Developing creative capacities

Series Editor: Michael Theall, Youngstown State University
Authors: Jennifer Franklin, University of Arizona; Michael Theall, Youngstown State University

In education, “creativity” is a term we all understand in ordinary parlance, though we may have little knowledge of the scientific research associated with it. Craft’s (1) review of creativity in education offers a user-friendly overview of sixty years of literature. We will touch on a few highlights along with other studies that demonstrate the potential of exploring this literature as a basis for reflecting on one’s teaching practices.

Hoyt (2) notes that,

Creativity connotes originality, imagination, and expressiveness. While it is often associated with the fine arts and literature, it is often relevant to aspects of science, engineering, and other fields where design, research, and innovation are required. The instructional challenge is to help students to develop their creative potential. “Creativity” requires flexibility and divergence in thinking – new ways of thinking or expressing oneself; pursuing questions for which there is no single, correct answer. It implies a stretching and expansion of the students’ thoughts and ideas and the development of original insights. For these reasons, it often requires overcoming fear and encouraging self-confidence. (p. 3)

Much insight into the nature of creativity has come from the study of personality and factors that influence it. For example, Brolin (3) attributes the following characteristics to the creative person:

  • strong motivation
  • endurance
  • intellectual curiosity
  • deep commitment
  • independence in thought and action
  • strong desire for self-realization
  • strong sense of self
  • strong self-confidence
  • openness to impressions from within and without
  • attracted to complexity and obscurity
  • high sensitivity
  • high capacity for emotional involvement in their investigations

Creativity as a cognitive construct is multifaceted and has been represented from many perspectives as an aspect of intelligence, as problem solving ability, as an associative or even an unconscious process, and has also been connected to wide ranging constructs such as thinking in opposites, analogies and metaphors, intuition, inspiration, imagination, intelligence, various processes of mental representation, specific perceptions processes, and finding and solving problems (4).

Craft (1) notes that the 1980’s and 1990’s saw an important shift away from an emphasis on developing measures of creative ability to understanding the creative mind in terms of intellectual abilities such as those described by Gardner (5) (for example, synthetic ability, analytic ability, and practical ability) and in terms of discipline or domain specific understandings of creative processes. Thus, identifying creativity research in your own discipline is an especially important opportunity for understanding what instructional strategies might best foster its development.

Bloom’s revised taxonomy (6, 7) includes creativity as the highest level of cognition, defining it as, “Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing” (7, p. 21). This definition broadens the cognitive domain considerably because it treats creating as an intellectual process rather than the product of some intangible inspiration. Even when a burst of creative activity seems to come from “out of the blue,” its foundation is in the creator’s accumulated ideas, concepts, and processes – those things that come from experience and training as well as intuition.

Helpful Hints

One notable limitation to the generalizability of educational research on creativity is that much has been conducted in K-12 settings. That said, the pedagogical approaches to creativity that appeared to work best included:

  • having adequate space and time;
  • fostering self-esteem and self-worth;
  • mentoring in creative approaches;
  • involving learners in higher level thinking skills;
  • encouraging the expression of ideas through a wide variety of media and means of expression;
  • encouraging interdisciplinary integration of subject areas via topics that are meaningful and relevant to the learner (8).

Another important change of direction is understanding creativity as a social process. Thinking of the classroom as an organization and understanding how a creative climate is perceived by individuals in an organization can provide insights into action items for the teacher who would foster creativity, especially those teachers who aim for social learning and espouse constructivist pedagogies. Craft (1) suggests that creative students:

  • are challenged by their goals, operations, and tasks;
  • take initiatives and find relevant information;
  • interact with others;
  • meet new ideas with support and encouragement, and put forward new ideas and views;
  • debate in a status-free, open environment; and
  • tolerate uncertainty and take risks.

For teachers, an understanding of creativity allows the development of activities and experiences that require students to assemble, disassemble, and transform prior learning, and to combine it with new knowledge and skills to form unique conceptions or products. For example, one might ask students in an English class to create a series of metaphors or to rewrite a famous quotation in two or three new ways that either retain the original meaning or suggest new interpretations. In engineering, one might ask students to reproduce a two-dimensional drawing from a new perspective and in three dimensions, or to “build a better mousetrap” given a set of raw materials. In any case, having students transform or produce something requires them to exercise a series of complex cognitive processes. One advantage of collaborative learning as a tool for developing creative capacities is that in collaborative tasks, students must exchange ideas about how to carry out the assignments and they must also debate the merits of proposed ideas. Such dialogue fosters creativity and adds a practical dimension as well.

IDEA research has identified a number of teaching methods that are related to Objective 6. Although this objective is largely selected by faculty teaching in creative-writing and arts-related disciplines, the items are consistent with current thinking about teaching for creativity in other disciplines.

Analysis of IDEA data shows that each of the following teaching methods was related to students’ reports of success in developing creative capacities:

  • Item 7. Explained the reasons for criticisms of students’ academic performance
  • Item 15. Inspired students to set and achieve goals which really challenged them
  • Item 19. Gave projects, tests, or assignments that required original or creative thinking
  • Item 2. Found ways to help students answer their own questions
  • Item 13. Introduced stimulating ideas about the subject
  • Item 16. Asked students to shared ideas and experiences with others whose backgrounds and viewpoints differed from their own
  • Item 18. Asked students to help each other understand ideas or concepts

Although not consistently observed across all class sizes, two additional items were associated with students’ self-reports of progress.

  • Item 1. Displayed personal interest in students and their learning (small classes only)
  • Item 8. Stimulated students to intellectual effort beyond that required by most courses (small and medium classes only)

Feedback from these particular items should be helpful in most disciplinary settings where Objective 6 is truly crucial. For example, the items essentially ask whether the students got useful feedback about their own performance compared with standards for achievement; whether there were bona fide opportunities or demands for creativity; and whether students were actually encouraged to challenge themselves (to be creative). In the first case, it stands to reason that students must understand how their own performance compares to standards for creativity if they are to learn to recognize what creative performance or production is. However, this may be a challenge in its own right since explicit grading standards can actually constrain creativity in some circumstances by tipping students off to features the teacher most values, when an authentically creative solution may be divergent.

However, with experience, examples of methods for fostering creativity drawn from teaching strategies used in other disciplines can become a source of inspiration for new, creative approaches to teaching. Item 2 (found ways to help students answer their own questions) can be understood by considering the contrary – providing answers stifles originality. Similarly, Item 13 (introduced stimulating ideas about the subject) should be an important tactic in raising student interest. Many of the correlated items, such as those that include peer interaction (Items 16 and 18) appear to emphasize motivating and engaging students. However, the social content of Item 18 suggests another aspect, facilitating flexible and divergent thinking, which would presumably come from interaction with others who have different experiences and perspectives.

Assessment Issues

The odds are if you are giving students the kind of feedback they need to succeed, you will learn how to better facilitate that learning as well. Well-crafted assessment practices provide that opportunity. However, the assessment of creativity as a learning outcome has inherently subjective quality because its defining marks in any domain are the production of original, appropriate, and contextually valuable ideas, concepts, or work products. Although it may seem counterintuitive, finding ways to share assessment criteria with students in terms that can be reliably observed and productively discussed is central to helping students learn to assess their own creative process and work. Ironically, however, much like the challenge “be spontaneous!”, overly explicit rubrics can constrain originality. Giving helpful feedback without discouraging or demoralizing students inherently involves risk taking for teachers and students.

Assessment strategies can include creating questions for students to help in gauging the “feedback climate” and the clarity with which you communicate assessment standards. Below are some hints about assessment of both the effectiveness of teaching behaviors and students’ accomplishment of creative objectives.

Assessing Teaching That Promotes Creativity

It is not a coincidence that a high degree of creativity on the part of the teacher is required to find productive instructional strategies and methods when complex, multidimensional learning outcomes are concerned. To develop this skill, you might begin with a working theory about what you are doing to facilitate a particular kind of learning in the circumstances in which you teach, especially considering your students’ characteristics such as motivation, prior learning, etc. and the unique task and content demands of your discipline’s knowledge domain.

As an informal illustration of this kind of thinking, we draw examples from the Imaginative Curriculum Project, developed to train teachers in the United Kingdom (9). In an open facilitative approach to develop students’ creative capacity, effective teachers do certain things which can be observed and assessed. Here are some examples ofteacher behaviors followed by suggestions for assessing those behaviors (in italics).

  • Demonstrate their own creativity and provide a role model.
    Ask students about the credibility and value of the teacher (or others) as a creative role model
  • Are prepared to take risks themselves.
    For example, if you risk giving less explicit instruction in order to avoid inhibiting creativity, you may want to ask if students felt they needed more or less explicit instructions.
  • Are prepared to reveal something of themselves in the teaching process.
    Do students actually perceive what was revealed? For example, if the teacher intentionally reveals insecurity about a particular skill for strategic reasons, it’s fair to ask how that revelation made students feel (encouraged, alienated, confused, etc).
  • Act as guides, coaches and facilitators.
    Did students have respect for, belief in, or appreciation of the teacher in a coaching or facilitative role versus an authoritative, directing role?
  • Adopt a questioning approach to learning.
    For example, ask whether students expect to receive answers instead of finding them for themselves.
  • Are prepared to let students make mistakes.
    Inquire about the students ‘perception of risk’ (real and imaginary) associated with making mistakes.
  • Create opportunities for problem or inquiry-based approaches to learning.
    Ask whether the students found the problem engaging, had the time and resources to complete the problem, if collaborative, the impact of peers on progress, etc.
  • Are sensitive to the balance between challenge and reinforcement.
    Directly address these issues by gauging the level of perceived challenges and rewards.
  • Are sensitive to the balance between freedom and control.
    Ask about freedom versus control concerning the amount and timing of each.
  • Are responsive to students as a group and as individuals.
    Ask questions about quality and quantity of the teacher’s responsiveness to students.
  • Adapt their teaching as new possibilities emerge.
    Was the teacher flexible and adaptable? This presumes that getting to know students reveals interests which create possibilities for increasing relevance on an individualized basis.

Assessing Learning Outcomes

Students’ self-report of learning on Objective 6 and their actual achievement of learning outcomes provide two kinds of feedback for understanding your teaching effectiveness. Other sources of data such as Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATS) (10), documentation (like videotaped class sessions), and feedback from skilled observers and experienced colleagues can extend your knowledge as well.

For example, Angelo and Cross (10) offer six strategies for assessing student skill in synthesis and creative thinking, and another four to assess problem solving skills (see pp. 183-230). When using feedback from classroom observers or experienced colleagues, it is critical to plan ahead and to specify the intended outcomes, identify the desired teacher and student behaviors, activities, and tasks, and describe the indicators the observer should be looking for. If you use IDEA, the observer should also be familiar with the IDEA instrument and should look for evidence of the teaching behaviors described in the Helpful Hints above. The same care and planning applies to the use and review of video documentation. Together, the teaching method items associated with Objective 6, your own additional student questions (asked either using IDEA extra questions or another survey), and observer comments can offer you a unique window on students’ learning experiences and their attitudes toward you, themselves as learners, your teaching practices and your course design.

References and Resources

  1. Craft, A. (2001). An analysis of research and literature on creativity in education: A report prepared for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
  2. Hoyt, D.P. (2002). Some thoughts on selecting IDEA objectives. Manhattan, KS: The IDEA Center. Retrieved July 10, 2007 from Some Thoughts on Selecting IDEA Objectives
  3. Brolin, C. (1992). Kreativitet och kritiskt tandande. Redsckap for framtidsberedskap. [Creativity and critical thinking.Tools for preparedness for the future.] in Krut, 53, 64-71.
  4. Ryhammar, L., & Brolin, C. (1999). Creativity research: Historical considerations and main lines of development. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 43(3), 259-273.
  5. Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: HarperCollins.
  6. Dettmer, P. (2006). New blooms in established fields: Four domains of learning and doing. Roeper Review, 28(2), 70-78, Winter. For two graphic representations of the revised taxonomy, see also Retrieved July 10, 2007.
  7. Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives: Complete edition. New York: Longman.
  8. For example, see the following retrieved July 10, 2007.
    The Journal of Creative Behavior for articles on creativity in many disciplines.
    Information about “creativity support tools at:
    A report of a National Science Foundation-funded engineering creativity project at:
  9. Imaginative Curriculum Project. Retrieved July 10, 2007 from
  10. Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Related POD-IDEA Center Notes

  • IDEA Item #1 “Displayed a personal interest in students and their learning,” Virginia S. Lee
  • IDEA Item #2 “Found ways to help students answer their own questions,” Nancy McClure
  • IDEA Item #7 “Explained the reasons for criticisms of students’ academic performance,” Barbara E. Walvoord
  • IDEA Item #8 “Stimulated students to intellectual effort beyond that required by most courses,” Nancy McClure
  • IDEA Item #13 “Introduced stimulating ideas about the subject,” Michael Theall
  • IDEA Item #15 “Inspired students to set and achieve goals which really challenged them,” Todd Zakrajsek
  • IDEA Item #16 “Asked students to share ideas and experiences with others whose backgrounds and viewpoints differ from their own,” Jeff King
  • IDEA Item #18 “Asked students to help each other understand ideas or concepts,” Jeff King
  • IDEA Item #19 “Gave projects, tests, or assignments that required original or creative thinking,” Cynthia Desrochers

Resources for teaching creativity in specific disciplines