• Kieran Burgess

The Motivation for Creativity in School

Originally published on October 15, 2015


How do we square creativity with systemised education?


I came across an article by Professor Teresa Amabile, of Harvard Business School, entitled, “The Motivation for Creativity in Organisations.”


Why is an article about motivating employees in a business setting important to education? Partly because educators are in the business of readying tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, innovators and (to borrow a term from Zoe Weil, 2011), solutionaries. Ken Robinson (2010) astutely points out that the current structure of schooling was devised at the peak of the industrial revolution, where children needed to be readied for a life on the production line, generating money from raw materials processed in factories. Schooling reflected the structure of business organisations: distinct departments that focused on different skills or qualities, that rarely had much to do with each other; a manufacturing spectrum beginning with the raw material (child), working up the moulds of increasing layers of complexity, finishing with a refined product that looked the same as all the others (standardised) that could be released into the world and more or less be relied upon to do the expected job. Now, industry has moved on significantly from that, but school structures remain the same. Tomorrow’s goods off the production line (hereafter referred to as ‘students’) will not be required to undertake routine tasks for extrinsic motivation.


Entirely routine performance will most likely become increasingly undesirable and increasingly rare in the jobs and the firms of the future. (Amabile, 1996)

The business leaders of tomorrow are being groomed to target the selection of “employees for high levels of intrinsic motivation” (Amabile, 1996) in order to achieve high rates of innovation and creativity within their organisations.


Returning to the question of why this business article is relevant, it is worth noting that many educational researchers and revolutionaries are using economics and business as a source of inspiration for the changing shape of schooling. Tony Wagner (2012) and Ken Robinson (2010) both make strong links at the foundation of their arguments.


So what does motivate creativity in individuals, and in organisations such as schools?


A number of motivators exist, and some key features crop up in multiple studies across a number of business, education and psychology disciplines.

  • Skill Variety (the number of skills required to perform a task)

  • Task Identity (the degree of meaningfulness of the task)

  • Task Significance (the importance of the work and/or outcome )

  • Autonomy

  • Feedback (competence-based).

Taken from Hackman and Oldham, 1976.


The connection between skills variance and motivation is already known to educators: tasks should be challenging to all, based on their current ability, without being too difficult to accomplish. However, this is often boiled down to differentiated learning at three or four levels, for a class of twenty or more. The “all, most, some” approach disregards the concept of a competence spectrum, and instead categorises students into very few boxes. Field research will need to be carried out to see how many classrooms teach skills in isolation, to simplify the learning process, at the expense of increasing later the difficulty in understanding synthesis and big-picture processes. I suspect autonomy is a motivator that needs the most scrutiny in a school environment: if students are fed a set course of knowledge and understanding, decided by the teacher or some other authority, there is little room for autonomous decision-making in how or what students learn. One psychology theorist states that,


Extremely high levels of intrinsic motivation are marked by […] such a perfect match of task difficulty with skill level, that people experience a kind of psychological “flow”, a sense of merging with the activity they are doing. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, cited in Amabile 1996)

The presence of autonomy and skills competence (and the subsequent recognition of competence in feedback) also feature in psychologists’ studies of intrinsic motivators.


People are intrinsically motivated when they seek enjoyment, interest, satisfaction of curiosity, self-expression, or personal challenge [and are] extrinsically motivated when they engage in the work in order to obtain some goal that is apart from the work itself. (Amabile, 1996, my emphasis)

In a school environment this translates very closely. The intrinsic motivation is obvious and universal: pursue enjoyment in order to maintain motivation, whether that is in a school, office or startup business. The extrinsic motivation in a school setting is the strive for grades, the GPA or the report card. By applying the level of importance that we currently do to the number at the end of a unit, course or year, we provide an extrinsic motivator that dwarfs any intrinsic motivation that may be generated. However, the acknowledgement of competence, and advice on how to further enhance competence, are acknowledged by Hackman and Oldham as motivators. This feedback, although extrinsic, is intertwined with intrinsic motivation: the desire for personal challenge is the driving force; the feedback is merely a validator of competence, or statement of further challenge.



Testing has become an expected evaluation of ability in schools. Research finds that where evaluation is expected, creativity decreases. In a future where the number one desirable disposition for graduates is Creativity/Originality, why aren't school systems getting this?


It was particularly interesting to read some statements, backed up by research, that reinforce the “gut feeling” I have held to date as a teacher. Notably, that,

Expected evaluation can have a detrimental effect on creativity. (Amabile, 1979; Amabile, Goldfarb & Brackfield, 1990; Hennessy, 1989)

Is this not what we do to students all the time? Telling a class there is a test at the end of this topic/next Tuesday is, superficially, a way to drive motivation extrinsically by using the fear of failure, combined with the dangling carrot of a high percentage. In doing so, and especially when repeating this behaviour across seven, eight, or more subjects, students will look for the path of least resistance: the journey on which they reach this goal as easily and as quickly as possible with the minimum energy or effort expended. Such a process inherently shuts off any possibility of creativity.

Being watched while working can lead to lower levels of creativity (Amabile, Goldfarb & Brackfield, 1990)

How do we balance the need for autonomy with a need for order within a school? To answer that question we must ask another – which is more important: creativity or discipline? Surely, both are needed – but too much of one destroys the other. My research this year will need to scrutinise this balance.

Contracted-for reward can have a detrimental effect on creativity [whereas] “Bonus” reward (not contracted-for) can have a positive effect on creativity (Amabile, Hennessey & Grossman, 1986)

In a school setting, this first part of this last statement can be seen in almost every classroom, almost every day: “If you don’t do x you won’t get a good grade;” “You must do y in order to get this grade.”


Bonus reward, on the other hand, is not focused on enough in education – do we need to remove the fixed, intimidating grade that resides on a pedestal, calling children to try and climb up to touch it? Instead, should we be replacing it with passion, self-interest and personal challenge – with the reward of grades (or better still: statements of recognition; badges; certificates; inquiry outcomes) given as a bonus to the contract of learning when earned, rather than a contracted minimum? Thus replacing the notion that the grade is the goal with the notion that your own personal satisfaction is the minimum aim. Schools have long since utilised the bonus reward as an extrinsic motivator: house points; merits; gold stars. These methods should, in theory, work – and often they do work up to a limit. The bonus reward in its current state, however, is overshadowed by the contracted-for reward of the final semester/year/diploma grade. Amabile recognises the negative impact that extrinsic, contracted-for motivational reward can have on creativity (1996), and suggests that performance-related pay is one of the biggest destroyers of creativity. I would argue that the current system of grading students according to their output is akin to performance-related pay. The students who produce the best work get a grade that holds more value than students who produce lesser work – and it is possibly exacerbated by the situation of an external force (teacher; exam board) who decides what counts as better and lesser work, thus further funnelling creativity down into something that can be predicted.


This one article alone has opened dozens of doors into the theories of psychology, learning, artistic expression and business innovation for me. My challenge now is to find complementing and contrasting papers that reinforce or contradict Teresa Amabile’s 1996 paper, and to prepare field research that can answer some of the currently unquantified statements that arise. Notably,

  • How are skills currently taught in classrooms? Are they taught as standalone skills? Are they layered one on top of the other, or are they discoverable as part of a bigger project or inquiry? Does a pattern emerge between the variety of skills needed in a task and the intrinsic motivation to inquire within it?

  • How autonomous are our classrooms currently? Can we measure the autonomy, and can we see patterns between autonomy and creative output?

  • Where is the current balance between autonomy and discipline? Can we measure order and discipline? Are autonomy and discipline even linked by the same spectrum?

Food for thought…

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