Teaching Creativity for 21st Century Students

By Kathy Kegley and Tina Robbins


In recent years, creativity has been widely recognized as vital to success in the emerging global economy. For example, economist Richard Florida claims that creativity is the "ultimate economic resource" and the U. S. Council on Competitiveness suggests that innovation will be the single most important factor influencing the success of America in the 21st century (Wince-Smith, 2006; p. 13).  A 2006 issue of PeerReview, a publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, is entitledThe Creativity Imperative and offers a collection of papers acknowledging the importance of creativity in building a competitive workforce and calling for universities to play a more active role in teaching creativity to students.

Yet amidst this growing call for creativity and recognition of its value, many university faculty and administrators may be uncertain how to proceed with encouraging or teaching it. One potential barrier is the belief that creativity is an innate gift that cannot be learned - you either have it or you don't. Another prevalent misconception that some children develop during grade school and persists into adulthood is the belief that creativity is only about art and drawing ability; if you can't draw, you can't be creative. Yet another myth is that creativity is associated only with great achievements such as those of Mozart, Einstein or Da Vinci.

Since the 1950 inaugural address by J. P. Guilford to the American Psychology Association calling for more interest in the area of creativity, research has flourished and the many of the myths surrounding creativity have largely been dispelled (Batey & Furnham, 2006). Meta-studies have demonstrated that creativity is a basic ability that anyone can claim and develop (Ma, 2006). Researchers have introduced the concept of Big C creativity and Little c  creativity to distinguish between large impact creativity and everyday creativity [Csikszentmihalyi, 1990]. While lingering misconceptions about creativity undoubtedly contribute to the paucity of efforts to teach creativity, possibly the most daunting barrier is the absence of a single agreed-upon definition of the concept; as many as 60 distinct definitions have been cited in the literature (Rhodes, 1987). As with the fable of the blind men and the elephant, creativity is a somewhat mysterious phenomenon that takes on different meanings to different people. Years after the inaugural address that is generally credited as the catalyst for widespread research in the field, research has in many ways come full circle to acknowledge that creativity is a complex phenomenon with many subtle and interacting nuances. Given the lack of consensus about exactly what it means to be creative or how it can be measured within the research community, it is not surprising that teaching creativity can be a challenge in the university community.

Over about a five-year period, we used various instructional design methods, testing and refining as we went, to develop an online Creative Thinking Program (CTP). Though student responses and anecdotal evidence suggested the students had enhanced their creativity after completing the program, the absence of quantitative data to support this claim hampered dissemination of the program. Two years ago, we conducted rigorous analytical testing of the program that provides statistical evidence to support the effectiveness of the program (Robbins & Kegley). The CTP can be offered as a one-hour stand alone elective, but the primary intent in the design of the program is simple integration into existing courses that might benefit from increased creative thinking by students.

Evolution of the CTP

Our development of the Creative Thinking Program began in a Management Information Systems class offered in 2002. Our goal was to help students become more creative with their class projects, which were service-learning oriented efforts including organizations such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Senior Solutions and the Oconee County Humane Society. When faced with real world problems, the students struggled with the open-ended and frequently changing requirements as their projects progressed. In response to the suggestion that they be more creative in their thinking, genuine puzzlement surfaced with the simple question "How?"

In response to this clear need for providing some direction, we decided to add a creative thinking module using the text Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko. We asked students to read a few short chapters outlining the foundations of creative thinking and then apply selected techniques to challenges related to their projects. The results were both encouraging and startling. The projects clearly demonstrated a higher level of creativity than those in the past, and student comments reflected their enthusiasm for the experience afforded by the creativity module. In subsequent semesters, we continued to include the creativity module and noted consistently higher creativity in projects as well as appreciative comments from students.

In 2007, we further refined the CTP to be more broadly applicable beyond the original use in the Management Information Systems class and to be delivered in a pure online format. We wanted to create a self-contained module that could be easily integrated within any course. Our research study evaluated the effectiveness of the refined, online CTP module. The measures we used in the study included divergent thinking and self-efficacy, and both measures showed a statistically significant increase after completion of the program [Robbins and Kegley]. The pre- and post- tests included the commonly used Torrance Test of Creative Thinking and were sent to professionals at Scholastic Testing Services for scoring.  To the best of our knowledge, our CTP is the first successfully delivered in an online format and evaluated with quantitative data. For more information on the study, please see our article in Thinking Skills and Creativity.

Applications of the CTP

We have successfully used the online CTP module in five different courses. In each course, we evaluated the module on a pass/fail basis, provided specific instructions for passing the module and, as a safety net, distributed a token that students could use to resubmit an unacceptable module. While most of the courses that have made use of the CTP module (see below) are business-related, the module does not reflect business-specific content. The CTP is a general module with instructions on how to become more creative, and it can be applied to any discipline that has open-ended challenges and could benefit from creativity.

Creative Inquiry
The CTP in a Creative Inquiry class assisted students with learning how to approach problems from different perspectives and become more willing to take intellectual risks when searching. Students applied techniques from the Thinkertoys book to challenges from their Creative Inquiry projects and demonstrated mastery of the techniques in their project reports.

M.B.A. Class
The M.B.A. class Creativity in Business currently includes the CTP module. Students complete the program as one component in a series of modules (readings from research journals, larger scale projects and a text about innovation in business). In this course, students apply techniques and insights from the CTP to real world challenges they are facing at work or in a relevant business environment. Numerous success stories have emerged from this class as a result of the creativity assignments in the CTP applied to challenges at work.

Creativity Through Photography
A Leisure Skills class made use of the CTP by helping students become more creative in their thinking through the use of photography. The photography assignments embraced the creative thinking techniques in that they required students to seek new connections through visual metaphors, change perspectives when viewing a challenge, and improvise to seek creative alternatives. Students drew parallels with the insights they gained from the photography/creativity assignments and other kinds of challenges they might be facing at school or work.

Honors Projects
Students completing an honors project in a Principles of Management class applied knowledge gained from the CTP to a business related challenge and demonstrated an understanding of how creativity might be used as a competitive advantage both in business and in achieving their career goals. This course demonstrated the advantage of including the CTP as part of a larger honors project where complex and open-ended challenges are expected.

Creative Thinking (Elective)
The CTP served as the base for a stand-alone one-hour elective designed to enhance creative thinking abilities for students in all majors. In addition to the CTP, the course material included broader coverage of the Thinkertoys (Michalko, 2006) text and a project intended to synthesize the different aspects of the program. Also included was a deliberate effort to help students document this creative thinking course or creative thinking abilities on their resumes. The Department of Management offered the course and successfully attracted students who wanted to use elective hours to gain a competitive advantage in their careers.  

Lessons Learned
During the development of the CTP, several insights and best practices became clear. Sometimes they were consistent with traditional success factors (e.g., the need for effective instructional materials) while others might seem less familiar (e.g., the need for psychological safety).  The four critical factors contributing to the success of the CTP are discussed below.  

  1. Intrinsic Motivation
    Intrinsic motivation is a critical factor in achieving creativity (Amabile, 1988). In general, people will be more creative in areas that are of interest to them. Tapping into the students' natural interest in a challenge that they helped to develop or allowed to select is an important success factor of the CTP. While the selection may be constrained to be relevant to a particular topic (e.g., a Creative Inquiry project), allowing the students to participate in the development of specific challenges used in creativity exercises has clear benefits.
  2. Psychological Safety
    Asking a student to be more creative is also asking them to step outside their comfort zone and take intellectual risks that many have learned to avoid over years of formal education. To counter this possible fear, two psychological safety nets are viewed as critical to the success of the CTP. One is the use of contract grading, or a pass/fail grading scheme, to evaluate success of the module. This grading scheme, accompanied by a detailed specification of what constitutes success, is important in that it allows the student to explore ideas as long as the basic requirements are met. Another safety net that is seldom used but often praised in the evaluations is the use of a virtual token to allow an unacceptable module to be resubmitted with revisions. This token adds another layer of safety that encourages the student to move outside their comfort zone and explore alternative ideas that could be risky in a traditional class.
  3. Climate for Success (and Failure)
    While most teachers would like to establish a climate to encourage success, the CTP has benefited from a non-traditional approach that nurtures an atmosphere to celebrate failure as well as success.  Failures, or attempts to explore a new idea that didn't come to fruition for some reason, are viewed as a natural part of the creative process.  An important part of the overall success of the CTP is getting students to adopt the mindset that failure of one idea may lead to insights for the next great idea and embrace the quote from Winston Churchill: "Courage is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."  
  4. Instructional Materials
    Since the CTP is delivered completely online, the quality and effectiveness of the course text is of great importance. The text selected for the module is Thinkertoys(Michalko, 2006), and it has received rich praise from students and reviewers alike. It appeals to both global learners with big picture descriptions as well as providing detailed blueprints for sequential learners. Concrete examples are given throughout the book, and engaging visuals are often used to reinforce major concepts. Another noteworthy feature of this book is the relatively inexpensive cost, which is less than $20.  While there are many excellent books on the topic of creativity, this one has been the clear favorite of students and the most effective in achieving results in an online setting.

Any instructor interested in enhancing the creativity of their students may use this module with very little cost or overhead, and with much to gain in the growth of their students in this important but often neglected area. For more information, please contact Kathy Kegley at kathlek@clemson.edu.


Amabile, T. (1988).  The social psychology of creativity:  A componential conceptualization.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 357 - 376.

Batey, M.,  & Furnham, A. (2006). Creativity, intelligence, and personality, a critical review of the scattered literature.  Genetic, Social and General Psychology Monographs, 132(4), 355-429. 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.  New York: Harper and Row.

Ma H. (2006).  A synthetic analysis of the effectiveness of single components and packages in creativity training programs.  Creativity Research Journal, 18(4), 435-446. 

Michalko, M.  (2006).  Thinkertoys. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Rhodes, M. (1987). An analysis of creativity. In S. G. Isaksen(Ed.), Frontiers of creativity research: Beyond the basics (pp. 216-222). Buffalo, NY: Bearly. (Original work published 1961). 

Robbins, T.  & Kegley, K. Playing with Thinkertoys to build creative abilities through online instruction, Thinking Skills and Creativity, in press. doi:10.1016/j.tsc.2009.07.001

Wince-Smith D. L. 2006.  The Creativity Imperative, A National Perspective.  Peer Review.  Spring 2006. 

Kathleen Kegley is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Management at Clemson University.

Tina Robbins is an associate professor in the Department of Management at Clemson University.

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