Creative thinking: A fundamental skill that takes practice


Kelly Jarrell is an educator, program developer, counselor, and family wellness coach with more than 25 years of experience working with children, families, schools, and communities. She provides a range of services to help Austin families create success both at home and at school. Kelly joins us on the blog to share her expertise in nurturing children's creative thinking.

The term creative thinking too often is reserved for “artistic” types, or for those few who are considered “creative.” However, creative thinking is a fundamental skill, just like learning how to read. Unfortunately, the structure of our current education system emphasizes quantifiable results and productivity. This hyper-focus eliminates the space to exercise a much more qualitative, process-oriented experience for essential skill development. Creating new pathways for innovative education that meets the needs of the 21st century depends on one's concrete and deepened understanding about creative thinking:

  • what exactly it is
  • how it works and how it is different from other ways of thinking
  • why it is important

Education is filled with buzzwords that lure us to one modality or another: higher-order thinking skills, shared inquiry, the Socratic method, executive functioning, science-based learning, metacognition, a child-centered approach, creative play . . . The list can go on and on. It is important for educators to invest time in learning what these different terms mean, how educational programs are applying them, and how they actually apply to learning. Let’s take a comparative view of two common educational terms: critical thinking and creative thinking.

In his “Introduction to Creative Thinking,” Robert Harris gives a clear explanation of the difference between critical and creative thinking and how they work together.

Much of the thinking done in formal education emphasizes the skills of analysisteaching students how to understand claims, follow or create a logical argument, figure out the answer, eliminate the incorrect paths and focus on the correct one. [Creative thinking] focuses on exploring ideas, generating possibilities, looking for many right answers rather than just one.

Critical Thinking            Creative Thinking

analytic                              generative

convergent                        divergent

vertical                              lateral

probability                        possibility

judgment                          suspended judgment

focused                             diffuse

objective                           subjective

answer                              an answer

left brain                           right brain

verbal                                visual

linear                                 associative

reasoning                          richness, novelty

yes but                              yes and

In an activity like problem solving, both kinds of thinking are important to us. First, we must analyze the problem; then we must generate possible solutions; next we must choose and implement the best solution; and finally, we must evaluate the effectiveness of the solution. As you can see, this process reveals an alternation between the two kinds of thinking, critical and creative.

Critical thinking is classification, analysis, comparison, inductive and deductive reasoning, concluding answers. It is linear, sequential. Creative thinking is brainstorming, imagining multiple possibilities. It is metaphorical, associative. In today’s world, where information and knowledge are changing and expanding at an accelerated rate, our education system must shift to developing citizens that have skill sets to adapt to such a world in proactive, constructive ways.

Sir Ken Robinson is one who has dedicated his life work to doing just that. In his Changing Education Paradigms animation, he defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value.” He shares research that illustrates how creative “Genius” is strongest in young children (which means we all have this capacity), and slowly deteriorates as children get older (which means the capacity is somehow lost). This point brings us back to where we started. Creative thinking is a skill that needs to be developed, nurtured, practiced, and exercised to become stronger and readily utilized.

In the book New World Kids: The Parents' Guide to Creative Thinking, authors Susie Monday and Susan Marcus provide simple yet comprehensive ways to support children in developing their creative process.

It’s not a matter of chance or talent or luck, creative thinking is a matter of focus and practice. Like reading, it’s a skill that is learned by doing. Inborn imagination and natural creativity become fluent thinking tools when children learn to see patterns, use associative thinking and practice creating. Also, just like reading, adults help kids along by supplying the right challenge at the right time. (p.9)

The book identifies “a Creativity Map” (p.17) that includes these components:

  • Imagination: “the more you feed your imagination with observations and experiences and memories, the richer and wiser your imagination becomes”
  • the Sensory Alphabet: a sensory language that provides a new perspective for witnessing the world in order to discover new patterns
  • media: “anything you use to get your ideas from the inside of your brain out into the world”
  • play: “thinking in action”
  • Individuality: recognizing the metacognitive aspects of each person
  • the creative process: 1) collecting or gathering; 2) playing; 3) creating; 4) reflecting

Monday and Marcus describe the NWK approach to practicing this process as follows:

The process begins as children find and identify ideas through observation and interaction with the world around them, using the elements of the Sensory Alphabet as lenses. Next they experiment and play with these ideas to help them “grow.” Creative products emerge and are photographed or saved in a personal portfolio. Finally, children learn more about their creative selves as they reflect on their experiences and choose favorite elements, materials and activities.

The Sensory Alphabetcolor, sound, light, space, movement, rhythm, line, shape, texture— is a sensory language that provides a new set of lenses to see the world, which enables new patterns and relationships to emerge that were previously clouded by cultural and learned preconditions. “Because this sensory vocabulary describes, but doesn’t define, it enlarges the capacity for seeing patterns between disparate objects, fields and cultures. This ability to perceive patterns is one of the hallmarks of a creative mind” (p.27).

With my own educational background anchored in this process of learning, I quickly recognized its absence when I stepped into the classroom as an elementary educator. My students had plenty of imagination about ideas that were “outside the box” of possibilities. But their ideas fell short of how to transform them into something beyond a diorama or poster board. Elementary is a time for Big Work, but my students were stuck—they couldn’t imagine how to create Big Forms for communicating their ideas. I realized they needed to practice the creative process, to focus on the process regardless of the content, to experience the Sensory Alphabet in order to make new connections. And that is what we did.

We first exercised our ability to recognize sensory language. We explored different kinds of materials and media (not technological). We then chose topics of interest (whatever they wanted) and practiced different ways of sharing information they discovered. Then we chose a collective topic and picked different ways to communicate our new knowledge. We exercised all aspects of the creative process to build the mental muscle. Students had a heightened engagement in their work and expanded their ways of approaching it.

As educators, parents, neighbors, and active community members, we all need to nurture and exercise our creative thinking skills to provide the fodder necessary for creating a collaborative, innovative, inclusive, diverse, collective, productive, world in the 21st century. What ways can you begin exploring this week? I am available to listen, share thoughts, and provide ideas for starting places in your learning community.

Kelly Jarrell

Time to get your story-loving kids on board for NaNoWriMo!

We WRITE, practicing the arts of storytelling and poetry. We SHARE—reading our own work aloud in the classroom, performing in public, or having work published; sharing brings writers in contact with readers, helping build literary communities in our own backyards.

—The Badgerdog writing program of the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation


For most of us, November 1st means digging a few sweaters and sweatshirts out of the back of the closet, ramping up the panic as Thanksgiving’s culinary pressures approach, and enjoying the sights, sounds, and tastes of peak autumn. But for a certain group of word nerds, November 1st means one thing above all: It’s time to begin the NaNoWriMo marathon and not look up from the notebook or keyboard until midnight, November 30th.

NaNoWriMo, an acronym for National Novel Writing Month, is an international writing challenge community that started as a tiny idea in 1999 in San Francisco and eventually turned into a nonprofit in 2005. Today, hundreds of thousands of people across the globe participate by signing up online and pledging to write the first draft of a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. If you make that goal, you “win” NaNo, but even if you don’t reach the word mark, participants get a great sense of camaraderie and accomplishment just from process.


For young people, there is a special community, called the Young Writers Program, where kids of all ages can join in the challenge with their teachers and parents. In 2015, more than 80,000 students and educators took part, not counting the teens who participated, as many do, in the main NaNo community. Kids generally set their own word limits, and aren’t bound, of course, by the 50,000 goal, which is about the length of The Great Gatsby. For a little taste of the excitement involved in plotting, world building, and sharing stories, take a look at some of the many videos created by past teen participants by searching “NaNoWriMo2016” on YouTube.

In Austin, the place for young writers to learn more about the NaNoWriMo experience is at the Austin Public Library. At Faulk Central Library, kids ages 10 and older are invited to attend a NaNoWriMo kickoff Tuesday, November 1, at 5:30 p.m. called “What’s Your Story.” This will be followed by “Keep It Up,” a meeting halfway into the month, on November 15. At the end of the intense and fabulous month there will be a celebratory meeting on December 1, when kids can talk about their experiences, learn a little about how to revise the first draft they have created, and even share their work.

In addition to the library activities, if you have girls in 3rd through 8th grade who are aspiring writers, they may be interested in a couple of workshops happening on Saturday, November 5, as part of the We Are Girls TX conference. Here’s the schedule.

The NaNoWriMo activities at the library are sponsored by the Badgerdog writing program, which operates year-round and sponsors spring break and summer writing workshops for elementary, middle, and high school kids all over Austin.

Cecily Sailer, Programs Manager for the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, says her best advice is that kids of all ages should have fun with NaNoWriMo and set their own, personal goals. “If you spend November writing a little more than normal, you win!” says Cecily. “And make sure to talk about what you’re creating with someone else—take it outside the keyboard or notebook and into the world.”

Follow the Library Foundation on Facebook for updates about this program, and definitely check out the Unbound blog, which features writing and artwork by students!

Need more inspiration?

Shelley Sperry

8 ways to encourage creativity in your child

Heidi Miller Lowell is a frequent contributor to the blog. She is a multimedia artist and educator who leads classes and workshops for all ages and summer camps for kids. Learn more about Heidi’s offerings here.

Prospective employers list creativity as the most sought-after quality in potential employees today. Our education system struggles mightily to design a curriculum that promotes creative thinking. Research shows that children’s brains are growing differently than ever before because of a lack of unstructured play and an overabundance of pre-made entertainment.

How do we promote creativity in our children? Here are my favorite eight tips and sources for supporting your child creatively.

1. Modeling is everything. Children learn by example. If you don’t feel confident, get some help online. There are tons of great e-classes teaching tinkering, sketching, painting, design, and writing for folks who are busy. If you want your children to be creative, do creative activities in their presence and with them.

2. Provide a creative provocation for your child. The provocation is a concept used in the Reggio Emilia method of education. The blog The Artful Parent has some great ideas for setting up provocations.

3. The book Young at Art by Susan Striker focuses on the creative development of children from birth through preschool. It talks about strategies for keeping creativity at the forefront of your daily life when you have small children. Some of the strategies would work great in a home with older kids too.

4. Engaging Learners through Choice-Based Learning by Katherine M. Douglas is an essential resource for all art teachers, homeschool families, and anyone interested in progressive education. This book emphasizes that even young artists need to be treated like real artists. This means giving students a say in what and HOW they make things. Douglas details setting up art stations and offers tips on teaching with a variety of media.

5. After you read the book above, you may want to stop and visit Austin Creative Reuse in The Linc. This center is stocked full of recycled materials that can be used for a bevy of art projects. The prices are great, and you can leave knowing that you are actually helping take care of our environment!

6. The book Creating Pathways to Literacy through Art by Beth Olshanky is also a game changer. It promotes creativity and literacy and comes with a DVD that models some of the lessons.

7. Look at any camps, schools, and extracurricular activities you’re considering for your child to see if their focus is on product or process. Any school that display 15 of the exact same penguin pictures in a display might be focused more on making pretty pieces of art for parents to see than on offering kids a valuable learning experience. Process-based art gives kids a chance to find their own creative voices rather than giving them step-by-step directions. Kids make mistakes. They work on finding solutions. Mistakes are the best teachers.

8. Come join us at Art Camp this summer at Four Seasons Community School! You can find out more at my website,

Heidi Miller Lowell