Young students love trying on adult identities, from police officer to scientist to rock star. But helping children understand the many roles they already play may improve their creativity and problem-solving skills.
A series of experiments published in the journal Developmental Science finds that children who are reminded that they have “multiple identities”—being a brother, a student, and a baseball player at the same time, for example—performed better at creative problem-solving tasks than peers in a control group. They also were more likely to go beyond basic gender and race when considering other people’s identities.
“You’re getting kids to think about themselves from a new perspective, and that new perspective is what shifts their ability to see these new associations to be more creative,” said Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and lead author of the article. “So it’s really, I think, a larger process of just getting someone to think bigger.”
Gaither and colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Chicago asked 6- and 7-year-olds to either consider several different identities or several different physical parts that they had “all at the same time.” Then, students were asked to perform tasks that required them to think creatively and use objects in unusual ways—using a upended bowl as a stepstool, for example—to solve problems. They were asked to group pictures of people in as many different ways as possible, and to consider whether paired pictures—such as a dog and a cat or a boy and a girl—could fit into the same category.
It turned out that children who had discussed their own different identities showed more creativity and open-mindedness across all of the tasks, compared with their peers who had only discussed their different physical features. They were more than four times as likely to think of unusual ways to solve problems, and about twice as likely to think beyond species, gender, or race when putting people or animals into categories.
Each individual experiment was small, with groups ranging from 48 to 76 children each, but the variations repeated the original findings. For example, the boost to children’s creativity and open-mindedness was stronger when they discussed their own identities, rather than imagining someone else’s, and it was also stronger when they considered their identities as “enduring traits” rather than preferences.
That’s a contrast to some prior studies that have found reminding students about an identity with a potentially negative stereotype—such as girls performing worse than boys in math—can hamstring their academic performance.
“Our default in society is to only think about ourselves with one identity in mind: so, a child thinks about just being a ‘black child’ in the classroom when really a black child is so much more than just their race, there’re a lot of components of their identity,” Gaither said. “What I think is exciting about this for any kid, regardless of their racial background, is just getting them to think a little differently about themselves and realize that they belong to multiple groups seems to boost this flexible thinking.”
The experiments focused on identities considered neutral or positive, and even among these, there were a few students who said they didn’t relate to being “a reader” or “a friend.” Those students had a harder time with the problem-solving tasks than students who had identified easily with all of the proposed identities, yet the students still benefited from thinking about themselves as “multifaceted.”
Allowing students to explore a mix of positive and negative identities they connect with “can still have the same positive effects, as long as those negative identities were not overtaking the child’s mindset,” Gaither said. “Reframing those negative identities in a positive way would be the next logical step for getting kids from underrepresented backgrounds to think about the unique benefits that they have.”
Gaither said she wouldn’t expect a one-time conversation about identities to make a lasting difference to students’ thinking, but “as long as these types of mindsets are put into curriculums on a weekly basis, that would probably show shifts across the classroom, not only from an individual problem-solving level, but also from an inclusion level.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.