What is Creative Thinking?

Lesson Content

Inquire: Let’s Talk Creativity


Creative thinking is an essential skill. When people think creatively, they often lead others into the future. People didn’t invent the computer, the Internet, or the Mona Lisa just by following the same old ideas that were always in place. They did so by thinking outside of the box and really pushing the boundaries of what is and what could be. Creative thinking can allow a person to view the world in such a way as to innovate new and beneficial contributions to the world. In this lesson, students will learn to define creative thinking and they will also examine some of the benefits of increasing creative thinking skills.


Big Question

How can creative thinking improve a person’s life and well-being?

Read: Examining Critical Thinking


It is interesting how often people assume that creative thinking is related to subjects such as art and drama and overlook its importance in areas such as science, math, and social studies. Many often ignore the fact that creative thinkers have established essential breakthroughs in knowledge in all areas—though their ideas may have been considered crazy at first. Of course, college students are not expected to discover a new virus or found a new school of art, but they should be able to think creatively and understand the importance of doing so. Naturally, the standards for the fine arts mention creativity very clearly and often. In English, students are also expected to create texts of different kinds. But how can math be creative? Creative thinking can be characterized as necessarily involving the ability to think:

  • Flexibly, or to be able to use many points of view
  • Fluently, or to be able to generate many ideas
  • Originally, or to be able to generate new ideas
  • Elaboratively, or to be able to add details

These abilities come into play in the subject areas in many ways. In math, for example, students are expected to work flexibly with different types of numbers to solve problems. Moreover, even physical education standards require physical education to support student self-expression. In this age of high-stakes testing, creativity is often seen as a curricular “extra,” but there are many compelling reasons for why it should be central. Clearly, creative thinking is an important goal for students.

What Is Creative Thinking?

DecorativeThere are many definitions of creative thinking. The one that is relevant depends on whether you are looking at the process, the outcome, or the goal, and which cultural and philosophical views you are taking. Generally, creative thinking can be defined as the creation of original ideas, processes, experiences, or objects. For example, inventions such as the computer and the printing press and paintings such as the Mona Lisa are creative endeavors.

Creative thinking can also be described as the ability to see ordinary things differently. An often-cited example of this kind of creative thinking is the creation of Velcro, which arose from the observation of cockleburs (a thorny plant) clinging to clothes. The inventor, George deMestral, clearly was able to see a common item in a different and original way and was able to generate a clear, detailed idea that resulted in his million-dollar product. The developers of the iPod, the cell phone, and the YouTube website all employed creative thinking in the creation of their products.

Research on creative thinking goes back a long way. The first formal study was conducted in 1869, and creative thinking was a topic of discussion and interest long before that. In different cultures and disciplines, creative thinking is described and investigated somewhat differently. However, many of the same findings hold true.

DecorativePaul Torrance, considered a pioneer in creativity research, noted as most important in his seminal book on creativity that stifling creativity is dangerous both to mental health and educational and vocational achievement. Other researchers have found that teachers do tend to stifle creative thinking and focus more on solving close-ended problems that have only one correct answer. However, researchers believe that when teacher involvement in creativity is high (e.g., when they encourage students to see themselves as creative), the creative achievement of students will also be greater (Shepard & Runco, 2016). Research also shows that when appropriate creativity-enhancing processes are valued and supported by a “mentor,” the results are markedly greater.

Fasko (2000–2001) reports the following findings in his review of creative thinking research:

Some people are assimilators, or those who prefer to use known understandings to solve problems, and others are explorers, who like to find new solutions. A match between cognitive type and task leads to good problem solving. The variety of resources that the Internet provides can help teachers to create different types of tasks for different types of learners.

People often find certain tasks more meaningful than others, and so are more motivated when they choose their own tasks. This also applies to the products or outcomes of the tasks.

A focus on problem finding, or being able to discern what the real problem is, is as important as a focus on creative problem solving. Technology can support problem finding in many ways, including as a resource for world news and views, as an instrument to record survey information, or as a communication tool for brainstorming about problems.

Research also shows that creative thinking skills do not always transfer from one subject to another. This is because creativity can take on different looks in different subject areas, depending on the goals and values of that discipline. Therefore, creative thinking needs to be taught across disciplinary genres. In other words, creative thinking is not just a set of technical skills. Rather, it involves feelings, beliefs, knowledge, motivations, and disciplinary understanding. In addition, a creative idea can arrive in a “eureka” moment or it can be developed over time. It can be completely innovative, or it can be an incremental, original change to something that already exists.

Reflect: How Creative Are You?


Do you believe that you are creative?

Expand: How Beneficial Is Creative Thinking?


DecorativeThough most creative thinking researchers believe that all humans have natural creative abilities, they also note that these abilities are rarely fully developed. This could be, as Plsek (1997) noted, because people have certain patterns in their minds that help them to recognize how certain problems can be solved. For example, if a person knows that electronic devices do not work unless they are plugged in, when confronted with a device that is not working, the person will probably first check whether the device is, in fact, plugged in. This use of previous knowledge will work until the person confronts a situation in which plugging in the device, or seeing that the device is already plugged in but does not work, does not lead to the desired outcome. Plsek suggests that people must break free from the mental habits that are stored in memory in order to establish new (creative) patterns. There are a variety of benefits that can be obtained from establishing these new creative patterns, which should encourage students to work on these patterns and increase their overall creative capabilities.

Benefits From Creative Thinking

People who can think creatively can determine alternatives, solve problems, and avoid being what Lutus (2005) calls “lifelong idea consumers” who must consult others rather than working out problems themselves. Creative thinking can encourage independence, which is what most students, specifically college students, strive for. Creative thinkers can also learn to make “original contributions to the store of human knowledge” (Lutus, 2005, p. 2) and can propose innovations that change their world. The goal of most academic research is to find knowledge that may be valuable and beneficial to the community. Academics in college primarily focus on this idea because scholars often work toward the goal of creating a better world. Scholars often use creative thinking in their academic endeavors to accomplish this goal. Creative students also tend to stay on task longer and therefore achieve more. Creative thinking can increase overall success in any endeavor and maintain interest long enough to accomplish it well. In addition, creative thinkers can participate in mature risk taking, be flexible and adaptable, and read with greater engagement. Most importantly, students who can think creatively can have richer and more fulfilled lives.

Check Your Knowledge

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Additional Resources and Readings

The Positive Benefits of Creativity

An article that discusses benefits of creative thinking

The Importance of Creativity in the Workplace

An article that discusses how important creativity can be in the workplace

7 Fun Exercises to Quickly Improve Creative Thinking

An article that lists fun activities a student can do to increase their creative thinking skills

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License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Kody Long for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0


Fasko, D. (2000–2001). Education and creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 13(3–4), 317–327.
Lutus, P. (2005). Creative problem solving.
Plsek, P. (1997). Creativity, innovation, and quality. Chicago: Irwin.
Shepard, A., & Runco, M. (2016). Recent research on creativity and education. Ricercazione (Learning Research and Innovation in Education), 8(2), p. 21-38.

Adapted Content:

Title: Supporting Student Creativity. Pressbooks. License: CC BY 4.0

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