Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 8: Instructional Strategies/Creative Thinking

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Creativity is the ability to make something new that is also useful or valued by others (Gardner, 1993).[1] The “something” can be an object (like an essay or painting), a skill (like playing an instrument), or an action (like using a familiar tool in a new way). To be creative, though, the object, skill, or action cannot simply be bizarre or strange; it cannot be new without also being useful or valued. It also cannot result simply by accident. If a person types words or letters at random that happen to form a poem by chance, the result may be beautiful, but it would not be creative by the definition above. Viewed this way, creativity includes a wide range of human experience that most of us, if not everyone, have had at some time or other (Kaufman & Baer, 2006).[2] The experience is not restricted to just a few geniuses, nor just to those working in specific fields or activities like art or the composing of music.

Especially important for teachers are two facts. The first is that an important kind of creativity is creative thinking, the generation of ideas that are new as well as useful, productive, and appropriate. The second is that creative thinking can be stimulated by teachers’ efforts. One way to do so, for example, is to encourage students’ divergent thinking—ideas that are open-ended and leads in many directions (Torrance, 1992; Kim, 2006).[3][4] Here are some open-ended questions—questions with many possible right answers:

  • How many uses can you think of for a cup?
  • Draw a picture that somehow incorporates all of these words: cat, fire engine, and banana.
  • What is the most unusual use you can think of for a shoe?

Note that answering these questions creatively depends partly on having already acquired knowledge about the objects to which the questions refer. In this sense divergent thinking depends partly on its converse, convergent thinking, which is focused, logical reasoning about ideas and experiences that leads to specific right answers. At least up to a point, then, rewarding students’ convergent thinking—as schoolwork often does by emphasizing mastery of content—has the paradoxical effect of making students’ creative or divergent thinking possible (Sternberg, 2003; Runco, 2004; Cropley, 2006).[5][6][7] But beyond that point—the point, that is, where students have acquired “enough” prior knowledge—divergent thinking may not happen unless teachers explicitly encourage students explicitly to use it, and in general show students that they value it.

Whether in school or out, creativity seems to flourish best when the creative activity is its own intrinsic reward, and a person is relatively unconcerned with what other people think of the results. Whatever the activity—composing a song, writing an essay, organizing a party, or whatever—is more likely to be creative if the creator focuses on and enjoys the activity in itself, and thinks relatively little about how others may evaluate the activity (Brophy, 2004).[8] Unfortunately, this requirement of creativity can sometimes pose a challenge for teachers. Why? Because not only are teachers supposed to evaluate students’ learning of particular ideas or skills, but they often have to do so within the restricted time limits of a semester or school year. In spite of these constraints, though, creativity still can be encouraged in classrooms at least some of the time (Claxton, Edwards, & Scale-Constantinou, 2006).[9] Students may, for example, have to be assessed on how well they understand and use particular vocabulary. But the assessment does not have to happen constantly; there can also be times to encourage students to experiment with vocabulary creatively through writing poems, making word games, or in other thought-provoking ways. Sooner or later across the week, term, or school year, learning content and experimenting or playing with content can both find a place. In fact one of these activities can often support the other. We return to this point later in this chapter, when we discuss student-centered strategies of instruction such as cooperative learning and play as a learning medium.

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  1. Gardner, H. (1993). Creative minds. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Kaufman, J. & Baer, J. (2006). Creativity and reason in cognitive development. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  3. MA: MIT Press. Torrance, E. (1992). Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Bensenville, IL: Scholastic Testing Service.
  4. Kim, K. (2006). Is creativity unidimensional or multidimensional? Analysis of Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 18(1), 251-259.
  5. Sternberg, R. (2003). Wisdom, intelligence, and creativity synthesized. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Runco. M. (2004). Divergent thinking, creativity, and giftedness. In R. Sternberg (Ed.), Definitions and conceptions of giftedness, pp. 47-62.
  7. Cropley, A. (2006). In praise of convergent thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 18(1), 291-404.
  8. Brophy, J. (2004). Motivating students to learn, 2nd edition. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  9. Claxton, G., Edwards, L., & Constantinou, V. (2006). Cultivating creative mentalities: A framework for education. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 1(1), 57-61.