Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 6

In Italy / Unlocking Creativity

Under the right conditions, all children can become more creative thinkers and problem solvers. In this program, students learn strategies for innovative thinking while unlocking "the secret of the volcano."

How do we help children expand their creativity? During the past 25 years, educators have designed many instructional programs in an effort to develop the creative potential of preschool and primary school children. Reviews of research on the effectiveness of these programs, however, are discouraging; most programs did not appear to produce a notable increase in children's creative abilities (Mayer 1983). This lack of experimental support gives rise to doubts about the extent to which instructional techniques can improve creativity.
  • Children are blank slates; they have no ideas or opinions about creative strategies and must be taught how to be creative.
  • Creativity is a unique mental skill; thus, learning this single skill will boost creativity. For example, brainstorming—perhaps the best-known creativity technique—focuses on the abundant production of unusual ideas in order to promote innovation.
  • Children who are instructed with artificial materials (such as puzzles and riddles) are able to spontaneously transfer creative strategies from the training environment to everyday situations. For example, Covington, Crutchfield, and Davis (1966) based their training on detective stories that children solve by applying a given strategy; they hoped that students could apply the same strategy in real-life situations.
  • Children will learn to think creatively if they simply perform a specific mental operation a number of times. In other words, practicing a skill is sufficient to allow children to learn it.
  • Creativity is a matter of cognitive processes; therefore, students need only learn to activate particular kinds of mental operations, such as combining given elements to create a new product or knowing how to identify the converse of a given idea or statement.
Under these conditions, it is not surprising that traditional programs failed to stimulate creativity. In fact, ordinary situations calling for creative thinking are usually complex and involve multiple mental operations. In real life, explicit hints to help one figure out which creative strategies are appropriate are seldom available—one must be able to recognize specific features of the situation at hand and respond appropriately. Finally, individuals must not only know how to think creatively but they must also be motivated to think creatively.
  • Reflect an integrated structure of mental skills, each important in a particular kind of situation or a particular phase of the creative process;
  • Use materials that mimic real-life situations or, at least, help children understand the similarities between those situations and the training tasks;
  • Consider students' beliefs and spontaneous tendencies toward creative thinking and cultivate these emerging creative competencies;
  • Show metacognitive sensibilit; that is, the lessons should help students to select, execute, and monitor the application of a strategy.
  • Foster a creative mind-set in students by encouraging them to take risks and supporting them when they pursue novel approaches instead of relying on familiar responses.

A Volcano's Secret

Because no structured and validated creativity programs were available in Italy, my colleague and I developed a training module to encourage creativity in 4- to 10-year-old children, drawing upon the suggestions mentioned above (Cerioli and Antonietti 1992). Our module revolves around a book divided into 20 episodes. In the story, two children have to discover why a volcano, which in the past produced magic bubbles, is now extinct.
Three pets, who play the role of tutors, accompany the children in their journey. Each tutor exemplifies a different aspect of creative thinking: the fluid production of unusual ideas, the ability to find analogies and to look for similarities between different things, and the capacity to restructure situations by considering them from different points of view. During the journey within the volcano, the children meet characters who personify psychological features that block creativity. In each episode, the children have to overcome the negative and noncreative aspects of the situations they encounter and adopt a productive and innovative perspective.
In the classroom, the teacher reads each episode of the story in two or three sessions of about an hour each. At critical junctures, the teacher stops reading and asks students to help the protagonists of the story face the problem they have encountered. Students are urged to propose ideas based on the strategies suggested by the tutors: to interpret ambiguous stimuli, to combine various elements to yield a new product, to imagine things from a different point of view, to modify a given pattern, or to find everyday situations similar to those of the story. The activities that students carry out involve written and oral responses, music, drawing, drama, and manipulating various materials. The entire program takes three weekly sessions for four months. (We have tested shortened versions of the training, however, with good results).
An example of how the program helps to support and develop students' creative talents: In one of the first episodes, the protagonists are in front of the mysterious door of the volcano. At this point, the teacher interrupts the story and students assemble in front of a poster simulating the volcano's door. "How could the volcano's door be opened?" the teacher asks. Students typically give rather obvious responses (push or pull the door, turn the key). When these responses do not work, the teacher goes on with the story. The first tutor appears and hints at producing as many unusual ideas as possible. The teacher writes students' responses on the chalkboard and students discuss their ideas. In this instance, however, no student comes up with a solution.
Hence, the second tutor enters the scene. This tutor suggests that the children think about similarities with everyday situations: opening a door is like uncorking a bottle, for instance. Students are encouraged to find further analogies and to test the solutions they inspired by simulating them on the poster.
Eventually, the third tutor suggests considering the problem of the door from a different point of view. The story leads the children to discover the solution that allows the protagonists to enter the volcano. (The preferred solution is to push the door at its hinges, rather than using the handle.) Through this procedure, children learn to think past the obvious responses, search for more original ideas, and become aware of some mental strategies they can adopt in facing novel problems.
How does the program respond to the new views on creativity expressed above? First, it helps children learn a set of reasoning strategies that can result in creative thinking. Further, it makes children aware of the strategy they are employing or that might be employed, its relevance, and its costs and benefits. In other words, the training stimulates a metacognitive attitude. It also encourages autonomy in the management of thinking strategies because the hints the tutors give occur less frequently as the story unfolds. Moreover, even though the story is a fantastic adventure, the critical situations are real ones or have obvious counterparts in common life. Finally, the program helps students to develop an attitude that fosters creativity, such as being open to the experience, looking for novelty, and accepting contradictions.
Since 1992, several research studies have validated the positive effects of the program. One was conducted in Basilicata (a district in the south of Italy) and involved 300 4- to 6-year- olds; the other was carried out in Lombardia (in northern Italy) and included 900 4- to 8-year- olds. In each study, the children were tested for creative thinking before and after the training. The tests consisted of such activities as listing as many objects as possible having a given feature, finding all possible uses of an object, giving several interpretations of a drawing, inventing a story about a given picture, imagining consequences of an event, and solving unusual but practical problems. Each test included scores in fluidity, flexibility, originality, and elaboration.
Students in classes using the program had significantly higher increases in measures of creativity than students in classes with no creativity training and classes where traditional creativity activities were used. In addition, their teachers reported that these students were, in general, enthusiastic about the program and more motivated and attentive in other school tasks (Antonietti and Cerioli 1996).

A Helping Hand

Despite the pessimistic findings reported by researchers studying traditional creativity programs, our investigations showed that children can learn to be more creative. This is possible, however, only if teachers employ instructional methods that are consistent with the complex nature of creativity and not based simply on the execution of a series of trials.
  • Help children realize when creativity is needed and when it is not. For example, teachers should stress that creativity is most needed when there is no single correct answer, when past experience is not a useful guide, and when there are no cut-and-dried rules to be applied to the task.
  • Go beyond giving students instructions about how to carry out a mental operation and then having them practice it. Describe the strategy and then give examples of how to apply it in different contexts. This helps children transfer the strategies from the original setting to other novel situations.
  • Make children engaged in a creative task aware of the mental operations they are using, so that they can monitor their application. Ask such questions as: "What are you trying to do now? Why are you doing so? Are the available resources (time, materials, and so forth) enough to allow you to do so? Are you reaching the goal? Do you think that it is better to go ahead or to switch the strategy?"
  • Help students develop a reflective attitude so that, when they encounter a creative problem, they learn to ask themselves: "Which kind of situation is this? What strategies could I adopt? Which is the most relevant strategy?"
  • Help children recognize the attitudes and emotions that precede or follow the implementation of a creative strategy and to use them to their advantage as they work on a task. For instance, children should learn that, when trying to think creatively, they may have to deal with many confusing, conflicting, and ambiguous ideas, so a quick and precise response cannot be expected. Students need to learn to accept a period of uncertainty or anxiety, knowing that such troubles are necessary to develop creative approaches.

Antonietti, A., and L. Cerioli, eds. (1996). Creativi a scuola [To be creative at school]. Milano: Franco Angeli.

Cerioli, L., and A. Antonietti. (1992). Programma di sviluppo della creativita infantile [Children Creativity Enhancement Program]. Teramo: Giunti e Lisciani.

Covington, M.V., R.S. Crutchfield, and L.B. Davis. (1966). The Productive Thinking Program. Berkeley: Brazelton Printing Company.

Mayer, R.E. (1983). Thinking, Problem-Solving, Cognition. New York: Freeman.

Alessandro Antonietti has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 197004.jpg
How Children Learn
Go To Publication