Image by Denise Krebs

Are creative people really different from the rest of us? Can creativity be taught?

The answer seems to lie in how standard cognitive representations and operations are used in idiosyncratic ways. Or in others words, it’s how individuals use information in unusual and different ways.

So what is going on with people who are thought to be creative? Sternberg (1988) found that these people:

  • Lack conventionality. They tend to make up their own rules and deviate from the norms. From an educational perspective we can see that too many rules can stifle an individual’s creativity. We need to create safe practise fields for students to deviate from the norm, to experiment, prototype and fail forward.
  • Integrate and intellectualise. These people are good at making connections between disparate ideas. This is yet another reason to move to a cross-curricular approach. The more connections that can be made between disciplines and ideas, the better students will be at building on existing connections.
  • Aesthetic taste and imagination. This is about having the knowledge to know what is beautiful in a particular area. Knowing a masterful piece of music when you hear it or knowing that something will work well in one circumstance and not another. How do we cultivate this in schools? Perhaps this is where we need to slow things down and allow enough time for students to try multiple ways of immersing themselves in a subject or topic. Do we rush from topic to topic, piling more and more on before there has been time to reflect?IMG_5263
  • Decision making skill and flexibility. Decision making is deliberate and rational, but agile and able to change methods and pivot on failure. This is knowing when to let go and change direction and when to persist. Worksheets and over prescribed instructions will give no opportunity for students to change methods and pivot on failure because they are learning to follow one pathway to an outcome. This is where I think the design thinking approach is invaluable in schools as it teaches students to develop multiple approaches and practise letting go when they need to.
  • Perspicacity: This refers to a person being perceptive, insightful, discriminating and shrewd.
  • Motivated and focused. This is where persistence comes into play. How many hours do you think Divinci spent on his inventions? To create the famous last supper it took him 3 years, sometimes working night and day – the Mona Lisa four years. While historians might squabble over exact time frames, the point is that creativity isn’t always flashes of insight followed rapidly by a product or piece of work. Sometimes it is deliberate and slow.

Given the right conditions we all can be creative, granted not all of us can or want to be the next Divinci, but we need to move away from the mindset of “oh I am just not the creative type” Creativity can be taught!


Experiments have shown that where participants have more constraints, they show more creativity (Finke, R et al. 1992). This has implications in an educational context when we are trying to teach creativity. Rather than giving students a blank canvas and saying go for it, a better way might be to give them a limited number of materials and get them to use those materials in different ways to create something new. This also can help overcome a limitation on our thinking called functional fixedness (a cognitive bias that limits us to only use an object or material in traditional ways).


Finke, R.A., Ward, T.B., &  Smith, S.M. (1992). Creative cognition: theory, research, and applications. Cambridge, MA

Sternberg, R.J (1988). The three facet model of creativity. In RJ Sternberg (ed.), The Nature of Creativity. New York: Cambridge U Press.