Theory of Creativity

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"Alice is brilliant, but she doesn't have a drop of creative talent."

"Barbara is wonderfully creative, but she does poorly on standardized tests."

"Carlos always has interesting approaches to problems, but he just doesn't fit into the traditional school environment."

How many times have we, as teachers, administrators, researchers, or parents, heard remarks like these? And how many times have we concluded that abilities are etched in stone, inexplicable, and unchangeable? You can learn and teach creative thinking by using the 25 strategies that we describe in this book. Use these strategies to develop creativity in yourself, in your students, and in your colleagues and staff members. Our strategies are based on the investment theory, a psychological theory of creativity, but any one strategy is consistent with many other theories. Read about other views of creativity to see how different views lead to similar recommendations for developing creativity (Amabile 1983, Boden 1992, Gardner 1993, Ghiselin 1985, Gruber 1981, John-Steiner 1987, Rubenson and Runco 1992, Simonton 1988, Sternberg 1988a).

Buying Low and Selling High

The investment theory of creativity (Sternberg and Lubart 1995) asserts that creative thinkers are like good investors: They buy low and sell high. Whereas investors do so in the world of finance, creative people do so in the world of ideas. Creative people generate ideas that are like undervalued stocks (stocks with a low price-to-earning ratio), and both are generally rejected by the public. When creative ideas are proposed, they are often viewed as bizarre, useless, and even foolish, and are summarily rejected, and the person proposing them regarded with suspicion and perhaps even disdain and derision.

Creative ideas are both novel and valuable. Why, then, are they rejected? Because the creative innovator stands up to vested interests and defies the crowd and its interests. The crowd does not maliciously or willfully reject creative notions; rather it does not realize, and often does not want to realize, that the proposed idea represents a valid and superior way of thinking. The crowd generally perceives opposition to the status quo as annoying, offensive, and reason enough to ignore innovative ideas.

Evidence abounds that creative ideas are rejected (Sternberg and Lubart 1995). Initial reviews of major works of literature and art are often negative. Toni Morrison's Tar Baby received negative reviews when it was first published, as did Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. The first exhibition in Munich of the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, opened and closed the same day because of the strong negative response from the critics. Some of the greatest scientific papers are rejected by not one but several journals before being published. John Garcia, a distinguished biopsychologist, was summarily denounced when he first proposed that classical conditioning could be produced in a single trial of learning (Garcia and Koelling 1966).

From the investment view, then, the creative person buys low by presenting a unique idea and attempts to convince other people of its value. After convincing others that the idea is worthy, which increases the perceived value of the investment, the creative person sells high by leaving the idea to others and moving to another idea. Although people typically want others to love their ideas, immediate universal applause for an idea usually indicates that it is not particularly creative.

Foster creativity by buying low and selling high in the world of ideas—defy the crowd. Creativity is as much an attitude toward life as a matter of ability. We routinely witness creativity in young children, but it is hard to find in older children and adults because their creative potential has been suppressed by a society that encourages intellectual conformity. We begin to suppress children's natural creativity when we expect them to color within the lines in their coloring...
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