Does creativity have a dark side?


But it may be that creativity isn’t always desirable. Kaufman and Beghetto argue in their wonderfully titled paper, In Praise of Clark Kent: Creative Metacognition and the Importance of Teaching Kids When (Not) to Be Creative, that teachers need to encourage restraint in students and that often it is much more efficient to follow well-established processes rather than trying to think of new ways to solve old problems. They compare creativity to Superman:

In theory, dating Superman (or going bowling with him) sounds great, but in “reality,” it would be a nightmare. As much as we may romanticize Superman and praise his flashy heroics, on an everyday basis it is much easier to live with Clark Kent. There is an intense excitement and power that comes with a visit from Superman, much as occurs with a flash of creative insight. Yet both can be overwhelming in excess.

They suggest that most definitions of creativity value appropriateness at least as highly as novelty and that rather than constantly urging children to ‘be more creative’ it might be more productive to teach them when and in what contexts it is useful to be creative.

There’s no doubt that there are enormous benefits to innovation, but could there also be costs?Kaufman and Beghetto suggest that creativity can be “a double-edged sword”. They discuss a range of studies indicating a causal link between higher levels of creativity and poorer mental health as well as negative personal attributes, and, although they conclude that the case is far from proved, this is something that’s rarely considered in our impetuous rush to urge more creativity out of young people.

According to Miron, Erez, and Naveh (2004) although people identified as creative are responsible for more innovation , creativity is also associated with poor attention to detail, lower performance quality and lower levels of conscientiousness. Conformity, by contrast, is linked with higher performance quality. Further, Nora Madjar and colleagues found that creativity is linked with selfishness, less pro-social attitudes which, in workplace environments, lead to greater levels of conflict and reduce team performance.

So, why is creativity so fetishised, especially in the classroom? Westby and Dawson found that although teachers speak approvingly of creative students, when asked to define creativity, they used terms such as ‘well-behaved’ and ‘conforming’. As Westby and Dawson say, “One of the most consistent findings in educational studies of creativity has been that teachers dislike personality traits associated with creativity.”  For instance, Torrance (1963) showed how more creative people are often seen as “obnoxious” and “not having the time to be courteous, refusing to take no for an answer, and being negativistic and critical of others.”

Traits associated with creativity are often those displayed by students considered disruptive or unruly. This is not to say that more creative students are less well-behaved – it may be that they get into more trouble because their teachers find them irritating – but it does add to the conclusion that creativity – whatever it is – is not wholly desirable.

‘Creative’ students may benefit from being explicitly taught the value of conforming to pro-social norms and self-control. As every teacher will know, there are certain brands of ‘creativity’ that are, perhaps, misplaced in the classroom, if not downright unwelcome. That’s not to say enquiring minds should be crushed or that enthusiasm should be stemmed, but it does mean that the concept of self-regulation should be given at the very least equal weight. Creativity without self-control is unlikely to result in anything useful.

It’s fair to say that creativity is, like most other things, morally neutral. It certainly isn’t inherently good. Successful criminals are as likely to be creative as successful artists and the idea of ‘creative accountancy’ has become a byword for dishonesty. Like any other human behaviour, creativity can be used for the betterment of mankind or to further selfish and destructive goals. Just encouraging creativity without considering the consequences may not be quite as sensible as it superficially sounds.

Understanding creativity is hideously complex, and the appeal of grand, overarching, generic theories of creativity is that they tend to be simple and easy to understand. Their simplicity is also their weakness. While we can’t pretend to know exactly what creativity is or how to instil it in students, any attempt to reduce it to a set of easy-to-teach principles is not only misguided, it’s potentially detrimental both to students and to society.

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