Stimulating Student Creativity: A Review of Creativity in the Classroom

Winter 1996 Masthead

Bruce N. Berube
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

As the title of the book suggests, Creativity in the Classroom, by Alane Jordan Starko, provides practical suggestions for teachers interested in how best to incorporate creativity training into the curriculum. The book is divided into two main parts, the first of which deals with theory and research as it pertains to an understanding of this ambiguous construct. What is particularly interesting about the first section is that it is “teacher friendly.” It explicates a variety of theories in such a way that the teacher comes away with how such theories provide a foundation for classroom practice. The author points out the concrete implications of what may at first appear to be abstract conclusions. In the second section, a distinct shift is made from theory to practice. Emphasis is placed on stimulating student creativity in content areas, and a description of creative thinking strategies that cut across a variety of domains. The purpose of this review is to highlight what I consider to be the important and interesting aspects of each section to provide “food for thought” for those interested in pursuing the book in more detail.

Starko begins her book by examining the question that researchers often wish to avoid, namely, “What is creativity?” After reviewing a variety of definitions, mainly concerned with describing adult creativity, the author arrives at the conclusion that most definitions revolve around two main concepts: novelty and appropriateness. For the adult, an idea or a product is considered novel if it adds something new to a particular domain. One cannot simply reiterate what is already known and hope to be considered creative. Appropriateness, on the other hand, is determined by “the fit” between a creative work and the cultural expectations of a particular society. The appropriateness of a creative endeavor can vary from one society to another, and in the same society during different historical eras. As long as the creative outcome “meets some goal or criterion,” (p. 6) it is usually considered appropriate. Although novelty and appropriateness are two concepts intimately linked to understanding creativity, the author questions how these terms can be effectively applied to children. Do their works have to add something new to a domain? Are they appropriate only if they mesh with societal expectations? The obvious answer to both of these questions is no. Starko describes novelty and appropriateness as they apply to children’s creative products and ideas as follows,

We will consider children’s efforts appropriate if they are meaningful, purposeful, or communicative in some way. If students successfully communicate an idea or endeavor to solve a problem, their efforts can be considered appropriate. If they do so in a way that is original, at least to them, we can consider the efforts creative. (p. 7)

This practical definition forms the basis of the concrete suggestions the author provides for enhancing student creativity in the classroom.

As with most books that attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of creativity, Creativity in the Classroom describes the latest research and theoretical advances. The “investment theory of creativity” put forth by Sternberg and Lubart (1991, 1993) is discussed, as well as Gardner’s (1993) findings pertaining to the biographical factors related to creative productivity in eminent adults. It should be noted, however, that the author does not overlook important findings from the past. A significant part of Chapter 2 is devoted to summarizing a host of theories ranging from Freud’s psychoanalytic doctrines to Maslow’s distinction between “special talent” and “self-actualizing creativeness.”

Before embarking on practical considerations, Starko devotes an entire chapter to what she labels “talent development” and the ideas that underlie this concept. Her humanistic approach to creativity is firmly based on research conducted by Bloom and his colleagues (1985) who recognized that the development of talent can be separated into three relatively distinct phases: 1) the early years, characterized by playful exploration within the domain of choice, 2) the middle years which focus on the technical mastery of principles and techniques within the domain, and 3) the later years, with an emphasis on the individual as a creative producer. This third and final phase represents a radical shift for the student, from a solver of predetermined problems, to one who must find problems in need of solution. While the practical implications of this research may not be readily apparent, Starko does emphasize the need for content and process immersion, before one can hope to solve problems effectively.

More research dealing with the nature of problem finding must be done. Starko provides suggestions for helping students locate interesting problems. She points out that most of the problems students deal with in school have one pre-determined answer, and one pre-determined method for arriving at that answer. A shift needs to occur so that students are allowed to postulate their own problems related to a topic, and then go on to conceive of ways to solve the problem in an efficient manner. Enabling students to select problems encourages divergent thinking in terms of the problems under consideration, and the solutions that are appropriate.

Amabile’s (1989) emphasis on the relationship between creativity and intrinsic motivation is the final element considered by Starko as related to talent development. Simply stated, if a student does not find a problem interesting at a personal level, he or she will not put forth the time and energy needed to develop a meaningful solution. Amabile’s research tends to point out that even positive, external motivation tends to suppress creative productivity. Of all the chapters in the book, teachers will most likely find Chapter 5, “Creativity in the Content Areas” to be the most useful. I say this because it provides numerous suggestions for incorporating creativity training into language arts, social studies, science, and math. As an organizing framework, the author points out several key considerations that apply to almost any content area. She emphasizes that creativity revolves around finding, focusing, and solving problems, as well as expressing ideas in unique ways. The student must assume the role of a creative person in a particular field, utilizing both content and methodology, to develop products that address specific problems.

What I liked most about the specific suggestions related to the content areas is that most seemed easy to implement. In fact, without realizing it, many teachers might already be fostering creativity in their classrooms. For example, in language arts Starko recommends the extensive use of writing to stimulate student creativity. It must be writing of a certain type, however, that emphasizes student selected topics and the writing process. With regard to social studies, teachers need to realize that it is not simply a collection of facts to be memorized. One must consider what the historian, geographer, etc. do to develop new theories and products. The big ideas involved in human history, as well as the methodologies used by practicing professionals must be employed.

In addition to specifics related to each content area, general strategies that apply to any domain are provided. Attention is given to the use of inductive teaching (in which students are presented with specific examples that they use to determine underlying principles and concepts), the use of simulation and role playing activities, and the importance of divergent questioning by the teacher. Popular techniques such as brainstorming, synectics, and creative problem solving are also described.

It should be readily apparent that fostering creativity in the curriculum will require creative forms of assessment as well. Traditional testing is simply not an adequate means of evaluating creative ideas and products. Starko calls for the use of “. . . authentic or performance assessment [which] means that students are evaluated on their performance of realistic, exemplary tasks” (p. 282). Such tasks, and the resulting assessment, focus on complex thinking and problem solving skills, are relevant and interesting to the students, and call for the development of an original product or a performance. The use of scoring rubrics is also deemed essential, as well as student self-evaluation.

Not only must assessment be reexamined, but the entire classroom organization as well. The teacher must first develop a sense of “psychological safety” by allowing students to take risks and experiment with new ideas. Students must be allowed to work independently for a part of each day, focusing on topics that make them want to learn. The development of interest centers can be helpful in this respect. Starko also addresses the volatile topic of ability grouping. She is of the opinion that grouping which focuses on specific talent areas should be utilized to provide for the needs of high ability students. As she states,

The most reasonable approach to grouping in schools is to avoid debating whether we should group and to decide what grouping arrangements best meet the needs of a given group of students for a particular activity. The effectiveness of rigid, long-term grouping based on ability can be questioned, but flexible, within- or between-class groupings based on particular academic needs is associated with increased achievement. (p. 277)

It is important to note that Starko does not rule out the use of cooperative learning with high ability students, but she does emphasize the need for individual accountability if it is to be effective.

There are numerous issues addressed by Creativity in the Classroom that I have not mentioned. Such topics include creativity traits, the use and abuse of creativity tests, and commercial creativity competitions. All are addressed by the author. To reiterate a point mentioned earlier, the greatest strength of this book is its emphasis on practical recommendations and specific techniques for fostering creativity in the classroom. Any teacher desiring to implement creativity into the curriculum will find this book invaluable.

Amabile, T. M. (1989). Growing up creative. New York, NY: Crown.
Bloom, B. (Ed.). (1985). Developing talent in young people. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Gardner, H. (1993). Creating minds. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Starko, A. J. (1995). Creativity in the classroom. White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers.
Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1991). An investment theory of creativity and its development. Human Development, 34, 1-31.
Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1993). Creative giftedness: A multivariate investment approach. Gifted Child Quarterly, 37, 7-16.


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