What is Creativity?

A kindergartener’s finger painting, a composer’s sonata, a scientist’s discovery—many seemingly disparate acts can be labeled “creative.” While creativity has been widely valued both in children and adults, the concept of creativity has varied greatly in its definition. Creativity is conceptualized by some as a desirable trait that a person is either gifted with or lacking, while others believe that a person’s creativity, like many other complex behaviors, can be promoted given the right environment.

What Is Creativity?

Process, person, or product—what is creativity, and where is it to be found? Creativity is thought by some to be a mysterious inner process that can be neither tested nor taught. Some consider creativity to be part of the person, describing a woman as creative as readily as they would describe her tall. Still others find that creativity can be attributed to the product itself and describe ideas, painting, and songs as creative. At its simplest, creativity is the behavior of producing something new, whether it is an idea or a product.

In 1959, Joy Paul Guilford explored the relationship between intelligence and creativity. He hypothesized that the link was problem solving. Guilford detailed two kinds of problem solving: convergent thinking and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking, the type most often reinforced in academic settings, is a manner of problem solving in which the problem solver narrows all of the possible answers down to one single solution. Divergent thinking is a mode of problem solving in which the problem solver creates a number of solutions for one problem. Guilford believed that divergent thinking was at the heart of creativity, and he, like many others, found the educational system to promote almost exclusively convergent thinking. It is now widely recognized that both convergent and divergent thinking play their own part in creativity, because divergent thinking enables the problem solver to come up with a number of possible solutions while convergent thinking leads to a course of action chosen from those many and varied ideas. In Guilford’s theory of creativity there are several components of divergent thinking: originality, fluency, flexibility, and elaboration.

Aspects Of Creativity

People are said to be behaving creatively when they produce a product or an idea that is original or different. The product or idea may be different in relation to others produced by the individual, by others in their peer group, or in relation to the society in which they live. It is generally held that to be creative an idea or product must be not only new but also useful or appropriate. A student who throws blocks at his teacher rather than building with them might be said to be engaging in a new or different behavior, but it would be unlikely to be judged creative.

A trait that is often deemed a necessary ingredient of creativity is fluency. Fluency is shown when a person generates many different yet suitable responses to a stimulus within a set amount of time. It is thought that a person who is able to come up with a large number of responses has a greater chance of producing a creative response. Most common in creativity testing is ideational fluency, the ability to name things that belong to a given class. A person might, for example, be asked to name as many things as they can in 1 minute that are long. While initial responses such as “pole” or “stick” may lack in originality, ideas produced later in a sequence are often more original, such as “a frog’s tongue.” Other types of fluency include word fluency, the ability to easily state a large number of words containing a given letter, and associational fluency, the ability to easily state synonyms for a given word.

Flexibility is the ability to shift approach when addressing a problem. For example, in the above problem of listing things that are long, answers such as “pole,” “stick,” and “frog tongues” are all items that are measurable with a ruler. Showing flexibility in answering would be additionally listing answers such as “geometry class” or “the wait for a bus on a cold day.” Spontaneous flexibility is shown in the above example, while adaptive flexibility is demonstrated when a problem solver who has headed down the  wrong path on a problem can effortlessly take a new tack. Both increase the probability of solving a problem by allowing the problem solver to come up with a number of different approaches and easily “switch gears” when it is discovered that they have proceeded in the wrong direction.

Elaboration is filling in the details of an idea or product. This procedure extends the response, supplementing the original to make it clearer or better. The process of elaboration completes an idea or product and may describe how it may be constructed, used, improved, or how it may impact others.

Testing For Creativity

Once  the  components  of  creativity  are  broken down into observable, measurable units of behavior, creativity testing is possible. Although there are countless tests for creativity and they vary a great deal in their content and structure, creativity tests generally center on the idea of divergent thinking, and most test for the above components of flexibility, fluency, originality, and elaboration. Creativity tests tend to have questionable predictive validity, meaning that results are unlikely to accurately predict whether or not a student will behave creatively or become a creative adult. However, most creativity tests have been found to be fairly reliable in the sense that a person’s scores change very little upon repeated testing.

The most widely used test of creativity is the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. Both a verbal and a nonverbal component make up this test. The verbal Torrance Test for Creative Thinking consists of six word-based  activities  in  which  students  are  asked to perform tasks, including considering alternative uses for common items, answering hypothetical what-would-happen-if questions, generating questions, and improving products. The nonverbal or figural Torrance Test for Creative Thinking is composed of three picture-based activities in which students are asked to draw as many pictures as possible given a repeated shape, take forms and make them into pictures by adding lines, and complete a picture through drawing.

Both components are scored for fluency, flexibility, and originality. Additionally, the nonverbal component is also scored for elaboration. The Torrance Test has excellent content and construct validity compared with most other creativity tests and has scored higher than other tests on a number of predictive validity measures.

Is creativity, like IQ, something that remains relatively static throughout one’s life, or can a person’s creativity be improved? There are a number of curricula available that are designed to increase aspects of creativity. Most equate creativity to divergent thinking, deriving multiple solutions to a single problem, and work to increase that aspect of creativity. The methods of training in these curricula are varied, including audiotapes, comic books, workbooks, and direct teaching of skills. Most procedures include instructions as to the importance of creative thinking and include skill practice as the primary activity in training.

Some research regarding the effectiveness of these training programs shows an increase in students’ scores on tests of divergent thinking. Although these results may seem promising, students are generally tested using materials that are very much like the training materials. There is little research to show that the positive effects of training generalize beyond these materials.

The most successful results to date come from interventions designed to increase individual aspects of creativity through reinforcement. A number of studies conducted in the 1970s increased diverse and novel behavior by praising behavior that had not previously been seen in the student within the session. Some of the behaviors increased were block building, drawing, constructing tools, creative writing, and painting. Through descriptive social reinforcement, novelty and diversity of behaviors increased substantially. In 1976, Glover and Gary increased each of the four aspects of creativity listed above: originality, fluency, flexibility, and elaboration in a group of fourth and fifth-grade students. When points were given for fluency, that aspect of students’ writing improved. As each aspect of creativity was systematically rewarded, that aspect and only that aspect of students’ writing improved. As with the broader, multicomponent curricula, the generality of these effects is largely unknown.


Creativity has been defined a number of different ways. Most commonly, though, it has been identified with the novelty and originality born of problem solving  through  divergent  thinking.  Divergent  thinking has been further broken down into four components: fluency, producing a number of responses within a given time; flexibility, producing different types of responses; originality, producing responses that differ from peers, society, or individual history of responding; and elaboration, producing responses that are sufficiently complex and multifaceted.

Once creativity has been broken down into observable behaviors, it becomes possible to test for this performance and to train individuals and groups to increase  the  behaviors  determined  to  be  creative. From early preschool and into adulthood, it is clear that creative behavior can be influenced by the environment. The challenge of tomorrow will be designing classrooms and work environments that will promote creativity in our daily lives.


  1. American Creativity  Association,  http://www.amcreativity.org/
  2. Glover, A., Ronning, R. R., & Reynolds, C. R. (1989). Handbook of creativity: Perspectives on individual differences. New York: Plenum.
  3. Sternberg, J. (1999). Handbook of creativity. New York: Cambridge University Press. Torrance Center for Creative Studies, http://jane.coe.uga.edu/torrance/index.html