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How to Develop Student Creativity

by Robert J. Sternberg and Wendy M. Williams


Copyright © 1996 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from ASCD.


Introduction: Theory of Creativity

"Alice is brilliant, but she doesn't have a drop of creative talent."

"Barbara is wonderfully creative, but she does poorly on standardized tests."

"Carlos always has interesting approaches to problems, but he just doesn't fit into the traditional school environment."

How many times have we, as teachers, administrators, researchers, or parents, heard remarks like these? And how many times have we concluded that abilities are etched in stone, inexplicable, and unchangeable? You can learn and teach creative thinking by using the 25 strategies that we describe in this book. Use these strategies to develop creativity in yourself, in your students, and in your colleagues and staff members. Our strategies are based on the investment theory, a psychological theory of creativity, but any one strategy is consistent with many other theories. Read about other views of creativity to see how different views lead to similar recommendations for developing creativity (Amabile 1983, Boden 1992, Gardner 1993, Ghiselin 1985, Gruber 1981, John-Steiner 1987, Rubenson and Runco 1992, Simonton 1988, Sternberg 1988a).

Buying Low and Selling High

The investment theory of creativity (Sternberg and Lubart 1995) asserts that creative thinkers are like good investors: They buy low and sell high. Whereas investors do so in the world of finance, creative people do so in the world of ideas. Creative people generate ideas that are like undervalued stocks (stocks with a low price-to-earning ratio), and both are generally rejected by the public. When creative ideas are proposed, they are often viewed as bizarre, useless, and even foolish, and are summarily rejected, and the person proposing them regarded with suspicion and perhaps even disdain and derision.

Creative ideas are both novel and valuable. Why, then, are they rejected? Because the creative innovator stands up to vested interests and defies the crowd and its interests. The crowd does not maliciously or willfully reject creative notions; rather it does not realize, and often does not want to realize, that the proposed idea represents a valid and superior way of thinking. The crowd generally perceives opposition to the status quo as annoying, offensive, and reason enough to ignore innovative ideas.

Evidence abounds that creative ideas are rejected (Sternberg and Lubart 1995). Initial reviews of major works of literature and art are often negative. Toni Morrison's Tar Baby received negative reviews when it was first published, as did Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. The first exhibition in Munich of the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, opened and closed the same day because of the strong negative response from the critics. Some of the greatest scientific papers are rejected by not one but several journals before being published. John Garcia, a distinguished biopsychologist, was summarily denounced when he first proposed that classical conditioning could be produced in a single trial of learning (Garcia and Koelling 1966).

From the investment view, then, the creative person buys low by presenting a unique idea and attempts to convince other people of its value. After convincing others that the idea is worthy, which increases the perceived value of the investment, the creative person sells high by leaving the idea to others and moving to another idea. Although people typically want others to love their ideas, immediate universal applause for an idea usually indicates that it is not particularly creative.

Foster creativity by buying low and selling high in the world of ideas—defy the crowd. Creativity is as much an attitude toward life as a matter of ability. We routinely witness creativity in young children, but it is hard to find in older children and adults because their creative potential has been suppressed by a society that encourages intellectual conformity. We begin to suppress children's natural creativity when we expect them to color within the lines in their coloring books.

Balancing Analytic, Synthetic, and Practical Abilities

Creative work requires applying and balancing three abilities that can all be developed (Sternberg 1985, 1988b; Sternberg and Lubart 1995).

* * *

Creativity requires a balance among synthetic, analytic, and practical abilities. The person who is only synthetic may come up with innovative ideas, but cannot recognize or sell them. The person who is only analytic may be an excellent critic of other people's ideas, but is not likely to generate creative ideas. The person who is only practical may be an excellent salesperson, but is as likely to sell ideas or products of little or no value as to sell genuinely creative ideas.

Encourage and develop creativity by teaching students to find a balance among synthetic, analytic, and practical thinking. A creative attitude is at least as important as creative-thinking skills (Schank 1988)—just ask a teacher for a self-description. I've never heard a teacher self-described as a suppressor of creativity. The majority of teachers want to encourage creativity in their students, but they are not sure how to do so. Those teachers and you can use the 25 strategies presented in this book to develop creativity in yourselves, your students, and others around you.

Using just a few of our 25 strategies based on the investment theory of creativity (Sternberg and Lubart 1995) can produce results in yourself as well as in others. Although we present the strategies in terms of teachers and students, they apply equally to administrators working with teachers, parents working with children, or people trying to develop their own creativity. The strategies are easy to use and are outlined in Figure 1.

Figure 1. 25 Ways to Develop Creativity
    The Prerequisites
  1. Modeling Creativity
  2. Building Self-Efficacy


  3. Basic Techniques
  4. Questioning Assumptions
  5. Defining and Redefining Problems
  6. Encouraging Idea Generation
  7. Cross-Fertilizing Ideas


  8. Tips for Teaching
  9. Allowing Time for Creative Thinking
  10. Instructing and Assessing Creativity
  11. Rewarding Creative Ideas and Products


  12. Avoid Roadblocks
  13. Encouraging Sensible Risks
  14. Tolerating Ambiguity
  15. Allowing Mistakes
  16. Identifying and Surmounting Obstacles


  17. Add Complex Techniques
  18. Teaching Self-Responsibility
  19. Promoting Self-Regulation
  20. Delaying Gratification


  21. Use Role Models
  22. Using Profiles of Creative People
  23. Encouraging Creative Collaboration
  24. Imagining Other Viewpoints


  25. Explore The Environment
  26. Recognizing Environmental Fit
  27. Finding Excitement
  28. Seeking Stimulating Environments
  29. Playing to Strengths


  30. The Long-Term Perspective
  31. Growing Creatively
  32. Proselytizing for Creativity



1. The Prerequisites

A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.

—Frank Capra

There is a correlation between the creative and the screwball. So we must suffer the screwball gladly.

—Kingman Brewster

Modeling Creativity

The most powerful way to develop creativity in your students is to be a role model. Children develop creativity not when you tell them to, but when you show them.

The teachers you most remember from your school days are not those who crammed the most content into their lectures. The teachers you remember are those whose thoughts and actions served as your role model. Most likely they balanced teaching content with teaching you how to think with and about that content.

Williams' most memorable teacher was a college professor of modern American poetry. His message was that each of his students had the talent to write poetry and that each of us would be writing it by the end of the term. His enthusiasm was contagious, and his teaching was spiced with advice on how to start a poem or an essay ("spill the beans!") and how to write succinctly ("write the way you talk—but without the repetition!"). He encouraged us to write poems in the forms of the great poets and then to develop our own styles. He read our poems aloud to the class (without identifying the author) and criticized and praised our work.

By the end of the term we were all writing poetry, much of it quite good, almost all of it better than we had thought possible. The professor was a role model for supporting creative performance—he was not judgmental, he encouraged new ideas, he praised what worked, he explained what didn't work, and he believed in every student. He used specific techniques to encourage us, but Williams remembers his enthusiasm and personal example.

* * *

Occasionally, we'll teach a workshop on developing creativity and someone inevitably asks exactly how to develop creativity. Bad start. We can get you started, but we can't tell you precisely what to do or how to do it. You cannot follow a recipe for developing creativity—first, because there is none; second, because such a recipe would provide uncreative role-modeling. Instead, follow the guidelines in this book and show students your creative process to encourage them in their own creative thinking.

Serving as a role model for creative behavior is essential if you expect students and colleagues to engage in creative behavior. So think carefully about your values, goals, and ideas about creativity. It takes work to model creative thinking in action, but you don't have to be a creative genius. A terrific field-trip idea—or better, encouraging your students to think of one—is a good start. Students watch and respond to your example more than to your words. When teaching for creativity, the first rule is to remember that students follow what you do, not what you say. You can't simply talk the talk and expect results, you have to walk the walk.

Building Self-Efficacy

The main limitation on what students can do is what they think they can't do. All students have the capacity to be creators and to experience the joy associated with making something new, but first you must give them a strong base for creativity. Sometimes teachers and parents unintentionally limit what students can do by sending messages that express or imply limits on students' potential accomplishments.

Gratuitous advice kills both initiative and self-confidence and is often incorrect. Such advice may be overt or covert communication about a person not having the ability to do certain kinds of things, or the personality to do other kinds of things, or the motivation to complete something. Let your students know that they possess the ability to meet all of life's challenges—their job is to decide how hard they will work to meet the challenges.

Much—arguably most—of what we can't do in life is because we tell ourselves we can't (often because someone told us that we couldn't and we believed that person). Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) told teachers that psychological testing revealed that some of their students were going to bloom during the next year. The randomly chosen potential bloomers did perform better than the other students, a result sometimes called the Pygmalion effect. Some investigators argue over details of the methodology used in the Rosenthal and Jacobson experiments, but few argue with the conclusions. Just setting an expectation is often enough to make it come true. Students can do pretty much whatever they make up their minds to do within natural limitations—what holds them back is a set of beliefs about their limitations.

We observed effects similar to those revealed by the Rosenthal and Jacobson experiments. Tommy was a big a problem in the 5th grade. His teacher complained about him constantly and bitterly. Tommy performed poorly academically, misbehaved in class, fought with other children, and talked back to the teacher. The teacher responded by frequently sending Tommy out of the class for remedial training, reasoning that Tommy didn't belong in a mainstream class because he lacked basic intelligence.

A remarkable thing happened to Tommy in 6th grade. His behavior, grades, and attendance improved. He stopped talking during class and interrupting the teacher, and he was rarely confrontational. He was a nicer kid and his appearance was neater and cleaner. Several factors were involved, but Tommy's new teacher was key to his transformation. At the start of the year, his 6th-grade teacher explained to us that she had been warned about a few children, especially Tommy. But she believed that Tommy's behavior problems prevented him from displaying academic competence. Tommy was verbal, as this teacher noted, and simply had to learn to use his oral skills for schoolwork.

While correcting Tommy's behavior, his 6th-grade teacher let him know that she felt he was capable of succeeding in school. When he performed poorly on a homework assignment, she explained to Tommy that he didn't have the preparation that the other students had experienced and that he should redo the task to develop his skills. She stopped sending him for remedial training because of the stigma associated with it. Instead, she worked with Tommy and let him know she believed in him. When the other children laughed at Tommy, the teacher pointed out that everyone makes mistakes. In defending him and allowing him to redo assignments, she made Tommy feel positive about himself. Tommy eventually proved capable of strikingly creative work, partly due to believing in himself. Recently Tommy announced to us that he loves school because he knows he can be good at it—quite a switch from 5th grade.


Copyright © 1996 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. All rights reserved.



2. Learning Basic Techniques

No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time. It is just that others are behind the time.

—Martha Graham

Creativeness often consists of merely turning up what is already there. Did you know that right and left shoes were thought up only a little more than a century ago?

—Bernice Fitz-Gibbon

Questioning Assumptions

We all have assumptions. Often we don't know we have these assumptions because they are widely shared. Creative people question those assumptions and eventually lead others to do the same. When Copernicus suggested that Earth revolves around the sun, the suggestion was viewed as preposterous because everyone could see that the sun revolves around Earth. Galileo's ideas, including the relative rates of falling objects, caused him to be banned as a heretic.

Sometimes it's not until many years later that the crowd realizes the limitations or errors of their assumptions and the value of the creative person's thoughts. The impetus of those who question assumptions allow for cultural, technological, and other forms of advancement.

Teachers can be role models for questioning assumptions. You can show students that what they assume they know, they don't really know. Years ago, Sternberg's 7th-grade teacher asked the class if anyone did not know what social studies meant, and responded to our silence by asking us what it meant. We spent two days examining, questioning, and changing assumptions about something we thought we knew. The discussion went far beyond mere definition, forcing us to question what social phenomena are and how we might study them.

Williams' high school teacher asked the class to list worthwhile career options for women and men on separate sides of the chalkboard. We volunteered answers typical for 1975. The teacher, a man, marveled at the number of answers we generated and then asked why certain occupations were on one side or the other. His question caused a bunch of 15-year-olds to think about our futures and what we might accomplish. By enabling us to make our assumptions explicit, the teacher focused our attention on the limitations imposed by the assumptions. The discussion allowed two boys to share their aspirations to become a chef and a dancer and three girls declared their intentions to try police work, brain surgery, and forestry. Twenty years later these ideas may not seem revolutionary or particularly creative, but this discussion encouraged us to question our assumptions before choosing a career.

Of course, students shouldn't question every assumption. There are times to question and then to try to reshape the environment and there are times to adapt to it. Some creative people question so many things so often that others stop taking them seriously. Everyone has to learn which assumptions are worth questioning and which battles are worth fighting. Sometimes it's better to leave the inconsequential assumptions alone so that you have an audience when you find something worth the effort.

Teaching students when to question and when not to is hard to communicate. How do you teach students what they should question and what they shouldn't, and how often to ask questions? Once on the creativity bus, younger students get into gear quickly and their zealous questions can be tough on their teachers and their parents. Now the children think of "better" ways to do everything. Some of the ideas may be good or interesting, but we must encourage questions without allowing the children to turn into monsters. How can you encourage an appropriate level of questioning in your students?

Make questioning a part of the daily classroom exchange. It's more important for students to learn what questions to ask—and how to ask them—than to learn the answers. Help your students evaluate their questions by discouraging the idea that you ask questions and they simply answer them. Avoid perpetuating the belief that your role is to teach students the facts. Instead, help the students understand that what matters is their ability to use facts. Help your students learn how to formulate good questions and how to answer questions.

We all tend to make a pedagogical mistake by emphasizing the answering and not the asking of questions. The good student is perceived as the one who rapidly furnishes the right answers. The expert in a field thus becomes the extension of the expert student—the one who knows and can recite a lot of information. As John Dewey (1933) recognized, how we think is often more important than what we think. We need to teach students how to ask the right questions (good, thought-provoking, and interesting ones) and lessen the emphasis on rote learning.

Students are natural questioners and use that skill to help them adapt to a changing complex environment. Whether your students continue to ask questions and challenge assumptions—and to ask good questions— depends largely on how you respond to their questions (Sternberg 1994). Knowing how to ask good questions is an essential part of intelligence and is possibly the most important part (Arlin 1990, Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi 1976, Sternberg 1985). It is an ability you can either foster or stifle.

When students ask questions, teachers respond in several different characteristic ways. How you respond to a question is differentially helpful in developing a student's intelligence. We propose a seven level model of teacher-student interaction in the questioning process (Sternberg 1994). Responses that correspond to the higher levels of our model better foster intellectual development than those in the lower levels. How you answer a student's question either places the student on the track to intellectual fulfillment or derailment. For example, after visiting Holland, seeing a documentary about Holland, or reading a book about the area, a student might ask why people in Holland are tall. Now consider the various ways you might respond to this or any question. The higher the level of your response, the more you enhance the student's intellectual development. Note that raising the level of response simply requires an affirming attitude toward the student and the question.

Level 1—Rejecting Questions. Typical responses include "don't ask so many questions," "don't bother me," "don't ask stupid questions," and "be quiet!" Responding in this manner sends the message that questions are inappropriate and irritating and students learn to be seen and not heard. Consistently punishing students for asking questions teaches them to stop asking questions and they learn less. Frustration, time constraints, and many other factors may push teachers to use these responses, but we must recognize the repercussions.

Level 2—Restating Questions as Responses. Typical responses are "because they are Dutch, and Dutch people are very tall," and "because they grow a lot." At this level we answer the question, but in a completely empty way. Our response is nothing more than a restatement of the original question. We state redundantly that people from Holland are tall because they are Dutch, or because the Dutch grow a lot. Or we say that a person acts the way he does "because he's human," or acts crazy "because she is insane," or that some people come up with good solutions "because they are high in intelligence."

Level 3—Admitting Ignorance or Responding Directly. Typical responses at this level are "I don't know" and "because [followed by a reasonable answer about nutrition or genetics]." At this level teachers either say they do not know or respond based on what they do know. Students are given the opportunity to learn something or to realize that their teachers do not know everything. Admitting ignorance or responding directly are reasonable answers in certain situations, but they are not the best responses for fostering learning.

Teachers can answer at this level either with or without a reward. A reward is "that's a good question," "I'm glad you asked that," or "that's a really interesting question." Such a response is likely to increase the frequency of questions and fosters more learning opportunities.

Level 4—Encouraging Information Seeking. Typical responses at this level are "I'll look it up in the encyclopedia" or "why don't you look it up in the encyclopedia?" Students learn that information can and should be sought and that the process does not end with just an answer or admission of ignorance.

Notice the difference in the two responses. In the first, the teacher takes responsibility for seeking the information and students learn that someone else will do the work for them. In the second response, the student is given the responsibility for learning and learns how to learn. Active learning helps students develop skills in seeking information.

Level 5—Considering Alternative Explanations. At this level the teacher admits ignorance and suggests ideas for the student to explore. Ideally, the student and teacher generate ideas together: People in Holland might be tall because of the food, weather, genetics, or hormone injections. The student learns that even simple questions invite formulating and testing hypotheses.

Level 6—Considering and Evaluating Explanations. Students are not only encouraged to explore alternative explanations, as in Level 5, but also to evaluate the explanations. A typical question is "how can we decide which of these explanations is correct?" For example, if genetics are responsible for the average height of the Dutch people, what do we expect to observe? How can we discern if food or weather is responsible? Students learn from the teacher's response not only how to generate alternative hypotheses, but also how to test hypotheses.

Level 7—Considering, Evaluating, and Following Up. A typical response is "let's gather some information we need to help us decide among these hypotheses." The teacher encourages the students to gather information that might help determine a valid hypothesis. The students learn how to think and how to act on their thoughts. Although it may not be possible to test every hypothesis, it is often possible to test several. For example, the students can gather information about whether taller Dutch parents tend to have taller children, or about the traditional Dutch diet.

* * *

Note how the responses build from rejecting students' questions to encouraging the formulating and testing of hypotheses and from no learning to rote learning to analytic and creative learning. The higher level responses communicate interest in our students and their questions. Teachers don't have the time or resources to always respond in an ideal manner, nor are higher levels of response equally appropriate for all students—responses need to be developmentally appropriate. The more we use the higher levels as students grow up, however, the more we encourage and assist students in developing cognitive skills.

Defining and Redefining Problems

Promote creative performance by encouraging your students to define and redefine problems and projects. Encourage creative thinking by having students choose their own topics for papers or presentations, choose their own ways of solving problems, and sometimes choose again if they discover that their selection was a mistake. Allow your students to pick their own topics, subject to your approval, on at least one paper each term. Approval ensures that the topic is relevant to the lesson and has a chance of leading to a successful project.

A successful project (1) is appropriate to the course's goals, (2) illustrates a student's mastery of at least some of what has been taught, and (3) can earn a good grade. If a topic is so far from the goals that you will feel compelled to lower the grade, ask the student to choose another topic.

You can't always offer students choices, but giving choices is the only way for them to learn how to choose. A real choice is not deciding between drawing a cat or a cow, nor is it picking one state in the U.S.A. for the project fair. Give your students latitude in making choices to help them develop taste and good judgment, both essential elements of creativity.

Sometimes we all make mistakes in choosing a project or in the way we select to accomplish it. Just remember that an important part of creativity is the analytic part—learning to recognize a mistake. Give your students that chance and the opportunity to redefine their choices.

Encouraging Idea Generation

Once the problem is defined or redefined, it's time for students to generate ideas and solutions. In one of our research investigations, teachers assigned their classes a book report on colonial America. In most circumstances, the students would present an idea to the teacher a day or so later and would be off and running. What is wrong with this picture? A lot.

In this investigation, we encouraged teachers to state the general topic—colonial America—and then to distribute project planning sheets. The students spent two social studies class periods generating ideas for different types of projects and reports. Homework for those two nights was to come up with more ideas and to critique each one on the project planning sheet. For each idea students had to answer the following questions:

Together, the class explored the answers to the following questions:

The volume of ideas generated was remarkable. Once the students got past their first few ideas, mostly ideas they had used in the past, the ideas became creative, challenging, and personally meaningful. One student's suggestion grew from a book report on Uncle Tom's Cabin into an accurate map and report on the Underground Railroad.

One student volunteered to write a report about food—growing, harvesting, storing, and cooking in colonial America, including recipes found in old books. He made three dishes with traditional ingredients for the class to taste while they debated the merits and pitfalls of mid-eighteenth century food practices. The report was creative, fresh, and was not among the first ideas on this student's list. He came up with the idea at home after participating in class discussion.

The environment for generating ideas must be relatively free of criticism. The students may acknowledge that some ideas are better or worse, but you must not be harsh or critical. Aim to identify and encourage any creative aspects of the ideas presented and suggest new approaches to any ideas that are simply uncreative. Praise your students for generating many ideas, regardless of whether some are silly or unrelated, while encouraging them to identify and develop their most unique ideas into high-quality projects.

Your students can use project planning in and out of school and in the future. Questions about marriage, family, and careers are best answered after thoroughly considering many ideas. Teaching students the value of generating numerous ideas enhances their creative-thinking ability and benefits them now and in the future.

Cross-Fertilizing Ideas

Stimulate creativity by helping students to think across subjects and disciplines. The traditional school environment often has separate classrooms and classmates for different subjects and seems to influence students into thinking that learning occurs in discrete boxes—the math box, the social studies box, and the science box. But creative ideas and insights often result from integrating material across subject areas, not from memorizing and reciting material.

Teaching students to cross-fertilize draws on their skills, interests, and abilities, regardless of the subject. For example, if your students are having trouble understanding math, you might ask them to draft test questions related to their special interests—ask the baseball fan to devise geometry problems based on the game. The context may spur creative ideas because the student finds the topic (baseball) enjoyable and it may counteract some of the anxiety caused by geometry. Cross-fertilization motivates students who aren't interested in subjects taught in the abstract.

One way to enact cross-fertilization in the classroom is to ask students to identify their best and worst academic areas. Then ask them to come up with project ideas in their weak area based on ideas borrowed from one of the strongest areas. Explain to them that they can apply their interest in science to social studies by analyzing the scientific aspects of trends in national politics. For example, opinion polling is often discussed in social studies, so help them link it to scientific reasoning by analyzing the pros and cons of opinion polling. Show your students techniques that are acceptable for conducting polls and techniques that render polls invalid. Then ask them to examine data predicting the results of upcoming local and national elections and to critique the pollster's predictions. Initiate a discussion about the media projecting results before the polls are closed.

Cross-fertilization helps students and teachers generate creative ideas for readings, reports, assignments, and assessments. For example, one student conducted a mock town poll about a referendum that would face the voters on election day. Another student clipped news articles referring to pollsters' predictions as guarantees and then explained why these predictions are invalid or at least unwise. Use cross-fertilization techniques in teaching, "how can we think about this physics problem? How about thinking about Michael Jordan playing baseball versus Michael Jordan playing basketball. What can we learn that's relevant to this physics problem?" Suddenly all of the basketball and baseball lovers are interested in solving that physics problem.


Copyright © 1996 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. All rights reserved.



About the Authors

Robert J. Sternberg is IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University. He is coauthor of Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity and editor of The Nature of Creativity. Sternberg can be reached at the Department of Psychology, Yale University, Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520-8205. Phone: (203) 432-4633. Fax: (203) 432-8317.

Wendy M. Williams is research scientist in the Department of Psychology at Yale University. She is author of The Reluctant Reader. Williams can be reached at the Department of Psychology, Yale University, Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520-8205.