How teachers influence creativity | VOX, CEPR Policy Portal

Teachers can exert a lasting influence on the results of their students, but it is difficult to measure this influence. This column assesses the impact of instructors in the context of Western musical composition over five centuries. The author finds that students resemble their teachers more than other contemporary composers and that this influence persists throughout the next two to three generations, as many students become teachers themselves, but subsequently begin to s fade. Students of high quality teachers are more likely to become higher quality composers, while emulating a low quality teacher reduces the chances of success later in life.

Ideas are essential to the production of any creative output, whether in the arts, sciences or business. However, because ideas are so elusive, little is known about how they are transmitted between people. Teachers, mentors and role models exert influence in many ways (Rivkin et al. 2005, Rocko 2004, Chetty et al. 2014, Waldinger 2010). However, in the creative professions, it is perhaps their creative or intellectual influence that matters most: how teachers shape a student’s skills and vision for craft, and in turn the nature of the work they produce. Teachers or professional leaders with broad reach can even affect the direction in which entire fields move.

Academic researchers can recognize the potential for this influence, reflecting on how they themselves have been shaped by where they received their graduate studies and the faculty who taught or advised their courses.

On the one hand, instruction by subject matter experts is essential for imparting basic principles and skills and for the ability to discern good from bad work. But it can also imbue students with the tastes and methods of a teacher who is outside the mainstream or does not meet contemporary standards. In the extreme, this influence can even cause the spread of bad ideas. Whether or not teachers and role models in creative fields leave an imprint on their students that shapes their future work is an empirical question.

In a new article (Borowiecki 2022), I explore this question in the context of Western musical composition over five centuries. Examining a historically significant cultural institution in a context where the composers’ musical lineage is well documented allows one to directly compare the content of their work and measure its enduring value. I develop a new approach to provide unique insights into how teachers influence their students’ creative work, how long this influence lasts, and the consequences on students’ inventive output.

Figure 1 Map of composers by place of birth in Europe

Remarks: The map shows the birthplace of European-born composers listed in Barlow and Morgenstern (1975, 1976). Data were collected by the authors (see Borowiecki 2022, section 4 for details).

Using unique data capturing key attributes of creative output for approximately 15,000 musical compositions by hundreds of composers, I calculate measures of similarity between pairs of composers (or between compositions) and confirm that students are more similar to their teachers than to other, unconnected, contemporary composers.

The influence is shown to linger through the next two to three generations in a composer’s musical line, as many students have become composition teachers themselves, but the effect subsequently begins to s fade. I also confirm the results by comparing unconnected students who had a teacher in common – these students are more similar to each other than to other contemporary composers.

I then explore the consequences of the observed influence to try to determine if the influence is a good thing. Does it make only the good ideas persist, or the bad ones as well? My results indicate that students who imitated a high-quality teacher more were themselves more likely to become higher-quality composers. On the other hand, increased imitation of a poor quality teacher reduces students’ chances of success later in life. This highlights the importance of choosing the right role model.

It becomes clear that the ideas in circulation are not always good; indeed, certain ideas and practices transmitted can be detrimental to a young person’s success. This poses an additional challenge for the student, who may need to carefully filter and identify best practices for themselves. These observations carry particular weight given the potentially long-term nature of the influence felt early in a person’s life or career.

The findings have implications for our understanding of the production of creative or intellectual output, particularly around questions of where ideas come from; why some ideas are produced rather than others, and by whom; and what the consequences might be. These questions are of general interest and also have important implications for the market.

The references

Borowiecki, KJ (2022), “Good reverbs? Influence of teachers in musical composition since 1450”, Journal of Political Economy, future.

Chetty, R, JN Friedman and JE Rocko (2014), “Measuring Teacher Impact: Assessing Bias in Estimates of Teacher Added Value”, American Economic Review 104(9): 2593–2632.

Lucas, RE (2008), “Ideas and Growth”, NBER Technical Report 14133.

Rivkin, SG, EA Hanushek and JF Kain (2005), “Teachers, Schools and Academic Achievement”, Econometrics 73(2): 417–458.

Rocko, JE (2004), “The impact of individual teachers on student achievement: evidence from panel data”, American Economic Review 94(2): 247-252.

Waldinger, F (2010), “Quality Matters: The Expulsion of Professors and the Consequences for PhD Student Outcomes in Nazi Germany”, Journal of Political Economy 118(4): 787–831.

Comments are closed.