LAWRENCE — Any teacher could name them. And anyone who ever had classmates could probably remember at least a few of them: Students who are clearly bright or creative but don’t necessarily excel in school or are often in trouble. A University of Kansas professor has published a paper showing that profiles she created can not only identify such bright, creative kids but help set them on the path to being the nation’s next innovators, creators, inventors and artists.
Barbara Kerr, Distinguished Professor of Counseling Psychology and director of the Counseling Laboratory for the Exploration of Optimal States at KU, co-authored the study with Robyn McKay of Arizona State University. It was published in the Creativity Research Journal. Studies of creative individuals have been done for decades, but they have always focused on eminent people after they’ve reached adulthood.
“Before this, creativity tests have been an expensive endeavor. There’s never been an efficient way to find adolescents, pre-college, who could benefit from a creative career,” Kerr said. “So we scoured biographies of eminent people and asked a question that hadn’t been raised before. ‘What were they like at 16?’”
Based on that research and interviews Kerr has done with creative individuals such as personal computer pioneer Steve Wozniak and participants in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Kerr and colleagues developed six profiles of creative adolescents in five domains of creative endeavor. They then sent the profiles to educators throughout Kansas. Over five years, 485 students were identified as fitting the profile.
“The schools would say ‘we know these kids are bright,’ but clearly they’re not achieving across the board,’” Kerr said.
The students were invited to attend the CLEOS Project, a research through service counseling laboratory. At CLEOS, the students discussed creativity, their educational challenges and aspirations and were given personality tests and individual counseling to help them realize what they need to do to achieve their personal goals.
Counselors built complex profiles for each student based on factors such as personality traits, values, their latest accomplishments and academic strengths. They found that while often high in creativity, gifted students regularly scored low in conscientiousness.
“Very often these traits that feed their creativity — like openness to experience and impulsivity — get them in trouble,” Kerr said. “And many of them said that they’re only noticed in school when they’re in trouble. Creative kids tend to be a particular type of outsider, admired by their small cadre of friends for their art or coding abilities, but avoided by many because of their eccentricities.”
The research is especially relevant now, as innovators are widely sought to stimulate the economy and help keep the United States competitive in an increasingly global climate. The National Science Foundation and National Academy of Science have called for research on what brings about innovation in science, technology, math and engineering, the so-called STEM fields, but career counseling programs have not generally addressed the needs of creative students. Plus, students with creative, spatial and design skills will increasingly be in demand for careers that merge design and arts — known as STEAM occupations.
To help students realize their goals, Kerr and counselors at the laboratory “pulled no punches,” showing them what they need to do to graduate high school, receive mentoring and obtain advanced degrees. They also encouraged them to set goals for a “do-it-yourself” education and to use “invisible pathways” to achieve their educational goals. Those pathways are often invisible, Kerr said, because traditional curriculum encourages creative students to take arts or humanities classes, but not hard sciences. Schools will put a scientifically creative student in advanced mathematical classes, but not in technical shop classes they need for skills to become an inventor, architect, game designer or similar profession.
The research has the potential to go far beyond helping just the first group of students, Kerr said. Almost 1,000 students have been selected to take part in the program, and their studies show that they do indeed match the core characteristics of creatively gifted adults.
About two-thirds of the attendees had been identified as gifted at their schools, but the other third not only had never been selected for such programs, they’d never even been told they were bright. Grade-point averages were well above average in the case of the two-thirds who had been selected for gifted programs. The other third were in keeping with the tendency of creative people to specialize early, be less well-rounded and sometimes lack the motivation and interpersonal characteristics that might lead them to be chosen for such programs.
Kerr said she hopes to make the research and profiles available to schools across the country and continue research in ways to encourage and help gifted and creative students flourish in their education and encourage support of students who show spatial and artistic ability.
“To find the innovators, those who have the potential to make creative contributions to the global economy, research suggests that it is necessary to look beyond the traditional pool of math/science talent,” Kerr wrote. “Focusing on the career development of creative young people may be critical to innovation and renewal in society. Identifying those students who need specialized guidance into creative occupations is the first step toward establishing an innovative society.”