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Creativity as an Elusive
Factor in Giftedness
Joyce VanTassel-Baska, Ed.D.
College of William and Mary
Published in the April 2004 issue of Update, the
electronic magazine of the School of Education at the College of William and
Click for printer-ready
Creativity as an Elusive Factor
Creativity is an elusive factor in its relationship to giftedness. Many
writers have alluded to the necessary but insufficient component of high
intelligence to activate creativity and the reality that many high IQ people are
not creative. So what is creativity and how do we foster it in children and
young adults? Views of creativity have evolved through several decades of
research and application of creative thinking strategies. Psychological views of
creativity have centered on the Freudian which espouses that creativity emerges
from suppressed desires, to the Maslovian which equates creativity with the
state of self-actualization, to the Rogerian which views creativity as the
capacity to relate to others in nonjudgmental ways. Other views of creativity,
most notably Ariete's (1976), see it as a social construction operating in open
and permissive societies. Specific research in creativity has tended to focus on
trait theories that define the creative personality as the basis for creative
action. Characteristics like independence, risk-taking behavior, freedom from
social conventions all make up the traits of such a personality. Other research
has examined the processes through which individuals function creatively. These
processes include the Torrance components of fluency, flexibility, elaboration,
and originality as well as various iterations of creative problem-solving models
that purport to move students through various skills in order to develop a
- More recent research has focused on creativity as best judged by
products of individuals and groups that are both original and relevant to
one's culture at a given point in time. Even when products may not be
accepted at a given point in time, their originality may emerge and be
appreciated by new generations of consumers.
Carlyle once said that history is the essence of innumerable biographies. As
a culture, as a human society, we define ourselves by the contributions of those
who create. Examples of this approach abound--we have named Einstein as the man
of the millenium with Edison, Roosevelt, and Ghandi as runners-up. Such behavior
is interesting in that it reveals our sustaining belief in the contribution of
the individual, not the the institutions nor the families that allowed the
individual to develop and perform in their arena of expertise. Moreover, we
typically award acclaim after a period of time has passed, since we cannot
really understand creative contributions in the moment and especially their
import and implications.
- The educational philosopher Smith (1990) has observed that thought
proceeds in privacy and that it is only through human artifacts that we can
come to know what thought does. This point is apt when thinking about how we
have come to study creativity as an analysis of its products. We know that
someone has been creative when their product is judged of high quality and
original within a given domain. Simonton (1999) suggests that the products
must be prolific if an individual's work is to be judged creative over time.
Csikszenmihalyi (1996) further suggests that the creative product has to be
valued by the culture and field that produces it, implying that creative
individuals must also be good marketers of their work or find other agents
who will do it for them.
Traditionally, creativity has been viewed as an easy process, something that
people with certain traits were able to do while others without those traits
could not. As our views of creativity have become more informed, we have come to
appreciate the role of hard work and revision in the process. Osche's work
(1993) is instructive in this regard. After reviewing all of the literature on
creativity, she decided the single criterion that mattered the most was the
willingness of creative people to work hard and put in the extra time necessary
to turn out a quality product in a given domain. Ericsson's (1996) work on chess
players and athletes further supports this contention. His stance, based on a
number of studies, is that practice, not innate talent, is what separates
creative producers from merely competent technicians. And Simonton's (1999)
contention that quantity alone predicts quality adds to the understanding of the
process as anything but magical.
In the area of education, we are frequently stymied by the need to make
judgments about student evidence of creativity and many times feel the need not
to judge but rather to accept any product as an example of creative response.
This dilemma raises the issue of thinking about creativity at several levels and
rendering judgments accordingly, the issue of big C versus little c.
- Research on good teaching suggests that feedback is crucial to student
improvement, yet at least one researcher on creativity argues against
evaluative judgment. Collins and Amabile (1999) have noted the problems with
providing both positive and negative feedback to potential creators on their
products as it may interfere with their internal capacity to move the
product and other manifestations of their work forward to a new level.
Perhaps educators might take the middle ground by providing feedback on the
processes that underlie the work while still not judging the overall
product. For example, to assess a student's research project, one might
comment on the process for selecting the problem, the use of search tools to
review the literature, and the instrumentation selected to study the
problem. Such feedback should serve to assist the student in deepening an
awareness of the research process itself, while still acknowledging the
integrity of what the student has done.
So creativity is elusive precisely because like intelligence it has many
different manifestations, conceptions, and interpretations. For example, some
people see only individuals who shift paradigms within fields and disciplines as
creative while others see everyone as creative. We appear to be successful only
in judging it by products that frequently reach us retrospectively. Finally,
predicting who will be creative in adulthood from childhood traits and even
behaviors has proved difficult, even in our studies of prodigies which provide
the best snapshot into the issue at early ages.
The trait view
While the trait view of creativity is less accepted as a way to judge who is
creative than the product orientation just discussed, it still has salience in
studying the lives of individuals retrospectively. Studies of eminence, for
example, support the presence of the following characteristics in the
personality of people who have made major contributions to their society. These
individuals typically possess:
|An array of interests. These individuals have a broad information base
established through personal interest that then allows them to make
connections across areas of knowledge to a greater extent than their peers.
|Open to novel, complex, and ambiguous stimuli. Creative individuals
remain child-like in their perceptions of the world, genuinely curious, and
willing to explore new and different avenues of investigation. |
|Capable of defocused attention. This characteristic relates to the
ability of creative individuals to scan the environment for data or stimuli
that might fit with their work. This ability may be analogous to the
synectics process in creative thinking where students are encouraged to
describe relationships between two seemingly disparate objects like a
doorknob and a plate. |
|Flexible in respect to cognition and behavior. Creative individuals
remain playful with ideas and their manifestations rather than rigidly
locking in on a line of thought.|
|Introverted. These individuals enjoy solitary pursuits, working alone
many times because their energy comes from inside, not from other people.
|Independent, autonomous, unconventional, and iconoclastic. This quality
speaks to their lack of being easily swayed by majority opinion or outside
views and allows them to take unpopular stances on issues or unconventional
- While the role of traits in creative individuals may be only partially
explanatory for their successful products, skills can be taught to aid
individuals in their quest to be more creative in a given area
(VanTassel-Baska, 1998). Some of these are stages in the creative process,
while others truly do constitute specific areas of worthwhile application on
a regular basis.
The early work of Wallas (1926) was instructive about the stages of the
creative process. He noted that preparation was a critical first stage. This
corresponds to research on the talent development process in any field which
suggests learning as much as possible about a field, including the tools,
processes, and attitudes associated with it. The second stage is referred to as
the incubation stage where the individual is engaged in solid work on a problem
but needs unconscious help in moving to solution. This stage frequently involves
getting away from a problem and having it continue to sit at the periphery of
consciousness. The third stage of the process is illumination where the
individual creator suddenly realizes the right solution or the elegant way to
resolve a dilemma, sometimes referred to as the eureka syndrome. Finally, there
is a need for the verification stage. Is the answer really plausible? Does it
hold up to the cold light of reasoned judgment? This final stage must also be
negotiated by the creative person, and appropriate adjustments and refinements
made. These stages have been studied the most in the lives of creative
scientists, and it is easy to see the analogue to the classic process that is
employed in such work. However, the process in general appears to be highly
applicable to other areas of endeavor as well.
- Other ways of casting the skills involved in creativity revolve around
those that comprise the creative problem-solving model. Articulated first by
Osborne in 1963, it is a model that involves the constant interplay of
creative open-ended thinking with convergent, or narrowed to one-answer,
thinking. Typically the model employs several stages and usually includes an
initial problem-finding stage that seeks to brainstorm all the different
things a problem might be, then to provide illustrations and examples of
each option, and finally to come out with a strong problem definition
statement. This stage is followed by a period of fact-finding in which the
problem is explored through relevant search tactics to uncover more
information about how it has been studied, what current findings are, and
where the gaps appear to be in crafting a proposed new solution. The third
stage of the process typically involves solution-finding. Again the creative
strategy of brainstorming is helpful as there is a need to generate many
ideas about potential solutions. Such an approach is quickly followed,
however, by now trying to create a comprehensive synthesis of the best ideas
posed. The last stage in this process involves the creation of an action
plan or some other document that serves as a blueprint for making the
problem resolution a part of the real world, of moving the ideas into the
The knowledge of these skills and the ability to evoke them with a degree of
automaticity appears to be helpful to spawning creativity in several fields. Yet
the caution remains that, as some studies suggest, these skills must be modified
to fit specific problems within specific domains, and therefore must only be
seen as a broad heuristic within which creative people might adapt their own
idiosyncratic versions of the process.
The creativity literature has explored the home environments of eminent people
as well as prodigies in an attempt to understand the role that early
environments and parenting play in the process. In general there appear to be
strong advantages accruing from exposure to enriched home environments where
intellectual pursuits are valued and early talent development may take place.
Yet for high creatives, the home environments appear to be more emotionally
detached (Albert, 1980).
A second environmental factor that appears to undergird creativity is the
presence of some kind of adversity in the individual's background. In the lives
of many eminent individuals, that adversity is represented by early parental
loss, death of siblings in childhood, disabling physical conditions, and early
deprivation. It appears that such circumstances, while causing permanent
distress to many, for creative people become the fuel for creative work in that
the trauma is worked out in a creative expressive way.
- The role of education in the lives of creative people is an interesting
area of environmental support. It appears that just the right amount of
education is facilitative but that too much may prove to be detrimental.
This seeming contradiction to knowing a lot about your field stems from a
concern for too much conventional learning in an area where the ideas of
others become so crystallized as to block innovative thinking in the domain.
Simonton's (1999) work, for example, suggests a curvilinear relationship
between education and creativity. There is also evidence that much of the
learning of high creatives is obtained independently of traditional
schooling. Autodidacticism may be the norm among this group where the
impetus, nature, and extent of learning is self-governed.
Another environmental influence worthy of citing is that of marginality. It
is not coincidental that many of America's best writers, poets, actors, and
scientists come from the margins of the society, places where the perspectives
may be unconventional to begin with and where the vision may be more creatively
shaped. Women and minorities are two marginal groups whose contributions in the
last 25 years to many fields have been astounding. If we carefully assess the
contributions of immigrants to this country, we see another marginalized group
that has produced at very high levels. While being an outsider may be
psychologically difficult, it can provide the material necessary to advance the
thinking in a field and to keep traditions at bay.
Based on our understanding of the traits, processes, and environmental
conditions that support creativity, what is a reasonable definition of the
phenomenon? I would suggest that it is the capacity to develop original,
high-quality products in a domain that are judged so by the relevant peer group
in that field at a given point in time. Yet creativity, with a big C, requires
the test of time to assess the overall contribution of any given product.
The Development of Creativity
- Given our understanding of the phenomenon, what can parents and schools
do to promote creative capacities in students? There are six goals which we
may focus on to promote such behaviors. They include the following:
1) To develop intellectual risk-taking through expression and valuing of
differences and through selecting activities of interest from a list of
alternative ideas and perspectives;
2) To develop high level convergent and divergent skills through employing
educational models like CPS and problem-based learning that require and
promote such skills;
3) To develop deep knowledge in a domain by exposing students to major areas
of thought and encouraging deep learning in those for which there is both
interest and aptitude;
4) To develop strong communication skills in written and oral contexts by
requiring student work in both modalities and providing feedback on the
effectiveness of the work for communication to an audience;
5) To develop personal motivation and passion by broad exposure to the
culture and following up and supporting expressions of strong interest
linked to values and occupational predispositions in and out of school
6) To nurture creative habits of mind by broad-based reading,
perspective-taking, and the introduction of novelty.
- In the educational realm there are a number of models available to help
develop these skills and dispositions. They would include the CPS model
already cited along with newer approaches, such as the use of concept
mapping, problem-based learning, reasoning and thinking models, research
models, and guidelines for meaningful project work. The goals suggested
should be systematically applied to each area of learning in the schools to
maximize student engagement and learning as well as be applied to current
world issues, problems, and ideas encountered in real life and best
modulated through the home environment.
- The idea of creativity is more exotic than its reality which requires a
harmonious confluence of variables in order to support its development. Yet
it represents an important ideal for both how to work effectively and how to
live well. In work, it is useful, to paraphrase Henry Moore, the sculptor,
to have something you bring every insight to every day and know that you
can't quite get it right, even as you devote your life to the enterprise. In
life, it is useful, as Steven Covey suggests, to find those activities that
help us center ourselves, that help us learn, and that help us develop our
humanity and its potential. Understanding creativity, it would appear, can
assist with both of these tasks if we approach it with an attitude of
commitment, curiosity, and caring.
Albert, R. (1980). Family positions and attachment of eminence: A study
of special family positions and special family experiences. Gifted Child
Quarterly, 24 (2),87-95.
Arieti, (1976). Creativity: The magic synthesis. New York: Basic Books
Collins, M. A. & Amabile, T. (1999). Motivation and creativity. In R. J.
Sternberg (Ed.) Handbook of Creativity (p. 297-312). New York: Cambridge
Csikszenmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of
discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.
Ericsson, K. A., & Lehman, A. C. (1996). Expert and exceptional performance:
Evidence of maximal adaptation to task constraints. Annual Review of
Osborne, A. (1963). Applied Imagination. New York: Scribners.
Osche, R. (1990). Before the gates of excellence: The determinants of
creative genius. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Simonton (1999). Origins of genius. New York: Cambridge Press.
Smith, F. (1990). To Think. New York: Teachers College Press.
VanTassel-Baska, J. (Ed.).(1998). Excellence in educating gifted and
talented learners (3rd ed.). Denver, CO: Love.
Wallas, G. (1926). The art of thought. New York: Harcourt
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