Twenty-Four Tips for Developing Creativity
1. Model 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 most of you probably 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.
Occasionally, we’ll teach a workshop on developing creativity and someone will ask exactly how to develop creativity. Bad start. You cannot be a role model for creativity unless you think and teach creatively yourself. So think carefully about your values, goals, and ideas about creativity and show them in your actions.
2. Build Self-Efficacy
The main limitation on what students can do is what they think they can do. All students have the capacity to be creators and to experience the joy associated with making something new, but first we 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.. Instead, help students believe in their own ability to be creative.
3. Question Assumptions
We all have assumptions. Often we do not 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 the Earth revolves around the sun, the suggestion was viewed as preposterous because everyone could see that the sun revolves around the Earth. Galileo’s ideas, including the relative rates of’ falling objects, caused him to be banned as a heretic.
Sometimes it is 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 allows 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 do not really know.
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.
Make questioning a part of the daily classroom exchange. It is 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.
4. How to Define and Redefine 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 cannot 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 dog, nor is it picking one state in the USA to present at a project fair. Give your students latitude in making choices to help them to develop taste and good judgment, both of which are 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.
5. Encourage Idea Generation
Once the problem is defined or redefined, it is time for students to generate ideas and solutions. 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 best 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.
6. Cross-Fertilize 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, for example, that they can apply their interest in science to social studies by analyzing the scientific aspects of trends in national politics.
7. Allow Time for Creative Thinking
Ours is a society in a hurry. We eat fast food, we rush from one place to another, and we value quickness.. Indeed, one way to say someone is smart is to say that the person is quick (Sternberg, 1985), a clear indication of our emphasis on time. Just take a look at the format of our standardized tests. Lots of multiple-choice problems are squeezed into a brief time slot.
Most creative insights, however, do not happen in a rush (Gruber, 1986). We need time to understand a problem and to toss it around. If we are asked to think creatively, we need time to do it well. If you stuff questions into your tests or give your students more homework than they can complete, then you are not allowing them time to think creatively.
8. Instruct and Assess Creatively
If you give only multiple-choice tests, students quickly learn the type of thinking that you value, no matter what you say. If you want to encourage creativity, you need to include at least some opportunities for creative thought in assignments and tests. Ask questions that require factual recall, analytic thinking, and creative thinking. For example, students might be asked to learn about a law, analyze the law, and then think about how the law might be improved.
9. Reward Creative Ideas and Products
It is not enough to talk about the value of creativity. Students are used to authority figures who say one thing and do another. They are exquisitely sensitive to what teachers value when it comes to the bottom line, namely, the grade or evaluation. If you do not put your money where your mouth is, they will go with the money–that is, the grade.
Reward creative efforts. For example, assign a project and remind students that you are looking for them to demonstrate their knowledge, analytical and writing skills, and creativity. Let them know that creativity does not depend on your agreement with what they write, only that they express ideas that represent a synthesis between existing ideas and their own thoughts. You need to care only that the ideas are creative from the students’ perspectives, not necessarily creative with regard to the state of the art. Students may generate an idea that someone else has already had.
Some teachers complain that they cannot grade creative responses with as much objectivity as they can apply to multiple-choice or short-answer responses. They are correct in that there is some sacrifice of objectivity. However, research shows that evaluators are remarkably consistent in their assessments of’ creativity (Amabile, 1983; Sternberg & Lubart, 1995). If the goal of assessment is to instruct students, then it is better to ask for creative work and evaluate it with somewhat less objectivity than to evaluate students exclusively on uncreative work. Let your students know that there is no completely objective way to evaluate creativity.
10. Encourage Sensible Risks
Creative people take risks and defy the crowd by buying low and selling high. Defying the crowd means risking the crowd’s wrath. But there are sensible-and less sensible-reasons to defy the crowd. Creative people take sensible risks and produce ideas that others ultimately admire and respect as trend setting. In taking these risks, creative people sometimes make mistakes, fail, and fall flat on their faces.
We emphasize sensible risk-taking because we are not talking about risking life and limb. To help students learn to take sensible risks, encourage them to take some intellectual risks with courses, activities, and teachers-to develop a sense of how to assess risks.
Nearly every major discovery or invention entailed some risk. When a movie theater was the only place to see a movie, someone created the idea of the home video industry: Skeptics wondered if anyone would want to see videos on a small screen. Another initially risky idea was the home computer: Would anyone have enough use for a home computer to justify the cost? These ideas were once risks that are now ingrained in our society.
Given the learning opportunities that derive from taking risks and the achievement that learning makes possible, why are so few children willing to take risks in school? The reason is that perfect test scores and papers receive praise; failure may mean extra work. Failure to attain a certain academic standard is perceived as a lack of ability and motivation rather than as reflecting a desire to grow. Teachers advocate playing it safe when they give assignments without choices and allow only particular answers to questions.
11. Tolerate Ambiguity
People like things to be in black and white. We like to think that a country is good or bad (ally or enemy) or that a given idea in education works or doesn’t work. The problem is that there are a lot of grays in creative work. Artists working on new paintings and writers working on new books often report feeling scattered and unsure in their thoughts. They need to figure out whether they are even on the right track.
A creative idea tends to come in bits and pieces and develops over time. But the period in which the idea is developing tends to be uncomfortable. Without time or the ability to tolerate ambiguity, you may jump to a less than optimal solution.
Tolerating ambiguity is uncomfortable. When a student has almost the right topic for a paper or almost the right science project, it’s tempting to accept the near miss. To help students become creative, encourage them to accept and extend the period in which their ideas do not quite converge. Ultimately, they may come up with better ideas.
12. Allow Mistakes
Buying low and selling high carries a risk. Many ideas are unpopular simply because they are not good. People often think a certain way because that way works better than other ways. But once in a while a great thinker comes along — a Freud, a Piaget, a Chomsky, or an Einstein — and shows us a new way to think. These thinkers made contributions because they allowed themselves and their collaborators to take risks and make mistakes.
Many of Freud’s and Piaget’s ideas are wrong. Freud confused Victorian issues regarding sexuality with universal conflicts and Piaget misjudged the ages at which children could perform certain cognitive feats. Their ideas were great not because they lasted forever, but because they became the basis for other ideas. Freud’s and Piaget’s mistakes allowed others to profit from the ideas and go beyond the earlier ideas.
Schools are often unforgiving of mistakes. Errors on schoolwork are often marked with a large and pronounced X. When children respond to questions with incorrect answers, some teachers pounce on the students for not having read or understood the material and other students snicker. When children go outside the lines in the coloring book, or use a different color, they are corrected. In hundreds of ways and in thousands of instances over the course of a school career, children learn that it is not all right to make mistakes. The result is that they become afraid to risk the independent and the sometimes-flawed thinking that leads to creativity.
When your students make mistakes, ask them to analyze and discuss these mistakes. Often, mistakes or weak ideas contain the germ of correct answers or good ideas. In Japan, teachers spend entire class periods asking children to analyze the mistakes in their mathematical thinking. For the teacher who wants to make a difference, exploring mistakes can be a learning and growing opportunity.
13. Identify and Surmount Obstacles
Creative thinkers almost inevitably encounter resistance. The question is whether the creative thinker has the fortitude to persevere. We understand why so many young and promising creative thinkers disappear. Sooner or later, they decide that being creative is not worth the resistance and punishment. The truly creative thinkers pay the short-term price because they recognize that they can make a difference.
Describe obstacles that you, friends, and famous people have faced while trying to be creative; otherwise your students may think that obstacles confront only them. Include stories about people who weren’t supportive, bad grades for unwelcome ideas, and cool receptions to your ideas. To help your students deal with obstacles, remind them of the many creative people whose ideas were initially shunned and help them develop an inner sense of awe of the creative act. You can suggest that they reduce their concern over what others think, but it is tough for students to lessen their dependence on their peers.
When a student attempts to surmount an obstacle, praise the effort, whether or not the student is entirely successful. Point out aspects of the student’s attack that were successful and why, and then suggest other ways to confront similar obstacles. You can also tactfully critique counterproductive approaches by describing a better approach, as long as you praise the attempt. Ask the class to brainstorm about ways to confront a given obstacle to get them thinking about the many strategies we can use to confront problems. Consider the student who has always been too nervous to act in school plays or to sing a solo. Spend a half-hour asking students to generate strategies for dealing with performance anxiety and to chronicle personal examples that show how nervousness can be disabling. List ideas on the board and ask the class to critique them. Encourage students to try a couple of the strategies and praise them for any attempts at overcoming performance anxiety. The emphasis on tackling obstacles should help students focus on solving problems instead of being limited by them.
14. Teach Self-Responsibility
Part of teaching students to be creative is teaching them to take responsibility for both success and failure. Teaching students how to take responsibility means teaching students to (1) understand their creative process, (2) criticize themselves, and (3) take pride in their best creative work. Unfortunately, many teachers and parents look for-or allow students to look for-an outside enemy responsible for failures.
It sounds trite to say that you should teach students to take responsibility for themselves, but sometimes there is a gap between what we know and how we translate thought into action. In practice, people differ widely in the extent to which they take responsibility for the causes and consequences of their actions. Creative people need to take responsibility for themselves and for their ideas.
15. Promote Self-Regulation
You cannot help each student during each creative process. Your students must take control of the process.. After forming initial creative products and awakening the joy of creating in your students, teach them strategies for self-regulation, Self-directed creating is how most of us work throughout our lives-and especially in our lives outside of school. Here are some things students can do to promote their self-regulation: 1. List multiple ideas for an assignment, 2. Assess ideas for creativity and pursue one, 3. Defend your choice, 4. Develop plans for completing the assignment, including how and where to find information, and how and when you will finish the project, 5. Keep a daily log of progress, roadblocks, and how you surmounted problems, 6. Participate in daily class discussions regarding progress on the report and physical distractions (e.g., being hungry or tired), 7. Discuss teacher feedback on finished projects, and 8. Assess a classmate’s project and review and discuss peer evaluations.
16. Delay Gratification
Part of being creative means being able to work on a project or task for a long time without immediate or interim rewards. Students must learn rewards are not always immediate and that there are benefits to delaying gratification.
Many people believe that they should reward children immediately for good performance, and that children should expect rewards. This style of teaching and parenting emphasizes the here and now and often comes at the expense of what is best in the long term.
An important lesson in life-and one that is intimately related to developing the discipline to do creative work-is to learn to wait for rewards. The greatest rewards are often those that are delayed. Give your students examples of delayed gratification in your life and in the lives of creative individuals and help them apply these examples to their lives.
Hard work often does not bring immediate rewards. Children do not immediately become expert baseball players, dancers, musicians, or sculptors. And the reward of becoming an expert seems far away. Children often succumb to the temptations of the moment-watching television or playing video games. The people who make the most of their abilities are those who wait for a reward and recognize that few serious challenges are met in a moment. Ninth-grade students may not see the benefits of hard work, but the advantages of a solid academic performance will he obvious when those students apply to college.
The short-term focus of most school assignments does little to teach children the value of delaying gratification. Projects are clearly superior in meeting this goal, but it is difficult to assign home projects if you are not confident of parental involvement and support. By working on a task for many weeks or months, a student learns the value of making incremental efforts for long-term gains.
17. Encourage Creative Collaboration
Creative performance often is viewed as a solitary occupation-we picture the writer sitting alone with her writing pad, the artist painting feverishly at 4 a.m., or the musician playing for his cats into the wee hours. In reality, people often work in groups. Collaboration can spur creativity. Encourage your students to collaborate with creative people because we all learn by example. Students benefit from seeing the techniques, strategies, and approaches that others use in the creative process. Also, students absorb the enthusiasm and joy many creative people exude as they go about the business of making something new.
Finding practical ways to encourage creative performance in groups of students is essential because you cannot work with students one-on-one all of the time. Because life often involves working with others, it is worthwhile to give students the chance to work collaboratively and to make the process of collaboration more creative..
18. Imagine Other Viewpoints
An essential aspect of working with other people and getting the most out of collaborative creative activity is to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes. We broaden our perspective by learning to see the world from a different point of view, and that experience enhances our creative thinking and contributions. Encourage your students to see the importance of understanding, respecting, and responding to other people’s points of view. Many bright and potentially creative children never achieve success because they do not develop practical intelligence (Sternberg 1985, 1997; Sternberg et al., in press). They may do well in school and on tests, but they never learn how to get along with others or to see things and themselves as others see them.
19. Recognize Person-Environmental Fit
What is judged as creative is an interaction between a person and the environment (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Gardner, 1993; Sternberg, in press; Sternberg & Lubart, 1995). The very same product that is rewarded as creative in one time or place may be scorned in another.
In The Dead Poets’ Society, a teacher whom the audience might well judge to be creative is viewed as incompetent by the school’s administration. Similar experiences occur many times a day in many settings. There is no absolute standard for what constitutes creative work. The same product or idea may be valued or devalued in different environments. The lesson is that we need to find a setting in which our creative talents and unique contributions are rewarded or we need to modify our environment.
By building a constant appreciation of the importance of person-environment fit, you prepare your students for choosing environments that are conducive to their creative success. Encourage your students to examine environments to help them learn to select and match environments with their skills.
20. Find Excitement
To unleash your students’ best creative performances, you must help them find what excites them. Remember that it may not be what really excites you. People who truly excel in a pursuit, whether vocational or avocational, almost always genuinely love what they do. Certainly the most creative people are intrinsically motivated in their work (Amabile, 1996). Less creative people often pick a career for the money or prestige and are bored or loathe their career. These people do not do work that makes a difference in their field.
Helping students find what they really love to do is often hard and frustrating work. Yet, sharing the frustration with them now is better than leaving them later to face it alone. To help students uncover their true interests, ask them to demonstrate a special talent or ability for the class. Explain that it does not matter what they do (within reason), only that they love the activity.
21. Seek Stimulating Environments
Help your students develop the ability to choose environments that stimulate their creativity. Although you try to present a stimulating classroom environment every day, your students spend many hours outside of school, eventually graduate, and either stagnate or grow in their creative development. Adults who continue to grow creatively visit and immerse themselves in environments that foster creativity.
To encourage students to develop skills in selecting environments that enhance creativity, choose some environments for the class to explore and help your students connect the environments with the experiences, creative growth, and accomplishment. Show students that creativity is easier with environmental stimulation.
Plan a field trip to a nearby museum, historical building, town hall, or other location with interesting displays and ask your students to generate and examine creative ideas for reports. Read excerpts from a book about a creative pioneer in the discipline being studied or the fieldtrip destination you have targeted-a great paleontologist if the focus is on dinosaurs, or a great astronaut if the focus is on space travel. Get students involved in role-playing.
You cannot reach into every nook of students’ lives, nor can you directly control their creative development in the years to come. But give them a lifelong gift by teaching them how to choose creative environments that help ideas flow. Knowing how to choose a creative environment is one of the best long-term strategies for developing creativity.
22. Play to Strengths
Show students how to play to their strengths. Describe your strengths to your students and ask them to declare their strengths. As a group, brainstorm about how best to capitalize on these strengths. Let your students know that they facilitate creative performance by merging talent and preparation with opportunity. By helping students identify the exact nature of their talents, you create opportunities for them to express and use their talents.
Any teacher can help students play to their strengths. All you need is flexibility in assignments and a willingness to help reluctant students determine the nature of their interests and strengths.
23. Grow Creatively
Once we have a major creative idea, it is easy to spend the rest of our career following up on it. It is frightening to contemplate that the next idea may not be as good as the last one, or that success may disappear with the next idea. The result is that we can become complacent and stop being creative.
Sometimes, as experts, we become complacent and stop growing. Teachers and administrators are susceptible to becoming victims of our own expertise-to becoming entrenched in ways of thinking that worked in the past, but not necessarily in the future (Frensch & Sternberg, 1989). Being creative means stepping outside the boxes that we-and others-have created for ourselves.
24. Proselytize for Creativity
Once you have mastered a few of these techniques to develop creativity and made them part of your daily teaching routine, spread the word. The virtues of teaching your students in order to develop their creativity and your own multiply from reinforcement. Make the difference by telling your colleagues, associates, administrators, principal, school board members, and everyone else how important it is to develop creativity in students.
Use examples of creative student work, particularly from students who are not gifted in traditional academic abilities, to demonstrate the difference it makes to teach for creativity. Describe how every student can be reached with patience and a few techniques for developing creativity. Tell your colleagues that student projects are more interesting once students have experienced explicit creativity training. Richer, funnier, wilder, and generally far more interesting assignments, book reports, and projects make our lives less boring. It is, in fact, a good example of enlightened self-interest for teachers to give students creativity training, because creative students are more motivated and more involved with their schoolwork, and their work becomes more interesting.
If you spread the word about the importance of teaching for creativity in schools, homes, and communities, this approach to teaching will become more common and benefit teachers and students everywhere. Small changes in the way questions are asked, assignments are worded, and tests are crafted can make big differences in the lives of students. We hope that we have provided ideas you can use immediately to start teaching for creativity