How to think about CREATIVITY in education…* { Part 1 }

In our modern individualist society that so values innovation, it seems obvious that we want to cultivate creativity in the educational system and to promote creative minds. However, the term “creativity” is often thrown around willy-nilly, without enough clarification of what is actually meant.

One useful definition of creativity is that it is what happens when someone does something new that is also useful, generative, or influential. However, as argued by one of my favorite professors, Dr. Michael Hanchett Hanson, creativity is an evolving concept that can be approached in a variety of ways. Researchers study how people think when they are being creative, what personality traits correlate with creativity, the importance of creativity in living a fulfilling life, the important of creativity for innovation in society, the environmental and contextual factors that relate to creative activity, and the ways in which groups or systems can cultivate creativity. All of these perspectives have some tie in to how we use this word in education.

In a 2013 book chapter, Dr. Hanson outlines six ideas for how educators should (and shouldn’t) be thinking about creativity. Today I’m going to talk about the first two ideas: what is divergent thinking and how is it useful, and the idea that creativity is actually hard work.

#1 “Divergent Thinking is not enough  — and may not even be necessary. Divergent thinking (DT) assumes that creativity is a general cognitive ability that is a “sot trait” – one that you are born with but can be enhanced through education. It can be tested (there are both written and figural versions of the measure) and your scores are based off of how many different, elaborate, and original ideas you can come up with. In the past few years, research has suggested that  students are on average scoring lower on some tests of divergent thinking (Kim, 2011), and these findings have been widely publicized as illustrating a ‘creativity crisis’ in America.

However,  DT is  really intended as a measure of creative potential, and studies of people over their lifetimes have shown mixed results between actual creative careers or accomplishments and early childhood DT scores. Also, some research shows that most of your DT score can be accounted for by IQ.

More importantly, being able to think of a lot of ideas isn’t necessarily what being creative is all about. Case study research of creative people suggests that coming up with a few good ideas is more important than being able to brainstorm 100s of crazy ones. Another issue with DT tests is that they assume that creativity is a general ability, but a lot of research suggests that it is actually very domain-specific. People who are very creative in one respect are often not at all creative in another (e.g., a poet could be terrible a math puzzles).

How does this relate to education? Going back to the so-called “creativity crisis,” Dr. Hanson believes this is likely more of a reflection of students’ decline in paper-and-pencil drawing tasks due to the increase in technology in education. Furthermore, DT has such weak links to actual creative acts that these score changes are likely not indicative of anything.

However, Dr. Hanson suggests that using DT-like activities such as brainstorming can be useful in the classroom. While students’ abilities on these tasks are not necessarily reflective of creativity and studies show that brainstorming usually provided no more good ideas than individual would on their own, the act of group brainstorming introduces students to useful learning strategies, produces collaboration, and allows for new ways of thinking about a problem.

Personally, this research was interesting since the design thinking process places such an emphasis on ideation, which is largely a DT task. I think the important take home is that merely coming up with a ton of zany ideas is not enough, it is following through on a good idea and seeing it to fruition that is truly indicative of creativity.

#2 Creativity is Work

As discussed above, creativity cannot be reduced to scores on a test of divergent thinking. The second perspective on creativity is that it involves hard work and commitment. Creative people organize their entire lives around long term creative purposes, and creative work occurs only after a certain level of expertise has been achieved.

Conductor at Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – Maria Schweitzer

Dr. Hanson considers this an “in-the-box” perspective, and this is an important distinction to make. While layperson understanding of creativity often talks about thinking “outside the box”, a lot of research on creativity actually finds that creative thinking is really inside the box, at least for the person coming up with the idea. Divergent thinking research is about coming up with flashy new ideas, but in actuality, we find that people who are doing truly creative work (remember this means that is is both novel AND useful/influential/generative) are spending years developing expertise and cultivating lives that surround their creative interests. The “big creative insight” is often a somewhat logical conclusion for a creative person, that occurs through a combination of long-term observation and the unique perspective of that person’s skills and expertise.

This view of creativity prescribes student-centered, more open-ended classroom activities, and therefore meshes very well with constructivist pedagogy (education based on the premise that students are active meaning makers). Lessons and activities that teach students how to think and cultivate metacognition will help students develop the skills necessary to develop long-lasting commitments to creative endeavors. Allowing students choice in WHAT they are studying will help them find their passions and develop expertise.


There is far more to say about creativity, and I look forward to sharing additional perspectives with you. Stay tuned for next week’s post where I will discuss how creative people can be difficult (especially when trying to maintain order in the classroom) and about the ways in which a community can collaboratively foster creativity.



Hanson, M. H. (2013). CREATIVITY THEORY AND EDUCATIONAL PRACTICE: WHY ALL THE FUSS?. The Creative Imperative: School Librarians and Teachers Cultivating Curiosity Together, 19.

Kim, K. H. (2011). The creativity crisis: The decrease in creative thinking scors on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23 (4), 285-295.



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