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The Science of Smart: Do Artists Suffer Unhappy Childhoods Anymore?

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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What were creative adults—artists, dancers, musicians, actors—like when they were 16 years old? If we could figure this out, we could identify creative potential among today’s teenagers. This is the idea behind a research project at the University of Kansas, which is using biographies of creative people like Mark Twain and Woody Allen to develop tools to help teachers identify and support creative adolescents. Sarah Sparks of Education Week reports:

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The Science of Smart:  Do Artists Suffer Unhappy Childhoods Anymore?-woody_allen.jpg
Woody Allen

“Barbara Kerr, the director of the university’s Counseling Laboratory for the Exploration of Optimal States, and former Kansas colleague Robyn McKay, now a psychology professor at Arizona State University-Polytechnic College of Technology and Innovation, analyzed biographies and interviews with famous creative adults to identify their characteristics at age 16.

The researchers distilled these into six profiles in five areas of creative giftedness: verbal and linguistic skills; mathematics and science; spatial and visual skills; interpersonal and emotional skills; and music and dance.

‘There’s never been an efficient way to find adolescents, precollege, who could benefit from a creative career,’ Ms. Kerr said in a statement on the profiles. ‘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.’

Over five years, the researchers worked with academic counselors in schools across Kansas to identify 485 students who matched the profiles. The students were brought to the counseling laboratory, where they took additional personality- and cognitive-traits tests and were interviewed about academic issues and personal goals.

Ms. Kerr and Ms. McKay found a third of students who fit the profiles for creative giftedness had never been identified for gifted programs, largely because their grade point averages were not higher than average—in part because these students tended to dedicate themselves to only subjects that interested them. They found these students tended to respond better to academic counseling that encouraged a do-it-yourself approach, such as pairing science classes with technical shop classes for a student interested in becoming an inventor.” (Read more here .)

I took a look at the study itself, “Searching for Tomorrow’s Innovators: Profiling Creative Adolescents” in Creativity Research Journal , and found this interesting nugget: Kerr and McKay note that the creative teenagers they studied “are more friendly, socially oriented, and socially well-adjusted than descriptions of most creatively gifted adults found in personality studies,” who tend to be “introverted, uninterested in social activities, and moderately low in agreeability.”

“What accounts for the agreeableness and good adjustment of these groups of adolescents?” they ask. It’s possible, the authors speculate, that these teenagers are “different from their predecessors”:

“They are part of the generation that has been labeled the We Generation—more connected with each other, more community oriented, more affiliated than generations that went before. It may be that this is the first generation of creative young people to have found one another online, to have been able to and friends with similar interests, and to have been inspired to a more social outlook and lifestyle than the artists and scientists of previous generations who worked in isolation.” (Read an abstract of the paper here .)

Really interesting. Teachers, parents—does this ring true to you? I think there is an increasing acceptance of diversity of all kinds among young people, including diversity of temperament and of interests, which may may life easier for teens with creative ways of expressing themselves. But if artists don’t suffer as youth, what will they make art about? I’m kind of serious.

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.