One way of thinking about creative thought and artistic expression is to consider what occurs to it across the lifespan. Most experts argue that it tends to decline over time as people begin to accept themselves as “ordinary” and therefore inferior or inadequate in creative thinking and artistic expression (Jones, McConnell, & Normie, 1996; Egan & Nadaner, 1988; Westby & Dawson, 1995). In response to social values, cultural attitudes, and educational practices, many adults start to see innovation and artistic expression as avenues open only to those who are officially recognized as having exceptional talent (Kerka, 2002). Although it is sad to think that education would be responsible in any way for thwarting the child’s creative potential, there is considerable support for this point of view:

Schools suppress creativity. How can this be stated so categorically? The reasoning goes as follows: most children are naturally curious and highly imaginative. Then, after they have attended school for a while, something happens. They become more cautious and less innovative. Worst of all, they tend to change from being participators to being spectators. Unfortunately, it is necessary to conclude from the investigations of many researchers (most of whom have been professional educators) that our schools are the major culprit. (Dacey, 1989, p. 200)

Are school personnel deliberately suppressing children’s creativity? Actually, it is more often the case that adults have misconceptions about creativity and act on those erroneous beliefs (Williams, Brigockas, & Sternberg, 1997). For example, in a study that compared the results of a thorough assessment of preschoolers’ creativity with their teachers’ ratings of the children’s creativity, Nicholson and Moran (1986) concluded that teachers are not very good judges of creativity. The three mistakes most commonly made by teachers are as follows:

  1. Confusing measures of intelligence with measures of creativity. In the real world, apart from testing, creativity and intelligence apparently interact rather than function as separate entities (Runco, 1986). Creativity is a form of intelligence, but it is not the form usually assessed by tests and grades. Furthermore, a person who is an expert or even a creative genius in one domain, such as composing music, may not be particularly creative in another domain, and schools tend to focus on verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical domains to the virtual exclusion of other areas. Nevertheless, teachers may assume that students who receive the highest grades are automatically the most creative students in their classes.
  2. Being overly influenced by socially desirable behavior. Academic environments are not always accepting of children who “dare to be different.” History is full of examples of people who were called “daydreamers,” “underachievers,” or “troublemakers” during childhood only to become highly creative or even creative geniuses in later life, such as the politician Winston Churchill, the actress Sara Bernhardt, the scientist Albert Einstein, the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and the dancer Isadora Duncan. Teachers and administrators can become intolerant of children who do not “go along with the program” (Sternberg, 1997; Sternberg & Lubart, 1995).
  3. Being overly influenced by the child’s rate of development. Adults react more readily and more favorably to children’s uncommon (advanced) behavior than to children’s unconventional (creative) behavior (Nicholson & Moran, 1986). Compare the behavior of Aaron and Matt, both preschoolers. At age 3, Aaron can identify several words printed on flashcards. His parents think that he is exceptionally creative. But even though Aaron has been pushed into recognizing a few written symbols before his peers (advanced for his age), this is not an indicator of extraordinary creativity. Contrast this with the experiences of Matt, another 3-year-old. His parents try to encourage independence and creative problem solving. In fact, one of Matt’s favorite expressions is “I have an idea. We could. . . .” Of the two children, Matt is getting more support in developing creativity. Aaron, on the other hand, is being conditioned to imitate adult behavior as rapidly as possible. He may be precocious, but his creativity is being compromised in the process.

How does acting on these common misconceptions about creativity influence teachers’ behavior? Suppose a teacher is presenting a unit on basic shapes—circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles. When introducing a review lesson, she asks children to suggest the names of shapes that they know. Robert suggests, “There’s an egg shape, only it’s called an ellipse.” How would you as a teacher handle this response? A teacher who is overly concerned about confusing the other children might say, “Robert, that isn’t one of the shapes we learned.” If you do, what will happen to Robert? He will feel rejected. Over time, Robert will probably begin to “play the game” and tell teachers what they want to hear. He may even quit contributing in class.

Situations such as these, repeated day after day, not only undermine children’s creativity but also distort teachers’ perspectives on what constitutes creative behavior. In a study of more than 1,000 teachers’ attitudes toward creativity, conducted by Fryer and Collings (1991), only about half of the teachers realized that divergent thinking—thinking “outside the box”—is a key element of creative thought. Many teachers associate creativity with economic privilege and fail to notice it in students who are not engaged in the fine arts. Clasen, Middleton, and Connell (1994) found that African American students tended to outperform their peers in fluency and flexibility of thought, yet these abilities often are overlooked or actively discouraged by teachers. Similarly, a review of 62 studies concluded that arts education has particular advantages for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, yet this population is least likely to have extensive opportunities and a wide variety of materials (Manzo, 2002). The goal of studying children’s creativity and play is to change teachers’ perspectives—to prepare a new generation of teachers who will do a better job of meeting children on their own terms rather than trying to mold them prematurely into performing adult behaviors.