Saturday, June 4, 2016

Does High GPA = Low Creativity?

In April, research was released that suggests that students with higher grades are actually less innovative than their lower-graded peers.

The research comes from Matthew Mayhew, assoiciate professor of higher education at New York University, working with grad student Benjamin Selznick. The two surveyed over 10,000 undergrad and grad students at colleges and universities in four different counties (USA, Canada, Germany and Qatar) from a wide variety of majors.

To learn more, we asked students about their innovation intentions and capacities, their higher education experiences, and their background characteristics. We also administered a “personality inventory” to address the question of whether innovators are born or made.

I'll admit that I have my doubts about a researcher's ability to measure innovativity, but let's press on and look at the findings. Oh, that's right. I already told you the broad swath here, which is that good grades are not a predictor, in fact are arguably anti-predictors of creativity and innovation.

The researchers suggest that actual innovative capabilities come from two main places:

1) Classroom practices make a difference: students who indicated that their college assessments encouraged problem-solving and argument development were more likely to want to innovate. Such an assessment frequently involves evaluating students in their abilities to create and answer their own questions; to develop case studies based on readings as opposed to responding to hypothetical cases; and/or to make and defend arguments. 

2) Faculty matters – a lot: students who formed a close relationship with a faculty member or had meaningful interactions (i.e., experiences that had a positive influence on one’s personal growth, attitudes and values) with faculty outside of class demonstrated a higher likelihood to be innovative. When a faculty member is able to serve as a mentor and sounding board for student ideas, exciting innovations may follow.

The researchers also found that networking was hugely important, that getting the undergrad plugged into a network of like-minded peers as well as using those connections to see their ideas connected to the real world-- all that helped, too.

And why did the researchers think that as GPA went down, innovation went up?

From our findings, we speculate that this relationship may have to do with what innovators prioritize in their college environment: taking on new challenges, developing strategies in response to new opportunities and brainstorming new ideas with classmates.

So if you're more interested in taking on new and different challenges, collaboration, and cool new stuff than in just jumping through the right hoops to score that grade, you might just be a future innovator. Those strategies, however, may not be the best move for your GPA.

Also, this:

Additionally, findings elsewhere strongly suggest that innovators tend to be intrinsically motivated – that is, they are interested in engaging pursuits that are personally meaningful, but might not be immediately rewarded by others.

Getting grades is about jumping through hoops and getting a cookie for your troubles. If you don't really care about cookies, the hoops start to look less interesting. And if you, as above, happen to connect with teachers or friends who also find some things more interesting than hoop-jumping, you become even more primed for innovation.

They also hint that the students most likely to be rewarded and encouraged for non-hoopy behavior are white males. In a culture where women and non-white folks are taught to toe the line, behave themselves and color within the lines, that makes sense. In a world where some folks think that what non-white non-wealthy students need is a strict, strict environment, it naturally follows that such an environment would produce fewer innovators.

Peter Gray at Psychology Today (never a fan of hoop jumping) took a further look at this research, pulling in quotes from an interview with Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, who opens by noting that GPAs are truly worthless when making hiring decisions.

I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.

Gray also notes the oft-mentioned negative correlation of the Chinese, who are laser-focused on passing that damned standardized test, and who lag miles behind other countries like the US in terms of creativity and innovation (a phenomenon also clearly noted by Yong Zhao).

There are plenty of caveats here-- selection bias for subjects, the question of how one measures innovative tendencies, the fact that Google says nice things about thinking outside the box but also loves TFA. So as much as this fits what I think I know about humans, I take it with a grain of salt.

Still, it's worth paying attention to because it is further proof that reformsters are getting things exactly completely dead wrong. They've tried to center education around a testing situation where students have to find the One Right Answer from a group of answers that someone else supplied for them. Reformsters have justified test-driven education by claiming that only external measures can tell students (and their parents, and their teachers) whether they are succeeding or not. And they have launched charter chains built on the premise that non-wealthy non-white students do not need to have their creativity unleashed, but rather must have all of their nature leashed so that they can better learn to give the One Right Answer.

We are doing everything backwards, aiming our students directly away from the education methods best suited to nurture and build their creativity and innovation. It's backwards, and it's wrong.


  1. I very much agree that the emphasis on standardized testing is teaching students to look for the One Right Answer. They continue to do this in my college philosophy courses. Some of them freak out when they realize that there are a variety of good answers for the same question. One student, during a recent review session, kept asking me what he should write on the essay test. He wanted the exact words. He was very agitated when I simply said that he should write something good that answers the question with focus and precision. My students were not acting like this 15 years ago.

  2. Somewhere in this is truth and somewhere in the new "Grit" as we are sure that intrinsic characteristics are learned and can be tested to understand how to teach those "character" qualities admired by what Thomas Frank calls the "Professional" Class. We have a great deal of confusion with regards to these qualities as we are sure that people are poor, etc as they lack those "qualities" deemed important to succeed... of course the same people who do and label as such have come from privilege and that they seem to neglect to mention