What is Creativity?

Creativity is the ability to come up with interesting and new ideas by thinking divergently and out of the box.
Chan, CKY (2021)

Creativity competence is the ability to express creativity through ideas or products that are both original and effective (Runco & Jaeger, 2012).

Every Learner is Capable of Creativity

To be creative, an original idea needs also to be useful, fitting, or appropriate for the situation. Early creativity research focused on creativity in the domains of art and science by studying contributors of major breakthroughs and paradigm shifts, such as Vincent Van  Gough and Albert Einstein. These people are creative geniuses, whose works may last forever. Such eminent accomplishments obtained as a result of creativity is known as the Big C creativity; a qualification may include winning of prestigious awards or being included in an encyclopedia. However, it is not the only type of creativity and genius intellects are not the only ones capable of creativity. Little c creativity is expressed through incremental change and adaptation in any job or life situation, such as compiling a video blog to record daily activities, finding creative solutions for problems encountered at work, and creating fusion cuisine out of left-over food. Little c creativity suggests that everyday people can generate creative ideas and be creative.

Kaufman and Beghetto (2009)’s Four C Model of creativity expanded on the Two C model to define a wider range of creative activities, in an attempt to capture creativity as a concept that spans over a lifetime. On the mini-c level, creativity is described as a creation that is not revolutionary but is new and meaningful to the creator. For instance, Amy bringing back her first painting from school, that is, the painting is appropriate to the task and is new and meaningful to Amy. On the little-c level, ideas or products are created and might be of value to others. For instance, Amy’s parents then love her new painting and display it on the living room wall. On the pro-c level, the individual has the ability to be creative at a professional level and in a professional setting. This entails many years of deliberate practice and training, although not everyone at the pro-c level can make a living with the creative pursuit. Creators on the big-C level of creativity are those who attained eminent achievements through their creative expression.  The big C involves an evaluation of the creator’s entire career and entire body of work, which is then evaluated against other contributors of the domain of creativity.


The Creative Career of a Chef


Are You a Creative Learner?

Research has shown creativity to be useful in helping learners to become better interpersonal and intrapersonal problem solvers (Plucker et al., 2004). For instance, creative problem solvers could use strategies, scuh as humour, to resolve socially sensitive situations and interpersonal conflicts. Creativity’s wide contribution ranges from workplace leadership, adult vocational and life success, healthy psychological functioning, coping, emotional growth, and maintenance of healthy, loving relationships. Although there is not a particular set of traits that a person must have in order to be creative - echoing the point that everyone can be creative –  there are some common traits that creative people tend to have. Figure 1  contains a list of commonly observable traits in creative learners.

Creative learner_F.png

Are You a Creative Learner?


Why is Creativity Important?

Creativity is important because it encourage learners to:

  • Explore knowledge within and across different discipline and domain;

  • Be curious and motivated for knowledge exploration;

  • Be tolerant of uncertainty and mistake-making;

  • Take risks and be adventurous in thoughts; and

  • Be driven and self-disciplined.


How is Creativity Developed?

Benefiting from Creativity Cultivation: Steps towards Holistic Development

Creative idea generation requires motivated learners to utilize existing knowledge with imagination; research stressed the important role of teaching and learning in creativity cultivation. Harvard Professor, Amabile (1996), proposed three components needed for creativity to occur: domain-relevant skills, creativity-relevant skills, and task motivation. Domain-relevant skills include knowledge, technical skills, and specialized talent. For instance, if one wants to be a creative biologist, one would need to know the difference between mitosis and meiosis. Creativity-relevant skills are personal attributes associated with creativity. This includes tolerance for ambiguity, self-discipline, and willingness to take risks; for instance, handling the uncertainty of project outcome and unscheduled weekend. To cultivate creativity, it is important for teachers to expose students to a broad range of cross-disciplinary knowledge and set up environments that encourage learners to take risks and make mistakes.

In terms of task motivation (Amabile, 1996), creative learners have to be motivated to create; those who are driven by enjoyment, passion, and other intrinsic motivations are more motivated than those driven by extrinsic motivations, like money, praise, and grades. In the Holistic Competency Development Framework, Chan and Yeung (2019) proposed that motives for learning could be driven by meaning, career, enjoyment, course, and family. Learners’ motives for learning begin the learning process, which in turn influence learners’ perception and engagement with the learning activities and have significant implications for the learning outcomes. Chan and Yeung similarly found that learners who are driven by self-directed motives, such as enjoyment and friendship-building – compared to externally driven and involuntary motives - have more positive perceptions, higher levels of engagement in the learning activities, and more satisfying holistic competency outcomes. Thus, if teachers can provide students with activities that students find true interest and enjoyment in, it may prompt students’ creativity in their learning process.

Creativity spans over a lifetime. Everyone is born with creative potentials, but creativity has to find learners curiously exploring along their learning paths.  Csikszentmihalyi (1997) proposed that humans are born with two instincts: the conservative instincts for certainty and self-preservation to save energy for everyday survival and the expansive instincts for novel exploration and curious risk-taking. While the conservative instincts come naturally, the expansive instincts for novelty and risk wither if not cultivated or encouraged. Our educational systems tend to be didactic (Robinson, 2012) and discourage creative explorations by preventing learners from curious exploration and stigmatizing mistakes as a result of such exploration. It is no surprise that a prevalent voice remains, “students are educated out of creative capacity”. To plant seeds of creativity in students, schools should make efforts to remove obstacles placed in the way of risky exploration and engage learners in curious explorations inside and outside of classroom settings.


How Should I Assess Creativity?

Everyday creativity is expressed through creative actions that nonexpert participates in everyday life; it ranges from mini-c to pro-c (Kaufman and Beghetto, 2009; Silvia et al., 2017). On the mini-c level, self-assessments and microgenetic assessment methods are common. Self-assessments require students to reflect and consider their own creativity, which helps educators and parents to identify students with emerging creative interests and help support and nurture students’ creative development. Microgenetic methods combine observations (typically videotaped) and other methods (such as participants’ retrospective explanations on thoughts and behaviours) to capture students’ micro-level changes in thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving. This is usually done to develop an understanding of the source and development of students’ creative thinking.


Examples of Assessment Approaches for Creativity

On the little-c level, self-assessments and ratings by others are applied. Self-assessments include the Biographic Inventory of Creative Behaviors, which yields a creative behaviour score with the sum of yes responses, and the Creative Behavior Inventory, where students reported frequency of common creative actions engagement. Alternatively, creativity ratings by parents, teachers, and supervisors could be used to identify creative talents and serve as guidance for student placement. These assessments include psychometric tests, such as the Torrance Test that measure divergent thinking abilities in verbal and figural areas, and the Consensual Assessment Technique by Amabile (1996), where creative products are rated by appropriate experts.  


On the Pro-c level, creativity measurement is usually conducted with the goals of evaluating an individual’s professional accomplishments or gaining insight into the nature of creativity. The Consensual Assessment Technique is still useful, while creativity on this level is otherwise based on citations, prizes and honours, and peer opinion across domains. For instance, universities sending out a professor’s work to be evaluated by experts of the domain. This level of creativity assessment is mostly domain-specific, while mini- and little-c creativity can be evaluated by domain-specific and general experts.

However, when is a person more likely to work on something creative? What context evokes more creativity in people? What explains the variability in a person’s creative performance across a typical week?  In an attempt to capture the contextually variable nature of creative performance, researchers commonly adopt an Ecological Momentary Assessment approach toward studying creativity (Silvia et al., 2017). The approach assesses creative expression in people’s natural environments while they go about their typical daily activities. Designs for the Ecological Momentary Assessment approach includes daily diary studies, experience sampling studies, and event-contingent designs.


Further Readings

The Neuropsychology of Creativity: Three Important Networks

Neuroscience has given perspectives on creativity. Three important networks are involved in creative thinking (Immordino-Yang et al, 2012). First, the executive attention network pays attention to external stimuli, hold working memory, maintain strategies, inhibit obvious responses, and integrate information at once. Second, the default mode network, which is also known as the “imagination network”. This network becomes highly active when attention is turned inward in the brain, performing activities such as daydreaming, thinking about future goals, taking other’s perspectives, and empathizing with others. This allows the brain to stimulate active thinking, as creativity requires access to remote associations of information across knowledge domains. The third important network is the salience brain network, which is important for dynamic switching between networks. It turns the brain to interesting things that are captivating at the moment, for instance,  tagging things as either salient/interesting or un-salient/uninteresting and feeds the tagged information to the other networks.

Creativity requires the interworking of all three networks – the salience brain network signals the brain interesting information that’s happening at the moment and relies on the executive attention network to capture and retain important details with active attention; the default mode network then turns the attention inward to draw associations among knowledge domains. This thinking is synonymous with Csikszentmihalyi’s (1997) thinking on curiosity and drive as the yin and the yang to creativity. While curiosity represents openness to outside stimuli, like the executive attention network that prompts active attention, drive represents inner focus, seriousness, competitive spirit, achievement orientation that internalize and reimagine the information, as does the default mode network. Knowledge generation requires a balance between external attention and internal reflection.



Amabile, T. M., Amabile, T. M., Collins, M. A., Conti, R., Phillips, E., Picariello, M., Ruscio, J., & Whitney, D. (2019). Creativity in Context: Update to The Social Psychology of Creativity. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429501234

Chan, C.K.Y., & Yeung, N.C.J. (2019). Students’ ‘approach to develop’ in holistic competency: an adaption of the 3P model. Educational Psychology, 40(5), 622-642. DOI: 10.1080/01443410.2019.1648767

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (Vol. 39). Harper Perennial.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., Christodoulou, J. A., & Singh, V. (2012). Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(4), 352–364. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691612447308

Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond Big and Little: The Four C Model of Creativity. Review of General Psychology, 13(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013688

Plucker, J. A., Beghetto, R. A., & Dow, G. T. (2004). Why Isn’t Creativity More Important to Educational Psychologists? Potentials, Pitfalls, and Future Directions in Creativity Research. Educational Psychologist, 39(2), 83–96. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep3902_1

Robinson, K. (2012). The Trouble With Education. In Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative (pp. 49–79). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780857086549.ch3

Runco, M. A., & Jaeger, G. J. (2012). The standard definition of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 24(1), 92–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/10400419.2012.650092

Silvia, P., Cotter, K., & Christensen, A. (2017). Chapter 15—The Creative Self in Context: Experience Sampling and the Ecology of Everyday Creativity. 14.

Yarbrough, N. D. (2016). Assessment of Creative Thinking Across Cultures Using the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT): Translation and Validity Issues. Creativity Research Journal, 28(2), 154–164. https://doi.org/10.1080/10400419.2016.1162571