Creativity In The Classroom

Mindshifts, Geoffrey Caine et al.

Most educators and theorists define creativity as a tendency, stronger in some individuals than in others, that can be learned and practiced as a skill.

Many writers on creativity and creative thought agree about several of the elements of creativity: motivation and self-awareness, flexible and original thinking, the tendency to take risks and ask questions, and the ability to imagine not just an alternative solution to a problem but a workable, achievable result.

Educators also agree that, while some of the elements of creativity may be inborn, creativity can and should be taught.

Defining Creativity

That teachable skill, creativity, has been defined in many ways. It has been called

  • A “mentalactivity performed in situations where there is no prior correct solution or answer” (Encyclopedia of Creativity, 2, “Teaching Creativity”)
  • A “processof developing new, uncommon, or unique ideas”
  • The “generationof novel, useful ideas”

No one idea of creativity fits all fields of endeavor. Creativity calls on cognitive and non-cognitive skills, curiosity, intuition, and doggedness. Creative solutions can be created or discovered, in a flash or over a period of decades.

At one time creativity was thought of as a culture-changing product of a genius like Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, or Steve Jobs. Over the past several years, however, emphasis on such phenomena, sometimes called “Big-C” creativity, has given way to an interest in what is called “little-c” or everyday creativity, a process in which many can and do participate.

Creativity does not arise in a vacuum; it requires a certain degree of both general knowledge and field-specific knowledge. This is clearly true if we think of creativity as a form of innovation – we cannot know what is novel without a sense of what is already known in any area.

Researchers who have attempted to measure creativity or creative aptitude use similar terms to describe it, including:

  • Fluency (number of ideas generated)
  • Originality and imagination (unusual, unique, novel ideas)
  • Elaboration (ability to explain ideas in detail)
  • Flexibility, curiosity, resistance to closure (ability to generate multiple solutions)
  • Complexity (detail and implications of ideas; recognition of patterns, similarities and differences)
  • Risk taking (willingness to be wrong and to admit it)

Barriers to creativity can be cultural (Am I supposed to stick my neck out?), emotional (Perhaps I can’t do this), or related to language and field (We don’t use metaphors here, we use data).

Elements of creativity

The elements of creativity are sometimes generalized as cognitive, affective, personal and motivational, and social or environmental. Among these, cognitive and affective elements are arguably most important. The cognitive aspects of creativity include basic knowledge (both general and field-specific), perceptiveness, originality, attraction to complexity (e.g., combining, analyzing, and applying different, disparate ideas or concepts), open-mindedness (e.g., resistance to closure, and awareness of creativity. Affective elements include curiosity, humor, independence, and risk-taking.

According to Teresa Amabile, the elements of creativity are interconnected: each is caused by and causes the others (Figure 1).

To some extent, creativity is a function of the will. As Karlyn Adams explains in Sources of Innovation and Creativity: A Summary of the Research, “an explicit decision to be creative, along with a meta-cognitive awareness of the creative process” can do much to enhance “long-term creative results”.

Adams argues that motivation, in additional to foundational knowledge and thinking skills, is essential to creativity (Figure 2). The creative person is intrinsically motivated (that is, moved by the work itself and not by some external recognition or reward), with a passion for his or her field. Energy and persistence are central to creative accomplishment, as is self-confidence. One’s internal sense of self and ability to manage the ups and downs of novel, cutting-edge thinking are also important components of creativity.

Some personal aspects of creativity lie in the area of innate talent rather than acquired ability, as with gifted artists, poets, and inventors.  Other aspects can be refined or generated through education, for example a preference for building new concepts when confronted with novel experiences rather than trying always to make new ideas fit old theories (see KuhnRunko).

According to Adams, the social climate is also an important element of creativity. A “non-threatening, non-controlling climate” is a good one for “combination and recombination” of ideas. Because faculty can do much to shape the learning environment, faculty have many opportunities to foster creativity. Faculty behaviors that may foster or enhance creativity include:

  • Modeling: Share your thinking with students; explain how you create or combine ideas
  • Communicating expectations: Let students know that creative ideas are expected and welcome
  • Reinforcement: Applaud creative thinking, even (or especially) when an idea does not succeed

Fostering creativity

Faculty can foster or encourage creativity in many ways, from course design to assignments to establishing a classroom atmosphere. One of the simplest ways to encourage creativity (or any other kind of learning, in fact) is to signal approval through verbal responses, physical responses (moving, raising one’s voice), and responding with appropriate energy. Giving quick, specific feedback is also essential. Examples of specific ways to encourage student behaviors appear in the Virtual Classroom Visit with Professor Michael Clough.

Another simple way to encourage creativity is to tell your students about, and perhaps offer extra credit for participation in, out-of-class groups and activities that reinforce learning and thinking in your course. Some well-known examples are the Block & Bridle Club, theSociety of Automotive Engineers, the Writers’ Guild of ISU and theSociety of Chemistry Undergraduate Majors (SCUM). There are many more registered student organizations at Iowa State University which may be useful partners in promoting student creativity.

A central means of fostering creativity is through your course planning. Consider what your students need in the area of declarative knowledge (facts, concepts, terminology), and what they can gain by practicing procedural knowledge (inquiry, reasoning, and metacognition) (Kurfiss). Plan with the end in mind (Wiggins & McTighe). That is, think first of what you want students to know and be able to do at the end of the course, then design toward those goals. Do you want your students to be creative at synthesizing their knowledge, extending it, explaining it to others? Are you after elegance in design, efficiency, speed, or some combination of these? Some other course outcomes linked to creativity include recognizing and solving problems (or opportunities), managing ambiguity and uncertainty, and feeling comfortable with change.

Once your course design is complete, build assignments that permit students to develop their procedural knowledge and especially to practice the elements of metacognition (drafting and practicing, trying out, assessing and revising) (Quallmalz & Hoskyn). These can range from simple team-building exercises to complex, open-ended problems that require a semester to solve.

Level of challenge

To make the most of student’s creativity, plan assignments and activities that challenge students but do not overwhelm them. Generally, learning is “inhibited by threat and enhanced by challenge” (Caine, xvii). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s pioneering work on the concept of “flow” persuaded him that that seemingly effortless creative state occurs when high levels of ability and high levels of challenge. For Csikszentmihalyi, achieving a state of “flow” requires that the actor (or learner) have clear goals and expectations, a degree of skill and chance to focus on practicing the skill, and direct and immediate feedback.


Heuristics are techniques for creative thinking and generating ideas. Commonly used heuristics include brainstorming, making sketches, forming analogies, and free writing. Other heuristics often used in education include

Examine both sides of a topic or argument
Find and identify points of agreement, disagreement, irrelevance
Take account of other people’s views
Label items in an argument with plus, minus, or interesting; discuss

There are many websites offering techniques for creative thinking and divergent thinkingInfusing Creativity into Academic Content offers a variety of heuristics and how to implement them in class. Many examples are from primary and secondary education but can also be applied to college-level learning.


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