Creative Minds: Building Communities of Learning for the Creative Age, Robert Fisher


This paper looks at creativity in the context of education and economic and social value, and seeks answers to the following questions: What is creativity? Why is creativity important? How do creative minds work? How do we foster individual creativity? How do we build communities of creativity? It argues that in an age of uncertainty and flux what individuals and organisations need, if they are to flourish, are creative minds. The paper seeks to identify what creativity is, why it is essential for human success and ways to enhance individual creativity and build communities of creative learning.


Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited while imagination embraces the whole world. Albert Einstein

Although interest in creativity goes back to the ancient world (eg Plato’s Ion) what is now thought of as the ‘creativity movement’ began in America after the Second World War. There were two impulses for this. First was the successful launching in 1957 by Russian engineers of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. How had Soviet Russia been first to succeed in the space race? Why were so few home grown American scientists at the forefront of space research? In the US national survival seemed at stake and an explanation was urgently sought. A plausible explanation was seized upon – the problem was lack of creativity. Soviet engineers had been more creative in their search for solutions. Their creativity provided lift-off. The concept of creativity led to an explanation, lack of creativity, and to a solution, the need to train the scientists and engineers of the future to be more creative. There was a national call for more creativity in schools. A wave of creativity research followed (Smith1959, Vernon 1970), an interest that is now worldwide.

A second impulse for creativity then, as now, was a reaction against prevailing values that were seen as excessively bureaucratic and manipulative. Translated into the classroom this meant wanting to shake education free from excessive testing and rote learning and encourage more student-centred learning (Fisher 1990). In business it meant wanting to create cultures of change and innovation (Amabile 1988, Ekval l996). Interest in the value of creativity has gone hand-in hand with research into the lives of highly creative men and women (Gardner 1993, Gruber & Wallace 1999), and research into the processes of thinking itself (Claxton 1998). What is this concept called ‘creativity’, why is it important and how is it best developed?

1. Creativity – a contested concept

What is creativity?

The trouble with ‘creativity’, as with intelligence and other brain-based functions, is that it is ethereal and elusive. Years of research has gone into trying to specify what creativity is but despite all the checklists, models and tests, researchers admit that we do not know how fully to explain the creative power of the brain (Sternberg 1999). We lack a proper language to describe the brain activity associated with creativity. We know creativity when we see it but the mental processes involved are difficult to describe. As a student once said to me: ‘If I knew what creativity meant I’d know if I was creative.’ What follows is an attempt to describe what creativity is and how it can be fostered.

If we ask ‘What is creativity?’ we are asking, in a Socratic sense, what all examples of creativity have in common in virtue of which they are creative. More exactly we are looking for the necessary and sufficient conditions for creativity. The basic assumption here is that creativity is a type of thing, something with an essence or nature. Of course creativity may not have an exact nature. We can say with precision that all triangles have in common in virtue of which they are triangles, but the concept of creativity may be fuzzy at the edges – there may be borderline cases. However a good definition of ‘creativity’ will help us to identify what it is we are talking about, why certain things are clearly creative and others are not.

Creativity is an elusive and contested concept. The term has been used so widely that its meaning has become diffuse and uncertain. There have been many attempts to define it. Creativity has been described, for example as ‘the ability to solve problems and fashion products and to raise new questions’ (Gardner 1993); ‘a state of mind in which all our intelligences are working together’ (Lucas 2001); and as ‘imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value (Robinson 2001). For Cropley creativity is characterised by ‘novelty, effectiveness and ethicality’ (Cropley 2002). Part of the reason for this diversity of definitions is that creativity can be seen as a property of people, processes or products. I shall argue that the processes that underpin creativity in mental processes also underpin the evolution of life.

The basic processes of creative evolution, whether of ideas or of species, are:

  • generation
  • variation
  • uniqueness

To create is to generate something. At the simplest level creativity is making, forming or bringing something into being. To create is to be productive in thought, word or deed. The first principle of evolution, and of creativity, is that of generation – organisms must produce more progeny than are needed. The same principle applies to ideas. The generation of ideas, of experiments and innovations, is a necessary part of creative effort. When Linus Pauling the Nobel Prize-winning chemist was asked how he had come up with so many creative discoveries he replied: ‘It’s easy. You think of a lot of ideas, and throw away the bad ones.’ Creativity is a process to do with generation or bringing forth, whether it be new ideas, new designs or new species. However, generation by itself is not sufficient for creativity. Bees make honey, ants make nests, through instinctive activity. We should not confuse in education, or in any other aspect of life, mere generative activity with creativity.

Secondly every organism or member of a species varies in some way from every other one. This is the principle of differentiation. Ideas to be creative must be varied. Creativity is not evidenced in mere repetition. Andy Warhol the artist generated images of multiple copies of Campbell’s soup cans in his art, but each work contained images that were variations on the original design – hence creative. New knowledge and better adaptation derives from exploratory processes that seek to vary what is given. Variation is the exploratory process of evolution. Creativity, like evolution, is founded on experimentation, variations that sometimes succeed, sometimes fail.

Thirdly, where evolution succeeds in creative adaptation aspects of these variations are inherited by offspring. Unique features survive. Bruner (1962) says that creativity is ‘an act that produces effective surprise’. It is uniqueness that provides effective surprise. Uniqueness can be expressed through differing levels of originality. There can be greater or less originality relevant to the individual or group. Some things are unique to the individual mind, some unique to a group or community of minds and some universally unique, as follows:

Degrees of originality

  • individual being original/unique in relation to one’s previous thoughts, words or deeds eg ‘I have not thought or done this before’
  • social being original in relation to one’s social group, community organisation eg ‘We have not thought or done this before’
  • universal being original in terms of all previous known human experience eg ‘No-one has thought or done this before’

Creativity means generating one or more different or unique expressive responses. A creative act, like an actor’s role, can express differing levels of originality but it must produce an outcome that is to some extent original. The majority of creativity researchers however claim that creativity involves being both ‘original’ and ‘useful’ (Mayer 1999). To be creative an act, idea or product ‘must be new and must be given value by some external criteria’ (Gruber & Wallace 1999). A ‘product or response cannot merely be different: it must also be appropriate, correct, useful, valuable or expressive of meaning’ (Amabile& Tighe 1993). But it is not clear what the criterion of ‘usefulness’ or social value adds to the definition. We need to know what it is that makes creative acts ‘valuable’, ‘useful’ or ‘significant’. Why must a creative act or idea be useful?

A creative act is of value if it reflects novelty, originality or uniqueness. Creativity is important and of educative value because, in whatever field it occurs, it adds something to human knowledge and/or experience. It contributes to the fuller expression of life if it adds something new, whatever that something is. That something new may not at the time be recognised as ‘valuable’, ‘useful’ or ‘significant’ by others. Sometimes creative acts go unnoticed, sometimes their significance is not recognised. The existence of creativity is not dependent on its recognition or acceptance by others. The history or art and science is littered with examples of original ideas that were, at first or for a long time, rejected. We would not want to say that Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, or the Copernican theory, were not creative even though they may have been rejected as valueless by the great majority of people at the time. A creative act or idea may or may not be given the seal of approval by others, and may or may not be moral or have ethical outcomes.

To generate images or ideas takes mental activity, but of what kind? Often this mental activity is called imagination. Imaginative activity is the process by which we generate something that is original. Some have tried to define creativity in terms of imagination (see Robinson above). But what is imagination? Does all creativity involve imagination? Imagination is a word used in many senses. It can simply refer to the creative powers of the mind. This does not help in a definition of creativity. What imagination does is to enable the mind to represent images and ideas of what is not actually present to the senses. It can refer to the capacity to predict, plan and foresee possible future consequences. In short imagination is the capacity to conceive possible (or impossible) worlds that lie beyond this time and place. These possible worlds may derive from actual worlds reproduced from our store of memories. As Blake said: ‘What is now proved was once imagined.’

Imagination is both reproductive and productive. ‘Reproductive imagination’ is this capacity to represent in the mind external objects that are absent as if they were present, as when we bring to mind remembered experiences, as in: ‘I can imagine being there now’ or ‘It happened like this’. ‘Productive imagination’ is the mind’s ability to form concepts beyond those derived from external objects. It enables us to imagine possible worlds not reproduced from memory but produced by combining, adapting or developing existing ideas to form new ideas, for example when we create a fictional story or think of a baboon in a pink dress.

‘Imagination rules the world’ said Napoleon. It is the faculty that provides colour to our lives and underpins our curiosity and wonder. It is essential not only to creativity but also to our capacity to respond to and appreciate the creativity of others. It informs our emotional lives, including our ability to understand ourselves and to understand others. The downside of imagination is that it feeds fantasy and false belief. Plato banished artists from his ideal Republic on the grounds that imagination distorts reality, creates illusions and encourages people to feel rather than think. Imagination can be used to serve evil ends so it needs to be informed by values. Imagination can lead to false belief so it needs to be tempered by critical thinking, reasoning and judgement.

Many writers have differentiate these two kinds of thinking – the critical and the creative like this:

Critical Thinking Creative Thinking
analytic generative
convergent divergent
vertical lateral
probability possibility
judgment suspended judgment
hypothesis testing hypothesis forming
objective subjective
answer an answer
left brain right brain
closed open-ended
linear associative
reasoning speculating
logic intuition
yes but yes and

We need both critical and creative thinking, both analysis and synthesis, both the parts and the whole to be effective in our thinking. We need reason and intuition, order and adventure in our thinking. We need creative thinking to generate the new, but critical thinking to judge it. The technological world enables us to access knowledge in abundance, but creativity is in short supply.

Einstein claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge. But why is creativity and imagination of such importance?

2. Creativity and possible worlds

Why is creativity important?

‘The human spirit is in prison. Prison is what I call this world, the given world of necessity… man is not only of this world but of another world; not only of necessity but of freedom … the essential in artistic creativity is victory over the burden of necessity.’ Berdyaev, The Meaning of the Creative Act

What is, is – but it doesn’t have to be or stay this way. The message of creativity is – you can do something with what you are given to change it. The world as it is presented to us is not the only possible world. Through our imagination we van use it as a model for other possible worlds. Aspects of the world may be inadequate to our vision of what might be or what should be. We may want to lift the world beyond some of the routine, mediocre and sterile visions of the present. The artist Paul Klee expressed this ambitious purpose when he said: ‘I do not wish to portray man as he is but only as he might be’ (Klee 1948). The creative person embraces a philosophy, that of free thought. Creative minds are able to think beyond the given, beyond the world of necessity, and to engage in thought-experiments, thereby to imaginatively to create possible worlds out of the raw materials of this world. Such creative impulses are not just idle fancies. They are vital factors in personal, social and economic success.

At an individual level creativity is needed to solve the practical problems of daily life. To succeed in a world of rapid change individuals need to be flexible, open to change, able to adapt to new ways of doing things, resourceful in overcoming obstacles and resilient in the face of an uncertain future. The challenge for schools and social institutions is clear. The focus of education must be on creating people who are capable of thinking and doing new things, not simply repeating what past generations have done (Fisher 1990). We cannot limit people to doing only what they have done in the past if they are to be equipped for a world of challenge and change. Creativity is an essential element in personal intelligence and practical problem solving (Fisher 1987). Creativity is also rewarding at an emotional level. It offers individuals the spontaneous pleasures of play, self-expression and satisfaction. During creative activity, freed from the burden of necessity, many people experience their greatest joy (what Csikzentmihalyi calls ‘flow’, a state akin to ecstasy). Creative activity in any sphere offers challenge and what Yeats called ‘the fascination of what’s difficult.’ At an educational level creativity enhances academic performance. Research shows when students are assessed in ways that recognises and values their creative abilities their academic performance improves (Sternberg & Lubart 1999). Students otherwise turned off by school can find that creative activity rekindles their interest.

At a social level creativity add value to society by leading to new scientific discoveries, new movements in art, new inventions and new social programmes. The most important developments in civilisation have come through the creative process. The world around us was built by practical people who used their imaginations to build on the ideas of earlier generations, but some of this socially constructed world is the result of sterile vision, inadequate imagination, and disjointed ideas. Creativity is central to improving the functioning and development of society, not only in obvious ways through the arts, science, technology and a myriad manifestations but also through social relationships. Watch any group of people engaged in any shared endeavour and you will see friction, tension and conflict as well as cooperation, energy and effort applied to the creative solving of problems. According to Richard Pascale: ‘Creativity and adaptation are born of tension, passion and conflict. Contention does more than make us creative. It makes us whole, it propels us along the journey of development.’ (Syrett & Lammiman, 2002, p47) Creativity is developed through intellectual engagement, purpose, energy and interactive tension with others. These positive, creative attributes are essential to citizens living in an increasingly complex, changing and challenging social environment. Creativity is also needed to manage conflicts of interest and argument. It requires imagination to understand others, and creativity to resolve conflict.

At an economic level creativity is necessary to produce new products, new services and new jobs. In an increasingly competitive world commercial organisations cannot be successful without an adaptable, creative and skilled workforce. We live in a world where economic success is closely related to the application of good ideas. The traditional means of economic production was raw material, hard labour and money, but no longer. What organisations need more than ever today is the application of creativity to knowledge. The raw materials, labour, money and means of production are needed but any manufacturer that relies on merely reproducing what they have always produced will fail in the face of more creative competitors. To succeed managers need not only to manage production but also to manage change – to be concerned with utilizing technology in intelligent ways to improve design, service support and logistics, to improve image and concept and improve communication with people who matter such as fellow managers, suppliers and consumers. These are the creative intangibles that add value to raw material, whether in an educational or commercial setting. The hard stuff of facts and materials needs the soft stuff of human creativity. However a survey in 1999 by the Confederation of British Industry found that nearly half the firms surveyed cited ‘lack of promising ideas’ as a constraint to innovation (IDES 2001). Success lies in what we do with given materials – the way that creative minds mould matter. We have good reason therefore to invest in creative capacity at individual, social and national levels.

We live in times of high uncertainty, but as education and wealth expand so do opportunities for leading richer, more creative lives. To realise this potential for creativity we have to make up our minds what the good life, the creative life really is. We are responsible for the creativity we apply to our lives, our work and our community. We need to know what creativity is and how to apply it – if we choose to. To be creative is to make a choice and to take responsibility for that choice. You may prefer to let others make choices for you – to let whatever institution or group you are in take responsibility for choosing for you. You may respond: ‘I am here to do what the school, company, government – or what my husband/wife/boss says’. But obedience to an institution is not a substitute for responsibility, nor is it a recipe for a life worth living. For ultimately it will not fulfil either the institution’s or your potential for growth. The market, the institution, the organisation whether it be the school, the government department or global market capitalism is part of the given world. The point is how we respond to the given – to the people, processes and products that surround us.

Creativity is important in relation to:

  • people
  • processes
  • products

Creativity is about people. What teacher do you best remember from your school days? Was it the one who followed the curriculum and lesson objectives most closely, that was most punctual in marking books? Or was it the someone that fired your imagination, that sparked in you a creative passion for some form of learning? Research with a wide range of people, shows that it is more likely to be the latter (Fisher, in press). What we need is teaching not trapped in defensive or routine thinking, but teaching that is innovative. We need our children to experience the unpredictable, to experience paradox and uncertainty. We need lessons that produce effective surprise. Creative learners needs creative teachers who provide both order and adventure, who are willing to do the unexpected and take risks.

Creativity is about processes. Henry Ford once said: ‘How come when I want a pair of hands I get a human being as well?’ Today the important processing is not done by hands at the assembly line but in brains that assemble ideas. The decisive factor now in personal, social, economic and political affairs is the human brain’s capacity to generate, adapt and use knowledge. Competition between companies, countries and individuals has become a battle of brains. Competitive and cooperative advantage come from ‘brain gain’, that is new questions asked, new solutions offered and new ideas skilfully implemented. New problems, new products and new people need new processes of thinking. We have what we are given – the necessary, messy raw materials of life, and we only have our brains and the brains of others to create value with them and from them. Creativity is the vital means for adding value.

Creativity is about products. Why are certain products preferred over others? Harley Davidson and Starbucks both outsell their rivals by producing products that customers prefer. They do this not by producing machines or services that are necessarily more competent and reliable than rival companies, but by producing products that appeal to the emotions and to the imagination. The coffee chain Starbucks offers more than a place to drink coffee. The motorcycle company Harley Davidson offers more than machines that carry you from one place to another. We respond to products and to people that have the added value of creative appeal. They do not simply fulfil a function they add fun to life and add to the sense of who we are.

Continuous innovation, seeking variation in the processes and product of learning, is the heart of creativity and of education for creativity. To educate for innovation we need to move from a knowledge-based education to a brain-based education. The problems of tomorrow will not be answered by the knowledge of yesterday. The knowledge is changing and the questions that need asking are changing. Picasso once said: ‘Computers are useless. They only give us answers.’ New problems will require the asking of new questions, and the old answers may not suffice. Paradoxically the ability to forget the old answers, to unlearn the old ways to make room for the new will be a key asset. The future cannot be predicted – it has to be created. Either you see things as they happen around you – or you make them happen. All that we know is that the unexpected is likely. This creative/destructive flux is not a good or bad thing. The future becomes what we make it. What is is. The future ‘will be’, we just want to make it a better ‘will be’.

Three processes that underpin the evolution of life underpin creativity are generation, variation and originality. Creative ideas are generative. They spawn others and inherited characteristics persist but in variegated form. Each form is unique in some aspect and natural selection means that offspring will be more likely to survive if the inherited variations are best suited to changing local conditions. Organisms, or organisations, that do not adapt to changing circumstances die. Creativity offers a gift to the future. Much creative effort will not succeed; some will survive only as long as its span of usefulness. But something of an innovation may persist, may become part of the creative inheritance that you hand on to the next generation. We need minds that can create better futures. Creativity is of vital importance to education, and any economic or social organisation and one way of studying creativity is to study how uniquely creative minds work.

3. Creative people, processes and products

How do creative minds work?

Mulla Nasruddin was once attempting to repair something, without apparent success, when an onlooker asked scornfully, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’

Nasruddin replied, ‘No, that’s why I’m doing it.’

One way to find out about creativity is to ask people about their conception of a creative person. Whether they are lay people or experts in a field, people have implicit theories about what it means to be creative. They usually identify personality and cognitive elements like:

  • connects ideas
  • sees similarities and differences
  • is flexible
  • has aesthetic taste
  • is unorthodox
  • is curious, inquisitive
  • questions accepted ways of doing things

Another way to tease out the governing conditions of creativity is to look at paradigm case examples of what the most creative people do, just like in studying effective schools we might start by studying existing effective schools, or study detergents by looking at the best-selling detergents. Much research has gone into trying to understand creativity better by looking at the way creative minds work (Gardner 1997). By studying exemplars of creativity like world-famous writers, artists or inventors we might find a set of necessary and sufficient conditions which defined their creativity. We then might want to try to recreate those conditions in our homes, schools, businesses and community. Geniuses create good ideas because we all create good ideas, that is what our creative combinatorial minds are good at and can get better at. We all have the mental resources to be creative.

The problem is that we cannot have access to the inner workings of a creative mind. We do not know what determinate set of mental processes is at work. What we can find out is what counts as a creative product in a given field and the creative characteristics of their work. We can then investigate the habits of creative people and the conditions under which creative people flourish. Research into the habits of creative people reveals certain common characteristics. These are that they:

  • generate ideas

Creative people tend to have lots of ideas. They do not limit their thinking to a few ideas; they want more ideas and better ideas. The more they have the greater the likelihood that some of them will work. Some ideas will go wrong. As Edison, the inventor of the telephone said, he needed 100 ideas for he knew that 99 of them might be wrong. Inside the oyster of an idea may be a pearl. They do not discard ideas simply because they seem at first to be a bit odd or unworkable. Output of ideas spurs further ideas, each of which may have an unexpected potential. Creative people are rarely half-hearted. They make an effort to keep thinking, to become absorbed, immersed and fascinated in the subject in hand for the ideas to flood in. When Tolstoy was writing a novel he said he ‘knew’ all his fictional characters inside out because he had thought so much and generated so many ideas about them.

  • are flexible in their thinking, experiment and seek variation

Creative people are able to overcome the mental blocks to their thinking through being flexible and divergent. Some of these blocks include the tendency to think that:

  • there is only one right way to do things
  • we know all there is to know
  • it is wrong to experiment with new ideas

Being creative means not have to be stuck with one idea, one approach, one way of doing things. It is having the ability to move from a known way to a new way, being willing to change your ideas or views if you need to. Creative people have a thirst for knowledge. They use imagination to play with ideas. They are willing to experiment. The French mathematician Poincaré said: ‘Experiment is the sole source of truth’. It is also the source of all creativity. Creative people are curious, open-minded and have the confidence to try new ideas.

  • strive for originality

Creative people strive for originality by thinking of novel ideas, finding new solutions to problems or creating their own unique ways or plans for doing things. They extend their thinking through a process of elaboration. They are willing to improve on an original idea, so that what they add improves on or takes further the original idea. Elaboration is shown in the number and quality of different ideas used to add on to the original idea, expanding on existing knowledge, extending an idea to make it more complex or build a unique feature into a given situation. They try alternatives and don’t give up easily. They have ‘stickability’ – they know that creativity often requires a tremendous struggle for a vision to be realised. The painter Turner said: ‘My paintings bring me nothing but pain. The reality is so immeasurably below the conception.’

Creative people work hard and continually to improve ideas and solutions, by making gradual alterations and refinements to their works. Contrary to the mythology surrounding creativity, very, very few works of creative excellence are produced with a single stroke of brilliance or in a frenzy of rapid activity. Here is Beethoven describing his way of working: ‘I carry my thoughts with me for a long time, often for a very long time before writing them down … I change many things, discard others and try again until I am satisfied; then, in my head, I begin to elaborate the work … the underlying idea never deserts me. It rises, it grows. I hear and see the image in front of me from every angle.’ (Gruber & Wallace 1999)

Newton claimed that what enabled him to make discoveries in mathematics and science was his ability to concentrate intently on a problem for hours, days and weeks on end. Research shows that experts in any creative field take about 10 years of practice before they produce a masterwork (Sternberg & Lubart 1999). Creative excellence in any field seems to require long-term interest and investment of effort.

The problem with studying paradigm cases of creative people who have excelled in their field is that they are vulnerable to paradigm shift (Kuhn 1975). Thus the analysis may fit well with the works of preceding artists who were imbued with a reverence for the tradition they were working in, but it may not fit the works of revolutionary creative thinkers. The old ways of study may not fit new technologies. We may not be able to reinvent the future by copying the traditions of the past. Creative people can learn from a past tradition but may need to move beyond that tradition to achieve the most creative expression of their ideas. They may need to move into new paradigms, new ways of thinking.

Being creative is of course not all one thing. There are degrees of change. There is change of degree and change of kind. Change of degree means adding something extra or different to what already exists – doing the same thing in a different way. Change of kind is of a qualitatively different order. It is being unique in a new way, a way that has never been done before. It is reinvention. Not changing what is but creating what isn’t. It is not being a different sort of caterpillar. It is trying to be a butterfly.

Creative outcomes can be divided into two categories:

  • Evolution – change in degree
  • Revolution – change in kind


This is the method of incremental improvement. New ideas stem from other ideas, new solutions from previous ones, the new ones slightly improved over the old ones. Many of the very sophisticated things we enjoy today developed through a long period of incremental development. Making something a little better here, a little better there gradually makes it something a lot better, sometimes entirely different from the original. For example, look at the history of the automobile or any product of technological progress. With each new model, improvements are made. Each new model builds upon the collective creativity of previous models, so that over time, improvements in economy, comfort, and durability take place. Here the creativity lies in the refinement, the step-by-step improvement, rather than in something completely new. The evolutionary method of creativity also reminds us of that critical principle: Every problem that has been solved can be solved again in a better way. Creative thinkers do not subscribe to the idea that once a problem has been solved, it can be forgotten, or to the notion that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ A creative thinker’s view of life is that ‘there is no such thing as an insignificant improvement.’


The problems with evolutionary change are that it is slow and that it may be inefficient. What may be needed is not a slight improvement in performance but a different kind of performance. For example when the British Leyland car firm was struggling in the eighties it hired an Italian design team to enhance its existing models, and led to the launch of a model called the Ital. It flopped. The company failed. People did not want a modified version of a second-rate model they wanted a new and better model. This example reveals a critical truth about problem solving: the goal is to solve the problem, not to implement a particular solution. When one solution path is not working, the creative person shifts to another. There is no commitment to a particular path, only to a particular goal. Path fixation can sometimes be a problem for those who do not understand this; they become overcommitted to a path that does not work and only frustration results. Sometimes the best new idea is a completely different one, a marked change from all previous ones. While an evolutionary improvement philosophy might cause a professor to ask, ‘How can I make my lectures better and better?’ a revolutionary idea might be, ‘Why not stop lecturing and have the students teach each other, working as teams or presenting reports?’

The trouble with creative people, whether they be teachers or plumbers, is that they often find it difficult to explain their creativity. Many creative breakthroughs occur through creative insight, when a problem is intuitively seen in a new way or from a fresh viewpoint. ‘Logic is the instrument of certainty,’ said Poincaré, ‘intuition is the instrument of discovery.’ Creative people find it hard to say where creative insight comes from. When asked where his music came from Elgar replied ‘out of the air.’ Mozart said of his musical ideas: ‘Whence and how they come I know not; nor can I force them.’ What many creative people seem to need is a period of gestation to allow what Guy Claxton calls ‘soft thinking’ to take place (Claxton 1999).

Creative people tend to take a positive view of failure, but for some reason modern society has conceived the idea that it is an unforgivable thing to fail, to make a mistake or to admit to mistakes. One chief executive of a big American corporation warns all his newly hired managers, ‘Make sure you make a reasonable number of mistakes’ (Nordstrom & Ridderstrale 2002). Mistakes are educational and can lead to success – if it means trying something again in a different way. The only way not to fail is not to try. We should forgive our failures but not forget what we have learnt. The philosopher Wittgenstein said: ‘If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would happen.’ We have to fail faster to learn quicker to succeed more. Creative people accept failure, try again, but try it differently. Thomas Edison, in his search for the perfect filament for a light bulb, tried anything he could think of, including whiskers from a friend’s beard. In all, he tried about 1800 things. After about 1000 attempts, someone asked him if he was frustrated at his lack of success. He is said to have replied: ‘I’ve gained a lot of knowledge. I now know a thousand things that won’t work.’

Bartlett (1959) described creativity as ‘adventurous thinking’, which he characterised as ‘getting away from the main track, breaking out of the mould, being open to experience, and permitting one thing to lead to another.’ Human beings are forever caught, as Apollinaire once said, between order and adventure, between the known path and the path less travelled. A creative approach means generating ideas, seeking variation, and being prepared to make the more adventurous choice. How do we foster adventurous, open-ended and creative thinking?

4. Building creative capacity

How do we foster individual creativity?

Creativity has its roots in ordinary activities. When we edit a sentence to make it sound more interesting, or add something new to a recipe we are being creative. Without small acts of creativity great acts of creativity would not be possible. When we take up a pencil to draw a sketch we are emulating, in a small way, what Picasso, Titian and other artists and other artists achieve. When we hum our own tune we are in the creative foothills of musical composition. Such responses to great acts of creativity have their genesis in the reactions of children who move to music or find shapes pleasing.

We foster natural impulses to creativity by building creative capital. Creative capital is difficult to define and measure. It is made up of what enables you to focus creatively on the task in hand and supports you in that task. Creative capital has two aspects:

  • the creative self – the generative skills and talent you bring to the task
  • the creative environment – the creative resources and support you need

Focusing on the creative task is necessary. Any individual, company or community of nations (such as the EU) that tries to tackle everything everywhere, often as a result does nothing well, its energies sapped by overload. A diffusion of focus means a diffusion of energy. Research shows that creative people exercise their creativity in particular spheres. The creative person is focused. In an age of multiplying activities the creative person stops believing they can master all things and every situation. In a global market companies need to specialise. There is no way we can attend to everything with the same creativity, energy and enthusiasm. Creative people focus on those areas in which they can make a difference.

There seem however to be certain key features that are common to all fields of creative endeavour. These help to build creative capacity in individual learners and in ourselves, for as Gandhi said: ‘We must be the change we want to see in the world.’

Some of the keys to individual creativity are:

  • motivation
  • inspiration
  • gestation (giving time)
  • collaboration

The key to creativity is motivation – not having to but wanting to, and having a purpose to do so. Motivation is what we need to add value to creative effort. ‘Passion’ is a word often used to describe the way creative scientists and artists feel about their work. We need to know that what we do is worthwhile. Individual creativity needs to be fed by internal and external encouragement (Amabile 1983). Creativity needs the encouragement of others. Encouraging adults in the classroom, at home, in the workplace and in all positions of social leadership.

Another key to creativity is inspiration. It means being inspired by oneself or others. Creativity thrives on curiosity, fresh input, and rich domains of knowledge. According to Csikzentmihihalyi (1996) ‘the first step towards a more creative life is the cultivation of curiosity, that is the allocation of attention to things for their own sake’. It is possible to stimulate curiosity by being more observant and asking more questions. Curiosity is contagious, and there is no more important job a teacher, parent or friend can do than to instil a sense of wonder about the world and human experience. A creative climate must be created where models of creativity are shared and celebrated. ‘ Those who have changed the universe have never done it by changing officials,’ said Napoleon, ‘but always by inspiring the people’.

Curiosity thrives on fresh input both within the setting, be it classroom or workplace and beyond the setting. That fresh input might be a museum, meeting someone new, seeing a play, reading something that you don’t usually have time to read, or doing something you have never done before. The best kind of inspiration comes from involvement. We must involve people in creative activities. Creative people look on life as a series of creative projects. They seek out whatever inspires them – or they seek to inspire others by exposing them to the most creative experiences they can find. They seek the best in the field relevant to their interests. They are not content with the second-rate. Inspiration from others provides the necessary spur to our own thinking and creative effort.

A third key to creativity is gestation, that is allowing time for creative ideas to emerge. Insight, intuition and inspiration are often associated with creativity. Creative insight results from processes that are unconscious and lie below the level of awareness. They take time to occur. Modern Western culture celebrates the quick-fix, the sound-bite, the fleeting image and neglects what Claxton calls the ‘undermind ‘ (Claxton 1997), the capacity we all have for quiet contemplation and time being set aside for long-term thinking and unconscious working-through of ideas. We need time to think things through at conscious and unconscious levels. This is as true for Beethoven or Brahms (who started his first symphony at 28 and finished it when he was 43) as it is for those engaged in everyday creative activity.

A fourth key to creativity is collaboration, the support of a learning partner or community of enquiry. We need teachers and significant others to learn from. Creativity is caught through example but it must also be explicitly taught. We all have creative ability. Just look at how creative children are. In adults, creativity has too often been suppressed through education, but it is still there and can be reawakened. Often all that’s needed to be creative is to make a commitment to creativity and to take the time for it. When I asked a child to define creativity he said: ‘It is something you are free to do in your own way.’ When I asked him why this was important, he looked puzzled for a moment then said: ‘It is what we are here for.’

5 Maximising creative capacity

How do we build communities of creativity?

‘How do you get a bigger brain?’ ‘You get a bigger brain by adding to it what others think that you would never have thought.’ (From a discussion with nine year olds.)

We are not the department, the commercial or educational organisation we happen to be in, we are different. An organisation has no soul. We develop our own souls through the human values we embody. An organisation may promote a commitment to values through vision statements and the like, but these can only be embodied in individuals. Reliance on the dominance and technological power of organisations will not produce the financial, emotional and human value we seek. But it is not the technology that is at fault but rather our inability to create communities where more people have the opportunity to develop their creativity and talent.

We live in a world whose institutions are increasingly dominated by ‘competence control’. We are increasingly judged by external standards and performance indicators. In such a world it becomes more difficult for individuals to risk experiment and to achieve ends beyond the ‘competent’. But moving beyond ‘competence’, beyond the routine, beyond the everyday is essential if we are to move beyond where we are, and if we are to fulfil the potential of individuals and organisations. Competence in performance, and all that assists it, from information technology to flushing toilets, is essential. But competence, technology and hygiene will only get you so far. They are necessary but not sufficient for a life fully lived. Creativity needs to be added to competence and the clue to how communities become more creative lies in the workings of human brain.

The critical means of production in the modern world is small and grey and weighs a little over one kilogram. It is the human brain. Creativity is built in to the way the brain works. The human brain is a gloriously complex and an intricate whole, its interconnectivity allows similar cognitive functions to take place in different areas of the cortex. It is inter-connectivity in nature that allows evolution, variation and differentiation to take place. We build communities of creativity by building inter-connectivity, not inter-connectivity of hardware but inter-connectivity of the software of the mind.

Creativity, like intelligence and technology, is expanded through building broad networks of connections. The case of technology offers a useful insight. Think how little use a mobile phone or email would be if you belonged to a network of one. According to ‘Metcalfe’s Law’ the usefulness of belonging to a network increases exponentially with the number of users. Or to put it more simply it is more than twice the fun if two are connected rather than one. There is a law of increasing returns the more who are connected positively to any creative pursuit. However there is also a critical mass, which like any overloaded system will eventually cause it to explode.

We might call the inter-connectivity you have with others your ‘info-structure’. It is the way that others inform you, give you feedback and stimulate your activity – as well as the way you do it for yourself – that is your info-structure. What is true of your brain is true of any organisation that seeks to be intelligent or creative. It is more important than infrastructure, the physical organisation, the given components of the system (brain or other organisation). It is not what you have but what you do with it that is important. And part of what is important about what you do is how you connect with others and use the information they have to help you. Carl Jung said: ‘I need we to be fully I’. Success in any grand project needs help from others, means making alliances, means benefiting from the distributed intelligence of others – developing the ‘info-structure’– interconnectivity with others.

It is important to note that creativity does not come from nothing, nor does it represent a complete break with the past but builds upon the ideas and actions of others. ‘Everything that a scientist does is a function of what others have done before him: the past is embodied in every new conception and even the possibility of its being conceived at all ‘ (Medawar, quoted in Sternberg 1999). Einstein acknowledged that he could not have conceived the theory of relativity without the discoveries of earlier physicists. The same is true of artists. Stravinsky could not have written the Rite of spring without the polyphonic and rhythmic experiments of earlier composers.

Success depends on having a fertile ground where new ideas and activities can take root, an environment in which ideas can be created, tossed around, shared and tried out. For this you need creative partners, who you know can multiply what you know and can do. It is others who help you realise what Vygotsky called your ‘zone of potential development’ that halo of potential we all carry around with us that we could realise if only we had that ‘significant other’ to help us along the way. You need to find partners who help you be who you might become. They raise your capability. They enable you to reach out further than you might. Partnership can add to your creative power. Look at all the great creative double acts, Gilbert and Sullivan, Gilbert and George and so on. The creative environment is one in which you are connected with those who can foster your creativity, and who give you the tools, time and space you need. Learning partners are part of your creative capital.

Once things that were in demand needed a lot of stuff and a little knowledge. What is valuable now takes a little stuff and a lot of knowledge. To succeed we need access to the knowledge, intelligence and creativity of others. We need knowledge partners, we need ‘info-structure’, we need to maximise our collaborative conversations. One approach to developing collaborative conversations is the ‘community of enquiry’ which facilitates the raising of questions and serious, sustained discussion of issues in hand, where individuals build on each others’ ideas, and difference of opinion is valued (Fisher 1998).

Research shows that organisations create conditions which can either foster or inhibit creativity (Amabile 1996). Creativity cannot be left to chance otherwise it withers on the vine, or remains the private concern of individuals. It is easy in any organisation for creative individuals to become isolated. Indeed many highly creative people tend to be self focused, driven by internal goals and this can be at odds with team-orientated activity needed in organisational settings. Although innovation stems from individual talent and creativity it is the organisational context that enhances and channels creative potential into creative production. The characteristics of creative organisations mirror those of creative individuals who in turn model the micro-creative processes of the brain and mirror the macro-processes of evolution.

These creative processes can be summarised as those in which individuals and organisations are:


Individuals are enthused, engaged and energized about what they do with a strong sense of:

  • purpose, ultimate goals and shared destiny
  • openness to the new and to change
  • passion to succeed, and willingness to take risks


Working in an environment supportive of creativity which:

  • shares new ideas, products and innovations
  • invites questions, and is open to enquiry and suggestion
  • accepts difference and diversity, and facilitates dialogue across difference

Given time

Time given for creative thinking and activity, including:

  • avoiding impulsivity (the ‘quick fix’), allowing time for practice and for ideas to come
  • tolerance of mistakes in the search for better solutions
  • individual responsibility for creative activity, involving all in the search for solutions

Encouraged to collaborate

Encouraged to share creativity ideas with others, including:

  • encouraging learning partners to generate, extend and provide feedback on ideas
  • making multiple connections and links within and beyond the organisation
  • working as part of a team on creative projects and productions

An organisation, whether it be a company or school is basically a communication system. To maximise creative potential learning organisations need to develop policies that promote communication, collaboration and creativity. They need to think big but work small. They need to be informed by a motivating vision, and inspired by the models of creativity around them. They need to foster experiment and provide the security to take risks. They stimulate the generation of ideas, value diversity and seek what is unique and original. They allow time for projects to develop, seeking depth of understanding and breadth of application to real world domains. They work through collaborative projects that derive from a core curriculum or agenda, but whose outcomes are not predefined. They are as much concerned with problem identifying as problem solving. They focus on drawing on a range of perspectives, contexts and inter-disciplinary links in seeking innovative and tangible outcomes.

In all organisations, as in all individuals, there are obstacles to creativity. In schools the main obstacle to creativity is a too heavily a prescribed curriculum. Ideally schools need to have something like a 50% core curriculum for the generation of basic skills and subject knowledge, and 50% creative curriculum which allow teachers the freedom to create varied, diverse and creative learning opportunities for students. Some of the characteristics of a creative curriculum would include:

  • projects – as the basic collaborative model around which creative learning and skills are developed, focused on an overall goal or outcome, and extended over time
  • portfolios – as a record of progress, combining evidence of achievement, and range of assessments including both self-evaluation and collaborative assessment
  • productions – as tangible creative outcomes shared through display, and publication within and beyond the educational setting

Another obstacle to creativity is feeling over-stressed. People need the stimulus of challenge, but ‘there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that when people feel threatened, pressurised, judged or stressed, they tend to revert to ways of thinking that are more clear-cut, more tried and tested and more conventional; in a word less creative’ (Claxton 1999). Creativity is inspired by example. Creative children need creative teachers. Creative teachers flourish in environments which value individual and collaborative creativity, where there is freedom to express their creativity and so provide creative inspiration for their students.

The style in which creative teamwork is undertaken is critical to its success. Freethinking, freedom from censure and creative tension are some of the common characteristics. The role of the team leader is crucial in providing inspiration, access to time and resources and a safe environment in which experiment and contention can take place. Creative leadership is about enabling others to engage in creative discussion and make creative decisions. Teams have most creative potential when they reflect intellectual diversity. The best creative groups engage in collaborative conversations in which all can have their say, and in which all is open to question. Left to their own devices organisations tend to split into divisions or groups who do not share information or insights. It is essential for innovation that communities of enquiry, workshops or think tanks be created that bring together diverse elements to focus on specific challenges, questions or goals. Creativity needs individual and collaborative thinking time, and space for experimentation and play. Creativity happens when you move out of the comfort zone, when you are challenged and in contention with yourself or with others. As Nietszche said ‘One must have chaos within one, to give birth to a dancing star.’ We need the stimulus of fresh input, creative teams need new recruits, new challenges. There must be inter-connectivity within and beyond the group, like those creative schools which make both local and global links.

This paper has sought to show why creativity is central to education and to social and economic success, and that it is possible to enhance creativity in any individual or group. Educational organisations can produce more creative learners if they focus on developing not only core skills and knowledge but also the skills and attitudes that underpin lifelong learning through a focus on creative projects. Creative organisations treat creativity as a collective force; encourage experimentation and communities of collaborative enquiry. Creative minds are developed by building communities of learning. Enhancing the creative capacity of individuals and communities enables possible worlds to become better worlds. A more creative future is within our grasp, we can live more creative lives and together we can create those possible worlds that match our dreams.


Amabile, T. (1988), A model of creativity and innovation in organizations. In B.M. Staw & L.L. Cunnings (Eds), Research in Organizational Behavior, Greenwich, CT: JAI

Amabile T &Tighe E. (1993) ‘Questions of creativity’, in J. Brockman (ed) Creativity, New York: Simon &Schuster

Bartlett, F. (1959) Thinking, New York: Basic Books

Berdyaev, N. The Meaning of the Creative Act trans. Donald A. Lowrie

Bruner (1962) cited in Nickerson in Sternberg (1999)

Claxton, G. (1997) Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, London: Fourth Estate

Claxton, G. (1999) Wise Up: The Challenge of Lifelong Learning, London: Bloomsbury

Craft, A. (2000), Creativity Across the Primary Curriculum, London: Routledge

Craft, A., Jeffrey, B., & Leibling, M. (Eds) (2001), Creativity in Education, London: Continuum

Cropley, A. J. (2001) Creativity in education and learning: a guide for teachers and educators, London: Kogan Page

Csikzentmihihalyi, M. (1992) Flow: The Psychology of Human Happiness, London: Rider

Csikzentmihihalyi, M. (1996) Creativity, New York: HarperCollins

Dacey, J. & Lennon, K. (2000), Understanding Creativity: The Interplay of Biological, Psychological and Social Factors, Buffalo, NY: Creative Education Foundation

Design Council (2001) Changing Behaviours, London: Design Council/Campaign for Learning

Ekvall, G. (1991), The organizational culture of idea management: a creative climate for the management of ideas. In J. Henry & D. Walker (Eds), Managing Innovation. London: Sag

Ekvall, G. (1996), Organizational climate for creativity and innovation. European Work and Organizational Psychology, 5. 105 – 123

Fisher, R. (1987) (ed) Problem Solving in Primary Schools, Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Fisher R. (1990) Teaching Children to Think, Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes. 2 nd ed. 2005.

Fisher, R. (1995) Teaching Children to Learn, Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes. 2 nd ed 2005.

Fisher R. (1996) Stories for Thinking, Oxford: Nash Pollock.

Fisher R. (1996) Socratic education: A New Paradigm for Creative Thinking. In Dingli S. (ed) Creative Thinking: New Perspectives, Creative Thinking Conference, Malta University Press.

Fisher R. (1997) Games for Thinking, Oxford: Nash Pollock.

Fisher R. (1997) Stories for Thinking: a programme for teaching thinking. In J.H.M. Hamers & J.E.H. Van Luit (eds.) Teaching Thinking in Europe: Inventory of European Programmes, Utrecht: Sardes

Fisher R. (1998) Teaching Thinking: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom, London: Continuum. 2 nd ed. 2003

Fisher R. (1999) Head Start: How to Develop Your Child’s Mind, London: Souvenir Press.

Fisher, R. (2000) Of What Use is a University? in Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain Conference Papers 2000, Oxford

Fisher, R. (2000) ‘Philosophy for Children: How Philosophical Enquiry Can Foster Values Education

In Schools’, in Gardner, R., Cairns, J. & Lawton, D. (eds) (2000) Education for Values, Kogan Page.

Fisher R. (2001) Philosophy in Primary Schools: fostering thinking skills and literacy, Reading, July 2001, pp67-73.

Fisher R. (2001) Values for Thinking, Oxford: Nash Pollock.

Fisher, R. & Williams M. (eds) (2003) Unlocking Creativity, London: David Fulton

Gardner, H. (1993) Creating Minds, New York: Basic Books

Gardner, H. (1997) Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of Four Exceptional Minds and the Extraordinary Minds in All of Us Minds, New York: HarperCollins

Gruber, H.E. and Wallace D.B. (1999) ‘Understanding Unique Creative People at Work’, in

Heppell, S. (1999), Computers, creativity, curriculum and children, Cambridge: Anglia Polytechnic University Ultra lab Website

IDES (2001) Creativity in Education, Dundee: Learning and Teaching Scotland/IDES

Isaksen, S.G. (1995), Some recent developments on assessing the climate for creativity and change, paper presented at the International Conference on Climate for Creativity and Change, Buffalo: Centre for Studies in Creativity

Klee, P. (1948) Paul Klee: On Modern Art, trans. Paul Findlay, London: Faber & Faber

Koestler, A. (1964) Act of Creation, London: Hutchinson

Kuhn, T. (1975) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Lucas, B (2001) ‘Creative Teaching, Teaching Creativity and Creative Learning’, in Craft, A., Jeffrey, B., & Leibling, M. (Eds) (2001), Creativity in Education, London: Continuum

Mayer, R.E. (1999) ‘Fifty Years of Creativity Research’, in Sternberg, R.J. (ed) (1999) Handbook of Creativity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Nordstrom K and Ridderstrale J. (2002) Funky Business: Talent Makes Capital Dance, London: Prentice Hall

Robinson, K. (2001) Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, Oxford: Capstone

Seltzer, KJ. & Bentley T. (1999) The Creative Age, London: Demos

  1. Smith (Ed.) (1959) Creativity, New York; Hastings House

Sternberg, R.J. (ed) (1999) Handbook of Creativity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Sternberg, R.J. and Lubart T.I (1999) ‘The Concept of Creativity: Prospects and Paradigms’, in Sternberg, R.J. (ed) (1999) Handbook of Creativity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Syrett, M and Lammiman J. (2002) Creativity, Oxford: Capstone Publishing

Taylor, I.A. (1959) ‘The Nature of the Creative Process’, in P. Smith (Ed.) Creativity, New York; Hastings House

Turkle, S. & Papert, S. (1990), ‘Epistemological pluralism: signs and voices within the computer culture’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 16(1)

Vernon, P. E. (Ed) (1970) Creativity: Selected readings, Harmondsworth: Penguin


This paper presented at Teaching Qualities Initiative Conference, Hong Kong Baptist University, 2002

© Robert Fisher