Diving into creativity: Are we killing it…?


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First question: How would you define creativity…?

This is what I asked Psychology students, a few weeks ago, in our module on “Learning and Higher Cognitive Processes”. Below you can see a word-cloud with their definitions.

As you can notice, when defining creativity terms such as “ideas”, “imagination”, “creation”, “freedom” and “novelty” did arise.

Very interestingly, if we resort to academic definitions of creativity, we would find something like this:

Process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile

Process that involves innovative thinking, generating novel ideas, or making new connections between existing ideas to create something new (for more detail, see Sternberg and Sternberg, 2012).

The fact that both spontaneous students’ definitions and scholars’ definitions are so close, enables us to appreciate that we all seem to have a shared idea of what creativity is about.

Let’s keep asking questions: How could we measure whether you are creative…?

Throughout the last decades, there have been several proposals on how to do this. Let’s review some: 1) What if you were asked to think of as many alternative uses as possible of different daily objects, such as a cup or a brick….? (Alternative Uses Test; Guilford, 1967); 2) What if you were asked to devise an advertisement for an item such as… cufflinks…? (Measurement of Creative Intelligence; Sternberg and Lubart, 1995), 3) Or what if you were asked to draw a picture with this theme: The earth from an insect’s point of view (Measuring Creative Intelligence; Sternberg and Lubart, 1995)? (for some examples, see the image below!). It´s very likely that, by reading these suggestions, you could think of plenty of alternative ways that could help you to see whether someone is creative.

Testing creative ability
Source of the image: Sternberg, 1999, p. 439

Then, through strategies such as the former ones, scholars have tried to evaluate people’s creativity. Then, on this point, and as an attempt to formalize, an interesting question to ask ourselves could be: How would you define a creative person…?

According to research, some features identified when exploring creative people, include the following: have an early interest in exploring uncharted territory; work long and hard to gain mastery; are open to new experiences; do have flexible beliefs, non-conforming attitudes and non-stereotyped behaviour (Sternberg and Sternberg, 2012).

The Investment Theory of Creativity (Sternberg and Lubart, 1991; Sternberg 2006), proposes that creativity can be understood as a process that emerges from the interaction between 6 elements: 1) Intellectual abilities (mostly those related with posing the right problems, and with developing insight skills); 2) Knowledge (without undermining flexibility in thinking!); 3) Styles of thinking (mostly thinking about things and thinking in new ways); 4) Personality (including traits such a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance, willingness to grow, risk-taking, and believing in oneself); 5) Motivation (intrinsic motivation VS the typical extrinsic motivation promoted by the grade system at schools); 6) Environment (hopefully sparking, encouraging, and rewarding creative ideas).

The 6 aspects of creativity

If we focus on the environment element of the Investment Theory… we could ask ourselves if our environment is always providing us support when developing our creativity… Creativity has been commonly referred to “outside-of-the-box” thinking, which highlights the somehow rebellious and liberating nature of creativity. In this line, Csikszentmihalyi (1988) highlights how creative ideas are often rejected when the creative innovator stands up to vested interests and defies the crowd. This could be very well the assumption of the guy in the cartoon below, while speaking about his employees…

Much earlier than we become professionals, however, we are all children, and we spend most of our childhood at schools… And then here we go to the key question: Do schools promote creativity…? Attempts to reply to this question have been surprisingly similar (and also heart-breaking) throughout the last 70 years, and below we can find some illustrations.

Already in 1950, Joy Paul Guildford (considered as one of the founders of the psychology of creativity), in the presidential address to the American Psychological Association, posed these questions:

Why is there so little apparent correlation between education and creative productiveness?
Why are schools not producing more creative persons?

Almost three decades later, Hennessey and Amabile (1987) spoke about some educational methods for killing creativity, including: having children work for an expected reward, setting up competitive situations, having children focus on expected evaluation, using plenty of surveillance or setting up restricted-choice situations.

In 2006, Ken Robinson starred what is considered as the most popular TED talk of all time (with almost 19.000.0000 of views on Youtube; you can see the TED TOP 25 list here), under the title: Do schools kill creativity?

Combining great humor and insightful ideas, in this talk Robinson claimed for the urgent need for creating an education system that nurtures (rather than undermines) creativity.

I highly encourage you to watch this TED Talk: 20 minutes of your life well used. As an appetizer, I would like to conclude by highlighting three of Ken Robinson’s statements:

All kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly (…) As children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up. And then we focus on their heads. And slightly to one side…

If you´re not prepared to be wrong, you´ll never come with anything original (…) We stigmatize mistakes. And we´re now running national education system where mistakes are the worst thing that you can make.

Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.

by Gloria Nogueiras


  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988) ‘The flow experience and its significance for human psychology’. In M. Csikszentmihalyi and I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (eds.), Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness, pp. 15–35. Cambridge University Press.
  • Guilford, J. P. (1950) ‘Creativity’. American Psychologist, 5, pp. 444–454.
  • Guilford, J. P. (1967) The nature of human intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Hennessey, B. A., and Amabile, T. M. (1987) Creativity and Learning: What Research Says to the Teacher. National Education Association, Professional Library, PO Box 509, West Haven, CT 06516.
  • Sternberg, R. J., and Lubart, T. I. (1991) ‘An investment theory of creativity and its development’. Human development, 34(1), pp. 1-31.
  • Sternberg, R.J. and Lubart, T.I. (1995) Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity. Free Press.
  • Sternberg, R. J. (2006) ‘The nature of creativity’. Creativity research journal, 18(1), pp. 87-98.
  • Sternberg J. P. and Sternberg, K. (2012) ‘Problem solving and creativity’, in J.P. Sternberg, and K. Sternberg (Eds.), Cognitive Psychology. 6th ed. USA: Cengage Learning.
Diving into creativity: Are we killing it…? was last modified: July 21st, 2020 by Gobalo