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Creativity Can Be Taught

Research reveals new ways to teach creativity to children and adults.

A new paper from my lab in the Journal of Research in Personality examined how people answer creative thinking tasks. We found that common advice to focus brainstorming sessions on the number and not quality of ideas does not work for everyone. These results point to the need to re-evaluate ways to teach creative thinking.

Jo Szczepanska/Unsplash
What are most effective brainstorming strategies?
Source: Jo Szczepanska/Unsplash

We conducted two studies where participants were asked to complete creative thinking tasks. In the first study, college students were given two classic problems — coming up with different uses for a brick and a knife. Their responses were scored for the total number of ideas they generated (called fluency) and the originality of these ideas. Ideas considered original depart from the customary use of the object, such as a brick being a building material. A more original response could be to use a brick to mash garlic.

In the second study, high school students were asked to think of different ways they could improve their schools. This is a less abstract question and something students personally care about. Again, the responses were scored for the total number of ideas and their originality. The most common ideas (not original) were about later start times, while one of the original ideas suggested that teachers have YouTube channels where students could re-watch the lessons when studying.

It has long been known that there is a tendency for those who come up with more ideas to also come up with more original ones. In other words, the quantity and quality of ideas tend to be similar. Our question was whether this is necessarily the case for everyone.

Both studies found that some people come up with many ideas, but they are not very creative, others come up with average ideas in number and creativity, and some come up with not many ideas, but those they have are creative. Indeed, stars of generating many ideas tend to think of ideas of only average creativity. People who thought of most creative ideas had either only somewhat above average number of ideas or even slightly below average number of ideas.

Emphasizing the quantity of ideas is not necessarily going to stimulate or teach successful creative idea generation. What are alternative ways of enhancing and teaching creativity? Most programs focus on strategies and techniques to help generate ideas. Yet creativity is not only thinking but is also full of emotion — from the exhilaration of inspiration to frustration at inevitable obstacles to the mixture of apprehension and excitement when presenting one’s work to the world.

Another recent study from my lab at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence published in the Empirical Studies in the Arts shows that children successfully learn creativity skills in a program focusing on emotions and emotional intelligence skills. The instruction was done using art. Because art is both creative and conveys emotions, it can be an effective tool to teach both emotional intelligence skills and creativity.

The course included six 75-minute sessions involving art observation and art-making. Children explored exhibits at the art center to deepen their abilities to identify and understand nuances of emotions, followed by art-making.

The central aspect of creativity training was problem finding. This aspect of the creative process was identified in a classic study by Csikszentmihalyi and Getzels (1971) in which they set up an art studio in their laboratory at the University of Chicago and invited art students to create still-life drawings by selecting from among 30 available objects. Artists differed in how much time they spent picking up the objects, feeling their weights and textures, or trying to work mechanical parts of the objects. This process of exploration and play before committing to a specific idea and course of action — which objects to choose and how to portray them — was termed problem finding. Artists who spent the most time on problem finding made the most creative drawings.

In teaching creativity skills, instead of diving into art making immediately, children were asked to play with materials — feel their textures, try them out, arrange, and rearrange them. Children were encouraged to use emotion-laden memories to explore ideas for art portraying different emotional themes — happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and calm. For instance, what does anger feel like? What colors or textures could be associated with anger? What situations have made children angry? Children were asked to come up with multiple ideas before starting their art piece. Wrap-up discussions at the end of each session focused on how emotional intelligence and creativity skills could be applied in daily life, whether to think of a creative birthday present for a friend or writing an essay for class.

To test what children learned in the course, an experimental group (children in training) was compared to a control group (children not in training) on tests of creative idea generation and problem finding. All of the tests required children to apply what they learned in the course to different problems. After the training, children were able to reformulate everyday problems (e.g., “You are working on a project with a group and one person is not doing any of the work”) and they were able to come up with more ideas and more original ideas about unusual uses for everyday objects (e.g., how to creatively use a newspaper or a button).

Children were tested again two months after completing the training. Unfortunately, not all of what they learned was retained, similar to summer learning loss for academic skills. After the course, when children do not continue to practice creativity skills in school or extracurricular activities, the knowledge dissipates. Creativity is a muscle; it needs to be exercised to be preserved and grow. This suggests that teaching of creativity skills should be incorporated into prevailing school curricula.

In another study, published in the Journal of Creative Behavior, we showed that an art-based course focused on emotions and emotional intelligence skills can also successfully teach creativity skills to professional adults. The eight session course was built on art observation. Instead of the typical 30 seconds in front of a piece of artwork, which is average for a museum visitor, participants were asked to observe it for 20 minutes and focus on identifying and understanding emotions depicted in art.

Learning that emotions convey information about one’s environment by observing art can be applied in everyday situations. Feelings of confusion, for instance, tells us that we need more information. A participant might find an abstract sculpture confusing. Instead of walking by it, they were challenged to attend to this feeling and relate it to their everyday experiences. They might connect confusion in front of a sculpture to their confusion in work meetings when they do not ask clarifying questions for a fear of a negative reaction by coworkers. Attention to emotion helps identify a real-life problem (getting most out of work meetings), as well as offering clues toward creative solutions (find allies with whom to ask questions).

After the course, participants were better able to generate original ideas. Furthermore, the skills were sustained two months later. Professional adults have more autonomy in structuring their everyday activities and more chance to continue practicing skills learned (unlike children whose lives are dominated by highly standardized school work).

What are the lessons of the latest scholarship about teaching creativity? If we teach that the number of ideas should be the focus of brainstorming, we will not necessarily end up with the most creative ideas. An alternative is to teach creativity by enhancing emotional intelligence skills and examining how to use emotions for problem finding and managing the creating.

Everyday innovators are masters of using emotions to identify problems worth solving. Aproova Mehta disliked everything about grocery shopping; he used these feelings as an impetus to create Instacart and solve the grocery shopping problem for himself and thousands of others. Tristan Walker was frustrated by the lack of shaving products for coarse or curly hair. The frustration of waking up with razor bumps was an inspiration to create a line of beauty products that creatively solved the problem neglected by the industry of the day. Creativity training programs can learn from them and more purposefully incorporate teaching of emotional intelligence skills.


Cotter, K. N., Ivcevic, Z., & Moeller, J. (2020). Intra-individual profiles of originality and fluency in divergent thinking responses. Journal of Research in Personality. Advanced online publication. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2020.103941

Csikszentmihalyi , M., & Getzels, J. W. (1971). Discovery-oriented behavior and the

originality of creative products: A study with artists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 19, 47-52.

Hoffmann, J. D., Ivcevic, Z., & Maliakkal, N. (2020). Enhancing creativity skills of children enrolled in an emotion rich art-based course. Empirical Studies in the Arts. doi: 10.1177/0276237420907864

Hoffmann, J. D., Ivcevic, Z., & Maliakkal, N. T. (2018). Creative thinking strategies for life: A course for professional adults using art. Journal of Creative Behavior. Advanced online publication. doi: 10.1002/jocb.366…

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