Teaching and Coaching the Creativity Out of Kids

I was struck in the last week by two connected episodes that, I think, show how we’re suffocating the creativity and energetic innocence of our kids in order to prepare them to “succeed.”

I was standing on the sideline near the end my daughter’s Olympic Development Program soccer practice during a six on six (or 5 on 5) passing/scoring/challenging box session.

Assistant Coach Kevin, whom the girls love for his droll sense of humor, walked over and said, “What’s with girls this age? Nobody wants to be the best player on the field. They all want to be the nice little support player.”

I said I’d noticed a lack of aggressiveness this year and heard girls say they were worried about staying in position, keeping their shape.

“They can get back into shape when the other team is taking the ball out of the net. Plenty of time, then,” he said. “You can wave at the crowd after your goal as you go back.”

He also coaches a club team of 12-year-olds and he said his parents have been asking him what’s made the big difference this year (presumably good). He said he’s been pounding his girls practice after practice to attack the ball and go after the opposing players. In short, he’s given them explicit instructions to be aggressive and not worry about failure.

I said I thought players were at a level negotiating between just running around after the ball, challenging all over the place, and thinking about where they need to be.

“They need to stop thinking, that’s it. Stop thinking,” he replied.

A few days later, I shared a piece on storytelling with my kids’ English teacher, a superb educator who gets them to write remarkable, insightful pieces nearly daily.

In his reply, he mentioned that he didn’t know what we did to kids later in their education to “take away their fearlessness and enthusiasm for writing and sharing their voices as they age.”

I think one simple answer – not the only one — is we tell kids — in the classroom and on the field — that there are strict boxes defining what’s “right.”

We push “success” so much that they worry about failing, about taking the chance to challenge for a ball or put to paper some scary thoughts and they begin to back away. We implicitly tell them it’s better to be in the middle as the support player or the safe writer coloring within the lines, addressing only certain subjects and only in certain ways, than to take a chance and risk failure and ridicule.

Several years ago, I wrote a piece about “practical intelligence” featuring Robert Sternberg, then at Yale. Here’s a relevant portion:

Yale University professor and researcher Robert Sternberg likes to tell the old joke of two boys walking in a forest who see a ferocious grizzly bear charging towards them. One is considered smart by his teachers; the other marginal.

The “smart” boy calculates that the bear will overtake them in 17.3 seconds and they have no chance for escape while the second boy calmly puts on his jogging shoes. “You must be crazy,” the first boy says. “There is no way we are going to outrun that grizzly bear!”

“That’s true,” replies the second boy. “But all I have to do is outrun you!”

Ok, so it’s a very old joke. But to Sternberg, who heads Yale’s Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise (PACE), it’s an example of what he calls “practical intelligence” — the ability to use intelligence effectively to be successful in life (or, in this case, a life or death experience).

He argues that there are three distinct types of intelligence: analytical, creative and practical. Society, he contends, pays too much attention to the first type and too little to the other two. ”You need creative intelligence to come up with an idea, analytical intelligence to know if it’s a good idea and practical intelligence to sell it,” he says.

This archived video from the TED Conferences features creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson talking about the issue. It’s funny and poignant and worth your time.


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