Though creativity has been a buzzword in education for over 50 years, we still struggle to define and identify it. DGL recently asked Jane Piirto and Alane J. Starko, two experts widely known for their research in the area, to help clarify this complex concept. Their responses follow.
What is creativity, and why is it so difficult to define?
Piirto: The words create and creativity come from the Latin creâtus and creâre, which mean “to make or produce”—literally, “to grow.” The Dictionary of Developmental and Educational Psychology defines creativity as our “capacity to produce new ideas, insights, inventions or artistic objects, which are accepted as being of social, spiritual, aesthetic, scientific, or technological value.” Social utility for the product is vital.
To be creative is to be originative—to make something new. So the word novelty appears and reappears in numerous definitions of creativity. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi differentiates between big-C creativity and little-c creativity. The big-C creative person is eminent, a person whose work is well known by people in a particular field. The little-c creative person is not. Big-C creativity leads to the transformation of a domain. Little-c creativity is used in everyday life, as in problem solving.
Starko: Creativity is difficult to define because we use the same word to describe different processes, from an
individual inventing something that changes our culture to students writing exceptional stories in class. Thus we are left to seek not a single definition but a commonality across many definitions.
All definitions of creativity require a component of originality. A product of creativity typically includes a new idea, perspective, interpretation, or contribution. Purposefulness is another common characteristic of creativity; the creative act must be intentional, not accidental. A writer who bends the rules of grammar in the service of creative expression is different from a child who uses incorrect grammar because he or she doesn’t know any better.
Is everyone creative?
Piirto: The short answer is yes, though those who argue that eminence is a criterion for creativity would disagree. A person can be creative and can have creativity while learning a discipline. In fact, many disciplines—for instance, the performing arts—are never truly mastered. The pianist, who has practiced and prepared for years to interpret a masterwork, achieves a novel interpretation. This person is creative (little c); however, time, music critics, and CD and ticket sales will tell if he or she achieves the eminence required to be creative (big C).
Starko: The answer to this question hinges on the definition we choose. Few people have the combination of characteristics and opportunities that allow for the big-C efforts that change culture. But virtually everyone is capable of creativity with a little c. Many of us exercise it as we come up with solutions to everyday problems, such as hiding the vegetables in a kid-friendly dish, fixing a toy or game, or expressing ourselves in writing, art, needlework, or dance.
Creative activities may not be obvious, and creativity is expressed differently across the world and across subcultures. For example, some graffiti artists exhibit more creativity than a teen merely copying a popular cartoon character’s image.
What can parents do to encourage creativity?
Piirto: They can (1) establish a private place for creative work to be done; (2) provide materials (e.g., musical instruments, sketchbooks); (3) encourage and display their child’s creative work without overly evaluating it; (4) model creativity for their child through their own creative work; (5) value the creative work of others; (6) incorporate creativity values into their family life (e.g., “In our family, we value and talk about art, museums, music, books, education, etc.”); (7) emphasize that talent is only a small part of creative production and that discipline and practice are also important; (8) allow their child to be “odd” (e.g., avoid emphasizing socialization at the expense of creative expression); and (9) use humor and read books or attend workshops on creativity.
Starko: Fortunately, the things that best encourage creativity at home can also make home a happier and more interesting place. Creativity grows through exploring the world and playing with ideas. We encourage creativity by supporting young people in their discovery of new things, whether investigating rocks, plants, or mud near the path; trying out a different hair color; or meeting and learning about a new neighbor from a faraway place. An environment that supports creativity encourages children to ask questions and find new ways of doing things. Parents who support creativity model questioning, curiosity, and mistakes. Because risk taking is essential to creative endeavors, it is important for young people to see that making mistakes is an expected part of their explorations, not something to be feared.
Let the pleasure of exploration and innovation serve as the primary purpose for creative efforts. External incentives or rewards can lead young people to lose the joy of intrinsic motivation. Help children see the value in the creative process by making statements such as “I love exploring like this!” or “I’m excited to have found a new way to do this.”
Creativity also requires space and time for the mind to wander. These spaces can be physical as well as mental, requiring of parents the patience to perceive in a mess what eventually will be an invention or an artwork. Unscheduled time
is essential to the creative process and must be protected.
Jane Piirto, PhD, is Trustees’ Professor of Graduate Education, director of talent development education, and director of the Ohio Summer Honors Institute at Ashland University.
Alane J. Starko, PhD, is interim dean of the College of Education and professor of teacher education at Eastern Michigan University.
By the Authors
- Creativity in the Classroom: Schools of Curious Delight, 3rd ed., by Alane J. Starko, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005
- Understanding Creativity, by Jane Piirto, Great Potential, 2004