Encyclopedia of Educational Innovation

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters, Richard Heraud

Assessing Creativity in Formal Education

  • Nicholas Houghton
  • Tony ReevesEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-2262-4_67-1


This chapter examines the challenges of assessing creativity in formal education. It does not consider the various ways of measuring an individual’s creative aptitude or potential using established mechanisms such as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). Instead, the focus is on presenting the components of creativity that can be clearly identified during a program of formal education in order to guide more robust assessment.

In many contexts, the notion of assessing creativity can be challenging. Much formal education has been predicated on rote learning and assessed through students’ ability to repeat what they have been taught. There are also contexts where this is not the case, for example, in arts education or where students are expected to analyze and think for themselves. However, only rarely has the latter been identified as creativity. What is clear is that in order to assess creativity, it is necessary to explain what it is.

What Is Creativity in Educational Settings?

There are many common myths surrounding the term creativity. These include a belief that it is possible to be creative without an appropriate level of subject knowledge, that educating for creativity can be achieved in an unstructured environment, and that creativity is an innate ability that some have but others do not (Sharp 2004). This latter belief stems from the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century; prior to this, creativity was the exclusive prerogative of deity. When the mantle of creativity was passed to man, it was literally that: a male prerogative, and closely linked to the concept of genius. Hence, creativity is a social construct, allied to individuality rather than teamwork, and too often considered an ability that only the gifted or highly talented possess.

This link between creativity and innate talent remains prevalent in the arts and in education. Such a view implies that creativity cannot therefore be taught, rendering its assessment in formal learning highly problematic. But it is important to challenge the Romantic view that there can be spontaneous self-expression or innate creativity. Not only are all such acts bound by their sociocultural context, what are sometimes viewed as spontaneous creative acts, such as child art, are in fact learned. Moreover, any claim for self-expression has to contend with the fact that no person has a single “self” to express.

The practice of creativity is a skill, similar to, but not the same as, thinking skills. This requirement raises a paradox. The learning of the requisite knowledge and skills in a discipline is necessarily conservative, as the more deeply someone is engulfed in one area, the less likely they are to connect to another. If creativity comes out of mastery, it can all too often be limited, as well as enabled, by the narrow scope of that mastery. Those who advocate interdisciplinary working have to bear in mind that while it is extremely difficult and time-consuming to develop a high level of knowledge and skill in another discipline, each discipline will also have its own specialist language which further mitigates against interdisciplinarity. The present day encyclopedia is a tower of Babel, where one expert cannot understand another. This is not to say one should never try, but merely to explain that crossing borders between disciplines was never as easy as the postmodernists would have us believe. Despite this, crossing disciplinary borders can be one of the best ways to design a curriculum that enables students to be creative as it enables them to connect disparate phenomena.

A definition of creativity has to be generic and apply to all contexts. Although there are many definitions, they have come to coalesce around the view that it has two essential components: originality and social usefulness. According to Runco and Jaeger (2012), this has become the standard definition, although it is not necessarily definitive, and it is quite feasible that there could be more components.

This entry proposes five components of creativity which are interdependent and indispensable for its effective assessment. First, there has to be knowledge of a context – this can be a discipline, a canon, a social norm, a set of rules, a problem, or a paradigm. It is true that the exercise of creativity might be interdisciplinary; it might call into question or reformulate social norms, rules, or even a paradigm (although the latter is very rare). The important point is that without these boundaries or constraints, there can be no creativity, because it cannot emerge from a vacuum or from ignorance.

Second, there has to be an existing set of skills, which comprise the clay out of which a creative outcome is fashioned. It cannot be the other way round: someone cannot first be creative and then learn the requisite knowledge and skills. These could be thinking skills, craft skills, or interpersonal skills. If there is teamwork, then those skills don’t have to be shared by all team members. For some, there might be a “lightbulb moment,” but for the majority, there is likely to be a purposeful experimentation. Both require a relevant skill set.

Third, there has to be an understanding by the person of what they are doing. This does not mean that they have to understand what happens during a “lightbulb moment” (which not everyone will have, in any case) but that they possess the ability to recognize its significance and what can be done about it. This understanding has to include the ability to reflect and evaluate. Whether the person is thinking inside or outside the box, there has to be metacognition – they have to be thinking about their thinking.

Fourth, there has to be a product or outcome of some kind, be it a concept, a formula, or an artefact. Creativity has to be made visible in some way. Creativity is not a state of mind, nor a lifestyle choice.

Fifth, the product has to be inventive and has a degree of newness or originality. In western cultures, creativity has to be more than just imitation (the implications for non-western cultures are outlined in the section below on cultural difference). This does not mean that the product has to be groundbreaking, but rather that nothing exactly the same has ever existed to the best of the knowledge both of the person or people involved in the creation of the outcome and of anyone doing the assessing.

How to Assess Creativity

Programs of formal education in different countries and institutions use a variety of assessment methods and regimes, such as assessing against objectives, learning outcomes, or predetermined criteria. There are numerous and diverse instruments available for assessing aspects of creativity, and the choice of instruments will usually be influenced by both context and local assessment regulations. To go into these would be beyond the scope of this chapter. Rather, it will be necessary to adapt these guidelines to a particular context.

It is, however, important to note key differences between methods of assessing creativity in formal education and methods outside a formal program of learning. In the former, specific criteria are required to guide assessment of creativity and are formalized in assessment rubrics. These rubrics enable assessors to avoid the pitfalls outlined in the following section. In the latter, methods such as the Consensual Assessment Technique (Hennessey et al. 2011) explicitly reject the use of criteria in assessing creativity, while the TTCT aims to assess an individual’s creative behavior or personality rather than creativity itself.

The utility of a framework for assessing creativity in formal education is also dependent upon teachers and students establishing a clear and common understanding of what creativity is and how it will be assessed (Blamires and Peterson 2014). The explanation in this entry of how creativity is manifested through its five components provides a framework for its assessment. All five components should be included in the descriptive summative assessment rubrics. The five components should also be used to guide formative assessment. Hence assessors should be looking for knowledge of context, demonstration of appropriate skills, an understanding of the process and its significance, an outcome, and a degree of originality.

It is advisable to use a range of assessment methods in order to provide a robust assessment of creativity. Lucas et al. (2013, pp. 15–16) identify different ways of assessing the development of traits linked to creativity, including:
  • Use of descriptive rubrics supported by examples

  • Assessment by peers

  • Assessment using portfolios

  • Assessment using mixed methods

  • Self-assessment

For example, assessing the creativity of an essay would necessitate the submission of a portfolio of plans, notes, and research and a self-assessment or reflective account of the essay writing process.

Possible Pitfalls When Assessing Creativity

Having identified the five components of creativity and ways of assessing them, it is now possible to consider some common problems with assessing creativity in formal education.

Assessing the product only: a common pitfall is to focus assessment solely on the final outcome. When assessing an outcome, it is important to remember that it constitutes evidence of the learning and is only one of five components that needs to be assessed. Nor is it necessarily the most important.

Assessing the process: assessing process can also be problematic because people develop highly personalized processes and often vary these according to the task. To help with the task of assessment, it is necessary to not only see the final work but also the workings, notes, sketches, and other evidence that show the four other components. However, it is essential not to be too rigid and expect a logical, linear progression. The act of creativity can involve working back and forth between components, as when somebody has a “lightbulb moment.”

Assessing the person: a further trap is to base assessment of creativity on the personal traits of the person whose work is being assessed. As with assessing the product, there is a danger that the assessment of creativity is clouded by the assessor’s knowledge of the person and the temptation to view them as more or less creative than others. A useful strategy that makes the assessment more reliable (and hence mitigates this bias) is to ask a colleague who has no prior knowledge of the student to assess the work.

Assessing originality: the requirement for originality means that students are being asked to produce diverse outcomes and can raise problems for assessment, especially for those who are used to the notion that there are always right or wrong answers or outcomes. In contrast to other aspects of learning, there are outcomes that cannot be predetermined (except in the sense that they should be original), nor can there be exemplars to guide examiners about what originality might look like. Assessors’ specialist knowledge of a discipline can be paramount in deciding whether something is original. While it has to be acknowledged that having this task undertaken by several assessors working independently, as in the Consensual Assessment Technique, will increase reliability (Hennessey et al. 2011), in most contexts this would be impractical.

Assessing based on taste: it is also important for the assessor to avoid the trap of linking the outcome in front of them with their subjective tastes. Whether the assessor likes it or not is irrelevant, what is important is the extent to which the outcome (e.g., essay, artefact) manifests the five components of creativity listed above.

Risk and failure: To be creative entails trying out something new, and that is a risk. When compared with activities such as mountain climbing, the risks are small and the penalties for failure minor. But it has to be acknowledged that taking risks requires confidence. If a student reluctantly takes a risk and fails, then they can lose yet more confidence. Should it be judged that they failed, they are unlikely to want to pick themselves up and start all over again. That is why, in assessing creativity, more importance needs to be attached to risk-taking than to the results of the risk.

However, it is essential for students to demonstrate that they have learned from taking a risk and failing. In most cases, the failure comes about from persevering with an idea or direction which should have been abandoned sooner. This is an example of why having an understanding of the process is so important: ideas and possible solutions need to be evaluated or adapted. If the student who devises an avocado souflé finds that it doesn’t work, then perhaps they need to change how it is prepared. However, they may need to make more significant changes, such as trying a mushroom purée souflé or an avocado with a boiled egg inside. What the assessor should be looking for in every case is metacognition – in other words, for them to be cognizant of what they are doing – and of how they are evaluating what they are doing as they try out new things.

Cultural difference: interpretations of creativity vary considerably across cultures. Although this chapter is based on western conceptions of creativity, the authors acknowledge that not all cultures share the western view. For example, those known as Confucian Heritage Cultures (CHC), a collective term for the cultures of China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea, used to emphasize the importance of harmony and balance in creativity. While acknowledging a western bias, this entry aligns with prevailing international views, including that of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (see Lucas et al. 2013), which includes Japan and Korea amongst its members. These cultures have traditionally valued technical mastery over originality and rule-breaking and in the context of learning have focused more on the end product than on the creative process. If students from CHC cultures are to create work that will be assessed for its creativity, care must first be taken to ensure that the components of creativity are explained and understood.

Intention: it is entirely possible to have a “happy accident” and for it to be creative. But for this creativity to be assessed, the creator has to have an awareness of why their happy accident is creative. By involving the student in the assessment, it not only enables them to be cognizant of what they are doing but also helps them to provide the necessary evidence of their intention for the assessor. It is also important to note that understanding and rewarding the intention behind the decisions involved in creating an outcome also require the ability to reward what is known as “little-c” (intrinsic) as well as “big-C” (extrinsic) creativity (see next section).

A common characteristic of the above pitfalls is the need for an assessor to be mindful of personal biases when assessing creativity in formal education. The multifaceted nature of creativity means that personal taste, cultural and professional conditioning, and interpretation of assessment criteria can all influence assessment decisions. To ensure robustness, assessors must take conscious action to minimize the influence of personal biases during assessment.

Little-c and Big-C Creativity

It is necessary to distinguish between little-c (intrinsic) and big-C (extrinsic) creativity, because the latter can be challenging for assessment (Kaufman & Beghetto also identify two further dimensions of creativity, mini-c and pro-c – see Kaufman and Beghetto 2009). Little-c creativity is rooted in the task set, and a creative artefact or solution emerges within the set parameters. Big-C creativity leads to an artefact or solution that goes beyond these parameters. There are numerous examples of students who exercise big-C creativity being failed, and it is not difficult to understand why. Most definitions of creativity carry the caveat that the results of creative endeavor must be useful and appropriate. In other words, they abide by existing codes of practice, whether written or not. Big-C creativity will question these rules. The tale of William Webb Ellis supposedly inventing Rugby Football when he picked up the ball during a soccer game and ran with it is useful here. It shows that while big-C creativity can create entirely new areas of knowledge, in this case an entirely new sport, no sport could function if players were forever changing the rules as they played. A tennis player can be creative, but within the rules of tennis. Because big-C creativity is disruptive, it can be very difficult to design assessment rubrics which allow for it, yet this has to be done. Big-C creativity must not be penalized.

However, it is also important to bear in mind that not all big-C creativity is highly innovative. For example, in a fashion design course, students are given the task of designing a skirt and one student designs a skirt to be worn by a man. In cut and look, this skirt is completely different from all of the others. This is hardly earth-shattering: men have worn skirts for many centuries. Moreover, if working in the fashion industry, this would be completely unacceptable. Given enough time, the student could take what they had learned from this and apply it to designing a woman’s skirt. But if that weren’t possible, assessment rubrics have to be designed in such a way that such a student will not be failed.


Many governments and organizations identify the need for creativity to be one of the attributes learned in formal education. However, educational systems were founded long before this was the case. In these systems, originality has always been placed at the very top of the pyramid, supported by a structure that prefers students to repeat what they have learned. Creativity, therefore, is not a simple appendage to a curriculum; it forces a fundamental reconsideration of the pedagogy and especially of assessment. This can be challenging and involve extra work. However, the outcomes can be transformational.

To assess creativity effectively in formal education, assessors need a clear and shared understanding about what creativity is and how it should be assessed. Just as importantly, teachers and students must establish a shared understanding of creativity. In the same way that students have to leave safety to be creative, so do teachers. For both there can be huge benefits in terms of learning, as leaving safety opens up opportunities for a more negotiated, student-centered pedagogy. Clear procedures which involve students in assessment of their creativity not only enhance student learning but also help students to become more independent learners. However, there should not be an expectation that creativity results in highly original outcomes because it should be assessed to enhance student learning, rather than to try and produce a generation of Einsteins.

This entry presents a framework for assessing creativity in formal education which should be adapted to local contexts and needs. Using the five components of creativity identified above along with a range of assessment methods, it is possible to develop robust approaches to assessing creativity.


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Copyright information

© Crown 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Research and EducationUniversity for the Creative ArtsFarnhamUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Christopher Wilson
    • 1
  • Sarah Hayes
    • 2
  • Petar Jandrić
    • 3
  1. 1.Aston UniversityBirminghamUK
  2. 2.Aston UniversityBirminghamUK
  3. 3.Department of Informatics and ComputingZagreb University of Applied SciencesZagrebCroatia