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February 2013 | Volume 70 | Number 5
Creativity Now! Pages 80-81,83

Research Says / Creativity Requires a Mix of Skills

Bryan Goodwin and Kirsten Miller

Albert Einstein was so slow to learn to speak that his worried parents consulted a specialist. Thomas Edison was told by a teacher that he had a "disarranged mind." And Charles Darwin was considered, by his family and teachers alike, "rather below the common standard of intellect."

What was it about these three children that led some people to consider them unpromising, when they would go on to accomplish great things? It's safe to say that Einstein, Edison, and Darwin each had a way of thinking that was different from that of their peers. They inarguably possessed some of the most creative minds in contemporary history.

Although most of us tend to recognize creativity when we see it, from a research perspective, it tends to be an amorphous construct defined in a variety of ways, such as divergent thinking, heuristic problem-solving, and right-brained thinking. As Livne and Milgram (2006) note, however, there is a "lack of serious empirical evidence demonstrating the construct validity of proposed theories" of creativity (p. 206). Lack of rigorous research or precise definitions notwithstanding, popular authors, among them Sir Ken Robinson (2011) and Daniel Pink (2005), have argued that just because we cannot measure creativity on a standardized achievement test, that doesn't mean we should ignore it.

Creativity and the Economy

In A Whole New Mind, Pink (2005) popularized the argument that in today's global economy, the marketplace will increasingly reward creativity more than knowledge alone. The economy, he writes, has shifted from one in which most workers needed left-brain knowledge of details and step-by-step procedures to one that demands right-brain creativity—the ability to synthesize knowledge and develop inventive solutions to complex challenges.

For example, according to an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data conducted by the international business research and consulting firm McKinsey and Company, only 30 percent of new jobs created in the United States between 1998 and 2004 were of the routine, algorithmic variety, whereas 70 percent involve complex, heuristic work (Bradford, Manyika, & Yee, 2005) in which employees interact with other employees and customers and make complex decisions requiring knowledge, judgment, experience, and instinct.

If there is a growing need for creativity in the workplace, what can teachers do to help students become more creative? Inside the square box of the classroom, how can we help students think outside the box?

Defining Creativity

The first step to teaching creativity lies in understanding and defining it. Fortunately, decades of research have explored the nature of creativity.

More than 60 years ago, J. P. Guilford (1950) first proposed the idea that divergent thinking—the process of producing multiple answers from the information at hand—is inherently linked to creativity. Since then, so much has been made of this idea that the terms divergent thinking and creativity are often presented as synonymous.

Research suggests, however, that creativity is at least a two-part process. Creative thinking, according to Cropley (2006), appears to require both convergent thinking—which focuses on speed, accuracy, and logic—and divergent thinking—which uses information in unexpected ways to produce alternate or multiple answers to a problem. Finke, Ward, and Smith (1992) identified creativity as both generative and exploratory. During the generative phase, we identify creative or alternate solutions to a problem; during the exploratory phase, we evaluate these solutions and select the best option (Kaufman & Sternberg, 2007).

In short, creativity appears to require a yin and a yang: It involves both novelty (creating new ideas and solutions) and analysis (to explore the novelty's potential effectiveness) (Cropley, 2006). Creativity requires bouncing an idea back and forth between left- and right-brain thinking; stepping back to analyze what we've created, and if necessary, tearing it up. That's why the creative process typically entails drafting and redrafting, sketching and painting over, and at times starting all over again. However, we cannot allow left-brain thinking to dominate the process, preemptively quashing our divergent thinking, leaving us with only wads of paper on the floor.

Schooling That Suppresses Creativity

In 1968, George Land administered a creativity test to 1,600 five-year-olds (Land & Jarman, 1992). The test, which he had developed for NASA to identify innovative scientists and engineers, found that 98 percent of tested children registered at a genius level on the creative scale. But five years later, when Land readministered the test to the now-10-year-old children, only 30 percent of them scored at the genius level of creativity. After another five years, the number dropped to just 12 percent. The same test, administered to 280,000 adults, found that only 2 percent registered at the genius level for creativity. Land concluded that noncreative thinking is learned.

Research suggests that instruction in U.S. classrooms has tended to skew toward teaching routine tasks that follow a step-by-step process, rather than encouraging complex and creative problem-solving. Researchers who compared hours of video of U.S. teachers in the classroom with footage of teachers in classrooms in other countries found that U.S. teachers commonly downgrade complex, heuristic-type problems into simplistic, algorithmic tasks (Stigler & Hiebert, 2004). For example, teachers might turn a problem that could be creatively challenging, such as figuring out how to calculate the area of a triangle, into a procedural chore by giving students the formula for solving the problem (1/2 base × height) and directing them to plug in the numbers.

What Schools Need to Do

To help students gain (or regain) their ability to combine convergent and divergent thinking, educators may need to teach and model how to solve complex problems—such as developing a formula to predict a factory's product costs as its output increases or researching and writing about how World War I might have been avoided. These strategies might include breaking problems down into smaller problems, looking for ways that the new problem is similar to others students may have solved in the past, and brainstorming possible solutions for the problem with their peers (Ormrod, 2008).

The late E. Paul Torrance, who devoted his career to creativity research, recommended using "what if" questions to foster creative thinking. For example, rather than asking a student, "In what year did Columbus discover America?" a teacher could ask, "If Columbus had landed in California, how would our lives be different?" The latter question requires students to draw on creative thinking skills such as "imagining, experimenting, discovering, elaborating, testing solutions, and communicating discoveries" (Torrance & Goff, 1990, p. 2).

Schools should also resist the temptation to view creative-thinking skills and content knowledge as an either-or proposition. As Carson (2007) points out, some problem-solving advocates have downgraded the importance of the content knowledge itself and instead champion teaching students generic critical-thinking skills that they can apply to any content. In reality, however, creativity should not be taught at the expense of content. A study of 1,000 high school students, for example, found no link between students' creative problem-solving abilities and their math skills (Livne & Milgram, 2006, p. 199). It would appear then that being creative doesn't automatically make students smarter, nor does being smarter make students more creative: We must develop both content knowledge and creative-thinking abilities.

Just as songwriters must understand chords and scales and writers must know spelling and grammar conventions, students are likely to benefit when creativity and academic content knowledge are taught hand in hand. Without a deep knowledge of physics, all the creativity in the world wouldn't have led to Einstein's theory of relativity.


Bradford, C. J., Manyika, J. M., & Yee, L. A. (2005). The next revolution in interactions. McKinsey Quarterly, 4, 25–26.

Carson, J. (2007). A problem with problem solving: Teaching thinking without teaching knowledge. The Mathematics Educator, 17(2), 7–14.

Cropley, A. (2006). In praise of convergent thinking. Creativity Research Journal, (18)3, 391–404.

Finke, R. A., Ward, T. B., & Smith, S. M. (1992). Creative cognition. Boston: MIT Press.

Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist, 5, 444–454.

Kaufman, J. C., & Sternberg, R. J. (2007). Resource review: Creativity. Change, 39(4), 55–58.

Land, G., & Jarman, B. (1992). Breakpoint and beyond: Mastering the future—today. New York: HarperBusiness.

Livne, N. L., & Milgram, R. M. (2006). Academic versus creative abilities in mathematics: Two components of the same construct. Creativity Research Journal, 18(2), 199–212.

Ormrod, J. E. (2008). Educational psychology: Developing learners. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York: Penguin.

Robinson, K. (2011). Out of our minds. New York: Wiley.

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (2004). Improving mathematics teaching. Educational Leadership, 61(5), 12–17.

Torrance, E. P., & Goff, K. (1990). Fostering academic creativity in gifted students. Washington: DC: Educational Resources Distribution Center. Retrieved from

Bryan Goodwin is chief operating officer at McREL, Denver, Colorado. He is the author of Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success (ASCD, 2011). Kirsten Miller is a lead consultant at McREL.


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