Beware: Too Much Structure Hinders Creativity (for Experts)

structure inhibits creativity

How can teachers foster our students’ creativity?

To explore that question, we can also reverse it: what inhibits creativity?

Two researchers at the University of Toronto wondered if information structure hinders creativity.  That is: do we interfere with imaginative impulses if we give people information within clear and logical hierarchies.

If that’s true, could we encourage creativity by presenting information in unstructured ways?

100 Nouns

Kim and Zhong explored this possibility with two different research paradigms.

In the first, they gave college students lists of 100 nouns and asked them “to generate as many sentences as they want” using those words.

Half of these students were given nouns in obvious groupings. All the “games” were listed together: chess, bingo, backgammon. All the “bodies of water”: river, ocean, waterfall. All the “tools,” “pieces of jewelry,” and “trees.” In other words, students got these nouns within a clearly structured system.

The other half of the students saw those 100 nouns listed in a jumble: meteor, wildebeest, soccer, hotel, Ukraine. This second list, clearly, lacks any coherent system.

When the sentences that students wrote were rated for creativity, researchers found a clear difference. Students who saw nouns in a structured list wrote notably less creative sentences that those who saw the jumbled list.

For these students, logical structure hinders creativity. Absence of that structure promotes it.

Lego Aliens

To be sure of their conclusion, Kim and Zhong then asked different students to build an alien out of Lego bricks.

As you’ve already predicted, half of the participants got their Legos pre-sorted by shape and color. The other half got the same pieces all mixed together in a bin.

Here again, structure reduced creativity. Legos mixed together prompted more creative aliens than Legos sorted into tidy categories.

“Structure hinders creativity”: classroom implications

Reading this study, teachers who value creativity might be tempted to reduce cognitive structures as much as possible.

Here’s my advice: DON’T DO THAT.

Why? Beginners need structure to learn. This study was done with experts. College students are already very good at writing sentences. They devoted childhood years to building objects out of Lego.

In other words, they were not learning a new skill. They were, instead, being creative with a well-tuned skill.

For this reason, we should take this study as guidance for student creativity in skills they have already mastered. For skills they are still learning, students need lots of guidance, and structure.

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