucking up to the establishment in the hopes of landing an academic sinecure.

      Hanson’s characterization of modern society as lacking very much creativity is one I agree with, but I see it as an indictment and not a positive development as he does. Of course, as our financial system appears to be destroying itself through collective insanity, perhaps a few more creative thinkers like Denninger, Shedlock, and Nourini and a few less establishment hacks like Geithner and Bernanke in charge would be a change for the better. . .

  • Chris T

    Before we start trying to derive anything from these results, shouldn’t we establish the validity of creativity tests first? Like TGGP, I would like to know what they actually predict in the real world.

  • tom

    Here’s a link to some creativity tests for adults, in the dating context, from a Geoffrey Miller paper (scroll down to appendices):

    I can see how a large category of non-obeyers might not fully invest in these types of tests, especially since (unlike some school exams) there really can’t be negative consequences to doing poorly. But I also guess that a many other consequence-free tests (like happiness) suffers from non-investment by certain types of people. I’m not sure this would be any worse. I also wonder about the forms the graders use to rank creativity.

  • smaragd

    For readers in the UK interested in testing their own creativity, the Creative Thinking World Championships will be held at the Mind Sports Olympiad in Soho, London at the end of August.

    I entered the competition a few years ago and must say that it was the strangest written exam that I’ve ever taken.

  • lemmy caution

    I think it is probably true that people learn to be uncreative. They may learn this in school, but it is really peers that people care about.

    This article describes it as the “fourth grade slump”:

    the book impro is good on this:

    It is good on status too so I am sure you would like it.

  • Tracy W

    None of this supports the idea that schools actually do reduce creativity. Correlation is not causation. It is entirely plausible that the kids who were “ranked by their teachers as high on Citizenship and Drive to Achieve” would have been ranked as highly on citizenship and drive to achieve and as low on measures of creativity and mental flexibility if they had never been to school (although obviously, in this hypothetical, as they wouldn’t have had teachers, their teachers couldn’t have ranked them).

    I also note the other potential explanation of high creatives’ inverse ranking – high creatives fail to conform to teachers’ expectations, so they decide that they don’t wish to conform to teachers’ expectations.

  • Chris Lankford

    While the cognitive side of many of these comments is interesting, I have to argue that, from experience, this is how things should be done in education. In my experience teaching college-level math-heavy courses, a firm basis in reasoning skills is the most critical step to academic success. Those who are, in addition to having high reasoning capability, also very creative perform the best, obviously… but a prerequisite of high-level reasoning skills is most critical.

    If we are to become a nation which values STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education as highly as the fastest-growing economies today are, then we need to fully utilize the opportunity primary school presents to us as a vector for creating STEM-ready college candidates.

    Many people (particularly those who have children which are or are themselves “creative but not gifted in math or science”) believe this is an unfair proposition, since success would be weighted against them. However, I argue that everyone on this planet who is blessedly free of learning disorders is capable of creating the foundations required to succeed in any reasoning-oriented field. It is up to the parent to instill the discipline, values, and sense of self-esteem required for this. With this, children will be “ready to learn how to learn”. Primary/secondary school will then teach them how to learn, and higher education will impart the actual knowledge necessary to get along in STEM fields… while the actual knowledge used day-to-day is naturally imparted through work experience.

    In summary, my $0.02: Things are going well. We need disciplined, driven intellectuals foremost, while the creative few out of those many are the ones who will lead human society in the coming years.

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