Creativity in childhood writing predicts educational achievement

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The level of creativity found in the writing of nine-year-old children is another predictor of their later English grades, in addition to intelligence, motivation, and prior English grades, research suggests.

Children participating in the study were shown photographs of animals on a farm and told to "have fun" creating a story that was "interesting, creative or even funny" (stock image)

Psychologists at Goldsmiths, University of London used data from more than 1,300 sets of twins, assessing the stories the twins wrote at age nine on their creative content. The study also included measurements of intelligence and writing motivation, and academic achievement scores at ages nine, 12 and 16.

Children were asked to look at three pictures of animals and buildings on a farm and develop a story based on the pictures. They were told to ‘have fun making your story interesting, creative or even funny!’. The task was completed in family homes, with children supervised by their parents, and no time limit.

The stories were transcribed to remove the influence of handwriting style, then coded by researchers for creativity and nine other dimensions - liking, novelty, imagination, logic, emotion, grammar, detail, vocabulary and straightforwardness. 

Intelligence was measured using age-appropriate verbal and non-verbal tests. Motivation was measured by the responses participants and their parents gave to the question ‘how much do you (or your child) like writing’? School exam results, including GCSEs, were used to measure educational attainment at 12 and 16. 

There has long been a misconception that creativity is fixed from birth, determined by genes. This study, which also included genetic analyses, concluded that variance in creative expressiveness is only 35% attributable to genetic factors, with shared and non-shared environmental influences playing a greater proportion of the role in developing of creativity. Two-thirds of the variance in creativity was due to family-wide and individual specific environments. 

Intelligence, motivation, English at nine, English at 12, and English at 16 were influenced by genetic factors ranging from 25% to 68%. 

The results were in line with prior research which shows that heritability estimates for many cognitive abilities increase during development: it is possible, that as children grow older and have more autonomy, their genetic propensities contribute to them seeking out environments where creative activities are encouraged. 

A number of differences between male and female children were observed. At age nine, on average, girls scored higher than boys in both creative expressiveness and logic, which could reflect the fact girls also scored higher in their motivation for writing and English writing grade at this age. In adult samples, no consistent patterns of sex differences have emerged in creative cognition. 

Lead author Dr Teemu Toivainen, Lecturer in Psychology, said: “This research gives us information that can be used to plan educational content. We have shown that creativity can be detected in childhood writing, and that childhood creativity may be overlooked in early educational assessments. The results from the twin analyses are important indications on the role of environments in the development of creativity.

"Our findings show that it is important to recognise and encourage creativity in primary education. Opportunities to express and develop creativity can open new directions for students’ educational and future professional development. 

“Since creativity, intrinsic motivation and achievement are intertwined, undervaluing creativity and emphasising only technical aspects of writing may decrease the motivation to write creatively and, furthermore, writing in general.” 

Creative expressiveness in childhood writing predicts educational achievement beyond motivation and intelligence: A longitudinal, genetically informed study by Teemu Toivainen, Juan J Madrid-Valero, Robert Chapman, Andrew McMillan, Bonamy R. Oliver and Yulia Kovas was published in the December issue of the British Journal of Educational Psychology and online earlier this year. DOI: 

The article Creativity in education – and what twins can tell us about it? by Professor Yulia Kovas and Dr Teemu Toivainen was published by Researching Education in August 2021.