Types of creative thinking

Creative thinking is much more than using your imagination to crank out lots of new ideas. Creative thinking is a lifestyle, a personality trait, a way of perceiving the world, a way of interacting with other people, and a way of living and growing.                                                                                 Gary Davis

© Leslie Owen Wilson  email

To create – the most complex type of cognitive thinking:

light on headSince the 1950s cognitive psychologists and researchers have been trying to explain the differences in diverse types of thinking. In 1956 Benjamin Bloom with others developed a hierarchical listing, or taxonomy, annotating the complexity of the differences in varied levels of cognition. Most teachers are generally familiar with this work, known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, and it starts from simplest forms of thinking progressing to those that are more complex as: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and lastly evaluation.

To be frank the original progressive array never set quite right with me as I always thought to synthesize something surely one had to evaluate it first. But who was I to challenge the taxonomy of these respected cognitive researchers.

Apparently I was not alone in this criticism because in 2000-2001 a revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy was put forth and reworked. This effort was based on some of Bloom’s criticisms of his own work and led by one of his former students, Lorin Anderson, in conjunction with the efforts of one of the taxonomy’s original authors and a longtime colleague of Bloom’s, David Krathwohl. The revised work recognized the conundrum between synthesis and evaluation and also reworked the taxonomy changing the original nouns to verbs in hierarchical array – remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and lastly, create.  Here “to create” attains its rightful place as the most complex form of human thinking.

Unfortunately much of what we do in school concentrates, not on creating, but on remembering, understanding and applying. Like many others, I would like this to change. I think that the world will need all the creative thinkers we can muster if we are to solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems.


Convergence and divergence – two necessary types of thinking for being creative:

Partly because it is tied to the profitability  in business, a great deal of effort has been put forth in defining creative problem-solving and in training folks in how to do it. In this genre one of the more common definitions of creativity has to do with dissecting creative thought into a process of dual exchanges through the melding of two types of thinking — convergence and divergence. In this dance of paired thinking, as we look for solutions or innovations the object is to go through a series of steps first diverging (expanding ideas) and then converging (narrowing possibilities) until a solution is found; a course of action resolved; and end foreseen; or a product conceptualized.

Definitions of divergent thinking usually include the ability to elaborate, and think of diverse and original ideas with fluency and speed.  Ideating and brainstorming are premiere examples of exercises using this type of thinking. What if . . . ? How about . . .? Could we try this or that idea . . .? are types of questions that can lead to divergent thought patterns.  Metaphorically, whether we live in areas with snow, most of us have seen movies or cartoons where a small snowball rolls down a hill picking up more snow and getting larger and larger. This is like divergent thinking. The primary object of this form of cognition is to think of possibilities, to connect the dots, to find solutions, to generate new and different ideas.

Convergent thinking is defined as the ability to use logical and evaluative thinking to critique and narrow ideas to ones best suited for given situations, or set criteria.  We use this type of thinking when we make crucial and well-formed decisions after appraising an array of ideas, information, or alternatives. Metaphorically this like herding cattle toward a chute as we are looking for a narrow band of solutions, or one great idea.

In creative production both thought processes are necessary as one first diverges ideas in numerous quantity, and then narrows and refines the array through convergent thought processes. Specifically in creative problem solving, or in any complex problem solving activity for that matter, one needs to be able to weave in and out of divergent and convergent thought patterns in order to effectively arrive at an appropriate conclusion specific for a given situation.

Unfortunately, too often the processes involved in schooling concentrate on convergent thought, and ignore or undervalue divergent thinking. Children need exposure to both types of thinking in order to be adept at solving problems quickly and well. This is a premiere life skill!

Henrique Fogli shares a very nice explanation of the divergent process – this is an excellent resource!


Divergent Thinking Abilities – A strong part of creative thinking and behaviors

Adapted and modified from the works of Williams, F. E.

Creative production is often characterized by the divergent nature of human thought and action. Divergence is usually indicated by the ability to generate many, or more complex or complicated, ideas from one idea or from simple ideas or triggers. Traditionally the eight elements below are ones commonly thought of as inherent elements of creative production, as well as attributes associated with creative problem solving abilities.

Fluency  – The ability to generate a number of ideas so that there is an increase of possible solutions or related products.

Flexibility – The ability to produce different categories or perceptions whereby there are a variety of different ideas about the same problem or thing.

Elaboration – The ability to add to, embellish, or build on an idea or product.

Originality – The ability to create fresh, unique, unusual, totally new, or extremely different ideas or products

Complexity – The ability to conceptualize difficult, intricate, many layered or multifaceted ideas or products.

Risk-taking  – The willingness to be courageous, adventuresome, daring — trying new things or taking risks in order to stand apart.

Imagination – The ability to dream up, invent, or to see, to think, to conceptualize new ideas or products – to be ingenious.

Curiosity – The trait of exhibiting probing behaviors, asking and posing questions, searching, being able to look deeper into ideas, and the wanting to know more about something. 


Melding Synthetic, Analytical, and Practical Thought:   

Robert Sternberg is one of my favorite authors. Long ago he paired with Wendy M. Williams to write a valuable little gem that can help teachers or parents trying to understand children and creativity — How to develop student creativity (1996, ASCD). While it is an older work, it is still a treasure. Indeed, the work is wonderfully succinct and adaptable enough so that someone in business could imaginatively bridge Sternberg and Williams’ ideas into the workplace. In How to develop . . .  the authors define creative work as the balance between three abilities that can be learned and practiced. Below I have summarized their ideas and added a few of my own.

According to Sternberg and Williams creative work consists of the application and melding of three types of thinking, all of which they contend can be learned or enhanced. They feel that creativity is a balance between these three metacomponents:

Analytical ability – Again, this includes the ability to think convergently in that it requires critical thinking and appraisal as one analyzes and evaluates thoughts, ideas, and possible solutions. This type of thinking is key in the realm of creative work because not all ideas are good ones, some need to be culled. Creative people use this type of thinking to consider implications and project possible responses, problems, and outcomes.  Commonly we think of this ability as “critical thinking” at its best.

Synthetic (creative) ability – This obviously includes divergent thinking as it is the ability to think of or generate new, novel, and interesting ideas. But it is also the ability to spontaneously make connections between ideas, or groups of things — ones that often go unnoticed, or undiscovered by others.  Wm. J. J. Gordon’s concept of Synectics is a primary example of this type of thinking.

Practical ability – The world is full of people who have good ideas, as well as ones who can pick ideas apart. However, the basic key to creative work must include the ability to use practical thinking. This is the ability to translate abstractions and theories into realistic applications. It is the skill to sell or communicate one’s ideas to others, to make others believe that ideas, works, or products are valuable, different, useful, innovative, unusual, or worthy of consideration. This type of thinking is prized in the context of being creative because it is how one finds a potential audience for one’s creative work. An innovation or invention needs an audience, a consumer, a user, and implementor. Indeed, ideas are just ideas if no one knows about them or no one uses them.

Use and combine the 3 levels of thinking created by Robert Sternberg and Wendy Williams to create diverse activities in order to help students explore aspects of intelligence and creativity.

Analytical Thinking

Creative Thinking

Practical Thinking

  • Analyze
  • Critique
  • Judge
  • Compare/contrast
  • Evaluate
  • Assess
  • Create
  • Invent
  • Discover
  • Imagine if . . .
  • Suppose that . . .
  • Predict
  • Apply
  • Use
  • Put into practice
  • Implement
  • Employ
  • Render practical

 *Insights into Creativity – What is it like to be obsessed with a creative project? Explore the thought process of a creative mind. Consumption by Inspiration