Journey to Excellence

Research summary - fostering creativity

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What is creativity?

'I define creativity as the entire process by which ideas are generated, developed and transformed into value. It comprises what people commonly mean by innovation and entrepreneurship.' John Kao, 1997

'Creativity is about liberating human energy.' Howard Gardner

'Creativity is the process of developing ideas that are original and of value.  Creative intelligence is dynamic, diverse and distinct.' Sir Ken Robinson 2001


Creativity can mean different things to different people. For some it means being imaginative or inventive, taking risks or challenging convention. For others it is about original thinking or producing something that nobody has come up with before. Some believe that the term 'creativity' only applies only to those who possess artistic talents. 

Traditionally, creativity has been associated with the achievements of extraordinary people such as Mozart, Einstein and Leonardo Da Vinci, and a good deal of the early research into creativity has focused on the work of highly creative people or those considered to be geniuses. 

Focusing on extraordinary individuals, however, simply perpetuates the myth that creativity is about special people doing special things. Research shows that there is no specific personality type associated with creativity. It is possible to be creative in any activity that engages our intelligence because intelligence itself is essentially creative. Creative processes are rooted in the imagination and our lives are shaped by the ideas we use to give them meaning. We all have creative capacities but in many instances we do not know what they are or how to draw on them.

Broadening the meaning of creativity

In recent years researchers and educational writers have extended the general meaning of creativity so that it incorporates ideas about inventiveness and imagination.

This reflects a growing acceptance that creativity it is not simply about coming up with big ideas, but coming up with practical solutions to everyday problems and then applying them to real life situations. Everything around us - our homes, cities, medical services, transport and communication systems - are conceived and developed by practical people who know how to implement creative ideas. Creativity can be readily associated with a wide range of everyday tasks and activities, and the importance of creativity at a personal level is often greatly underestimated.


Hard and soft thinking

‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ thinking are terms often associated with creativity and they reflect the neurological processes associated with different hemispheres of the brain. Research suggests that the right side of the brain is visual and processes information in an intuitive and simultaneous way, looking first at the whole picture then the details (soft thinking). The other hemisphere - the left brain - is verbal and processes information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces then putting them together to get the whole (hard thinking).

The right side of the brain is often associated with characteristics such as intuition, imagination, emotions, feelings and artistic creativity. The left side is more usually associated with planning and organisation, logic, analytical thinking and deduction. The right side of the brain is sometimes referred to as the ‘artist’, whereas the left side is regarded as the ‘judge’.

The distinction between hard and soft thinking can be illustrated in the following way. 

Hard thinkingSoft thinking


close down

one right answer




black and white



differences and categories






open up

many right answers




many shades of grey



similarities and connections





Roger Von Oech (1990) believes that creative thinking must be recognised as a process that involves both hard and soft thinking and that it is important to know when each is appropriate. He argues that every person has a ‘judge’ and an ‘artist’ within, and both are required in order to be creative. Even those who are very inventive, and thrive on spontaneity and uncertainty, also need to seek order and be analytical if they are to be successful.

It is now believed that the most powerful creative thinking occurs when the left and right hemispheres of the brain combine to apply both generative and evaluative processes.


Ideas about creativity

Psychologists have been making a case for inborn creativity for many years. In 1957, Abraham Maslow referred to the concept of ‘primary creativeness’. He claimed that creativity had roots in the subconscious and was the source of new discoveries. A growing number of researchers supported this viewpoint. Steven Pinker and Stanley Greenspan (1997) suggested that it is possible to identify potential for invention and creativity at a very early age. They believed that humans are genetically disposed to creativity.

Leaving scientific evidence aside, most of us would accept that young children typically display more of the qualities that are associated with creativity than adults. Children are naturally inquisitive and have a great capacity for imagination and fantasy - both integral elements of play. Young children explore, ask questions and are unafraid of being judged by others.

Howard Gardner believes each child, by the age of 7, has developed a capital of creativity upon which they subsequently draw throughout their adult lives, although this well of creativity can be topped up throughout life. The richer the initial capital the more easily creativity flows.

Vygotsky, on the other hand, suggests that young children’s creativity is less rich than that of adults because of their limited knowledge and the lower complexity of their cognitions. The creativity of children tends to be more subjective than that of adults. Children tend to create only for themselves, whereas adults create both for themselves and for the world in which they live. Edward De Bono suggests that the creativity typical of young children is a function of their innocence. If you do not know the usual approach, the usual solution, the usual concepts involved, then you are more likely come up with a fresh way of looking at things. 

De Bono and others, however, promote the view that as children grow older, they become more affected by the views of others and this begins to inhibit their creativity. Their developmental schema of dawning realism around the ages of 8-10 years heightens the importance of what others think about their ideas. One of the main challenges for educationalists is how to help young people develop resilience around their creative ideas, whilst inviting others to assess, evaluate and contribute to them. The ability to work collaboratively and develop in creative partnerships are key skills for the 21st century. 

Developing creativity

'We really need to stop considering thinking as simply ‘intelligence in action’ and think of it as a skill that can be developed by everyone.' Edward De Bono, 1982

De Bono believes that in order to foster creativity effectively we have to develop specific thinking techniques. He argues that although the brain is capable of great creativity and ingenuity, it is not designed first and foremost for this purpose and, as we grow older, it is more difficult to think laterally because thinking patterns become so well established and comfortable. Over the years, De Bono and other writers have promoted the view that creative thinking is something that can be developed by anyone and they have formulated a wide range of practical techniques to develop thinking skills. 

The main messages

  • Creativity is about generating ideas or producing things and transforming them into something of value. It often involves being inventive, ingenious, innovative and entrepreneurial. 

  • Creativity is not just about special people doing special things. We all have the potential to be creative and creativity is a skill that needs to be developed. 

  • Most individuals believe they are not very creative. Creativity, however, is an increasingly valuable commodity in the modern world. 

  • Creativity embraces both hard and soft thinking. The most powerful creative thinking occurs when the left and right hemispheres of the brain combine to apply both generative and evaluative processes. 

  • The forming of collaborative, creative groups and partnerships helps to foster creativity.


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How important is creativity?

'Imagination is more important than knowledge.' Albert Einstein 


Whether creativity is a good thing or not depends on the use to which it is put and on the beliefs and value systems to which it is attached.

There appears to be no doubt that creativity is of great economic importance. Sir Ken Robinson estimates that, during 1988 the financial contribution generated by creative industries in the UK amounted to £6 billion. By 1998 this figure had grown to £60 billion - a ten-fold increase. Employment in these industries grew 34% over the same period against a background of almost no growth in the economy as a whole. Creativity, therefore, is widely regarded as a vital component of economic growth. 

Robinson recognises, however, that it is not simply about employing more people in the creative industries.  The qualities associated with creativity and ingenuity are needed at all levels in both the private and public sectors. The increased pressure of competition has heightened the need for employers to be customer focused and working to achieve continuous improvement. This requires people at all levels use initiative when making decisions and to think differently. 

In the modern world, the skills and qualities that we associate with creativity and ingenuity are required to help us work more effectively together. 

Being able to come up with new ideas and solve everyday problems is also important for people on a personal level. It plays a critically important role in learning and personal development, as well as building self-esteem.


The implications for learners

How is it possible to become more creative? There is certainly no shortage of advice around. The business and the self-help sections of bookshops contain a large range of titles on the subject. The problem is trying to make sense of it all, particularly when some of the advice seems to conflict. From the range of strategies that have emerged the following are of note.


Developing a ‘could-be’ attitude

Many authors talk about the importance of being able to develop a creative attitude or states of mind and of fostering creative habits. These include: 

  • Overcoming the perception that ‘I am not creative’

  • Expecting the unexpected

  • Having fun playing with ideas

  • Practising not knowing or tolerating ambiguity

  • Being curious

  • Facing your fears

  • Talking to people about ideas along the way

  • Being proactive and going for it


Slowing down your hare brain

'Saturate your mind with your subject, then wait.' Lloyd Morgan, 1930 

One of the paradoxes about creativity is that although it often involves hard work and effort, ingenuity stems from relaxing and letting go. This concept has a long and distinguished pedigree in psychology. Arthur Koestler (1964) observed that this paradox is perfectly illustrated in Pablo Picasso’s famous phrase 'I do not seek, I find.' 

For many people, creative revelations come after they have let go of a problem that they have struggled with: a view perhaps reflected in Thomas Edison’s edict that 'creativity is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.' For many people, it is not the hard work that is difficult; it is waiting for inspiration. Guy Claxton believes that in order to develop creative capacity, individuals must learn and absorb techniques that alter their states of mind. In particular, this means slowing down what he refers to as the hare brain, the conscious mind, and giving the tortoise mind or subconscious, a chance to be dominant. 

Changing the way we see the world

'Originality is simply a fresh pair of eyes.' Woodrow Wilson 


Most writers agree that much of creativity and ingenuity is about improving perception, going beyond the obvious and seeing what no one else is able to see. Claxton and Lucas argue that human brains are hard-wired to make preconceptions that allow us to make the strange familiar. The problem is that our brains become focused on what we expect to see. What we see is what we look for. This means that we often jump to conclusions and accept the first and obvious solution to a problem. 

One of the main ways in which we can train ourselves to be more creative, therefore, is to use techniques that help us see beyond the obvious. Edward De Bono’s range of thinking tools (for example, brainstorming, thinking hats and PMI) are designed to help us heighten our perceptions of the world, to avoid impulsivity, to defer judgement and remove the need to come up with quick answers. 

Making thoughts visible

We were mainly educated to think with words, but many of the most creative minds in history - novelists, artists and physical scientists - have reported that their greatest inspirations came not in words, but in visual images. They were able to think in pictures rather than words. Once they got a visual idea, the words were easy. Visualising the solution first and then verbalising it, often promotes creative thinking and there are a range of techniques to support this, such as concept maps and spider diagrams.


Rethinking your thinking

The more ideas we can generate, the better our thinking is likely to be - quantity tends to breed quality. The trouble with this is that we are not brought up to think that way. Traditional schooling has never really embraced the more divergent and lateral thinking modes. Learners have been trained to think linearly and vertically, and to work logically through a problem to reach a single solution or a conclusion. People have been taught to make sense of the world by classifying and categorising ideas. They are expected to learn facts and be able to recall them.

There are other ways of thinking - sometimes described as divergent thinking or productive thinking - which can help to generate new ideas, although these are rarely, if ever, taught systematically in the context of a school. The foremost advocate of these techniques is Edward De Bono who invented the term lateral thinking, which he defines as the ability to change perception and keep on changing perception.

In lateral or divergent thinking, a logical pathway is often eschewed in favour of taking side trips down other roads where the destination may initially be unclear. Starting in, or making jumps to random places where there may be no clear pathways, can help avoid restrictions, limitations and constraints that do not actually exist. When problems do exist, lateral thinking can help question the assumptions being made about limits and boundaries and this helps to generate new ideas and solutions.  

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The implications for teachers and schools

'Many teachers feel strongly that current priorities and pressures in education inhibit the creative abilities of young people and those who teach them.' Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2001


It is often argued that the pressure on teachers to cover significant amounts of curriculum content in order to prepare pupils for national examinations inhibits the development of teaching and learning methodologies that foster creativity. Where the effectiveness of schools is measured in academic attainment, it is perhaps not surprising that some teachers and parents view the promotion of creativity and enterprise as added extras, or even distractions from the real business of schools - to prepare pupils for tests and examinations.

In recent years, however, there has been a growing understanding of creativity and how the development of creative thinking in young people can underpin effective learning and achievement. Two of Scotland’s most important national strategies - Curriculum for Excellence and Determined to Succeed - address the need to reshape the curriculum at all stages in order to better enable Scotland’s young people to develop self-confidence, self-reliance and ambition, and to become successful learners. 

Creativity in the classroom

To foster creativity teachers must encourage learners to think laterally and make associations between things that are not usually connected. They must be able to reinterpret and apply their learning in new contexts, look at things from different points of view and experiment with alternative approaches to solving problems. Teachers must help learners to see possibilities and challenges and all of these skills can be taught. 


The following approaches can help teachers to promote creativity in the classroom. 

  • Ensuring that planning incorporates a range of teaching and learning styles.

  • Providing regular opportunities for hands-on experimentation, problem solving, discussion and collaborative work.

  • Creating opportunities where pupils are encouraged to actively do the work and question what is going on.

  • Making use of creative thinking techniques such as Brainstorming, Thinking Hats and PMI.

  • Sharing the learning intentions with pupils and providing them with opportunities for choosing how they are going to work.

  • Encouraging pupils to improvise, experiment and think outside the box.

  • Actively encouraging pupils to question, make connections, envisaging what might be possible and exploring ideas.

  • Asking open-ended questions such as ‘What if…?’ and ‘How might you…?’

  • Joining in with activities and modelling creative thinking and behaviour. 

  • Encouraging pupils to develop criteria that they can use to judge their own work, in particular its originality and value.

  • Facilitating open discussion of the problems pupils are facing and how they can solve them.

  • Encouraging pupils to share ideas with others and to talk about their progress.

  • Using failure or setbacks as opportunities to learn.

  • Ensuring that assessment procedures reflect and reward creativity, enterprise and innovation.

  • Making effective use of encouragement, praise and positive language.

  • Creating opportunities to learn through the imagined experience, giving them a safe context to explore ideas using drama techniques.

 Developing creative thinking skills are fostered when learners are given:

  • authentic tasks that are relevant and which have a real purpose;

  • meaningful responsibility to think for and organise themselves;

  • real accountability in terms of setting standards for their work and agreeing these standards through discussion and collaboration.

National developments

In recent years, there have been two major reports into the state of creativity in schools in the UK. The first entitled - ‘All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education’ was written by the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, and published in England and Wales in 1999. The second entitled ‘Creativity in Education’ was published by Learning and Teaching Scotland in 2001. 

Both reports took a very similar line in seeking to define creativity and in emphasising its importance for our society and our economy. They confirmed the belief that creativity can be fostered and developed, and published a range of recommendations for action.

The charge that schools fail to promote creativity is by no means new. A host of well-known educational thinkers and practitioners such as Froebel, Montessori, Steiner, Dewey, Piaget and Bruner have strongly espoused the importance of creativity in education over the past 100 years and several have set up their own schools that operate on the fringes of mainstream education. 

Further reading

Books to help you reflect 

'Hare Brain Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When you Think Less' (Guy Claxton, 1998) 

'Serious Creativity' (Edward De Bono, Harper Collins, London, 1992) 

'Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative' (Sir Ken Robinson, Oxford, 2001) 


Books with practical ideas 

'Imagine That' (Stephen Bowkett, Network Educational Press, 1997) 

'Fostering Creativity' (Ian Smith, Learning Unlimited, 2006) 

'Be Creative' (Guy Claxton & Bill Lucas, BBC Books, 2004) 

'Six Thinking Hats' (Edward De Bono, Penguin 1985)

'How to Get Ideas' (Jack Foster, Beret-Koehler, 1996)

'A Whack on the Side of the Head' (Roger Von Oech, Thorsons, 1990) 

'Did You Spot the Gorilla?' (Robert Wiseman, Arrow Books, 2004) 


Useful websites


Further research

Explore Learning and Teaching Scotland's Research Round-Up.

In association with Education Scotland