The Vanishing Commodity. Creativity: Use It or Lose It!

Recalling an anti-aging, brain research mantra from the 1990s, “Use it or lose it”, I ask, “How do I use my creativity and not lose it?”  This is definitely a source of concern for 21st Century learners and educators because research shows that elaboration, flexibility and originality scores have all been declining since 1984, with elaboration showing the earliest decline. 

This article, the fifth in the six-part series, “Creativity in the Classroom” will enumerate and briefly explore research-proven strategies and techniques for daily classroom use to stimulate fluency, flexibility, and originality, three essential components of creative thinking. Emeritus Professor of Art from Goshen College and master potter, Marvin Bartel, stresses daily rituals, like these strategies, are necessary to stimulate original thinking, and therefore, creativity. 

Most of the strategies can be very short, easily incorporated into any discipline, but especially those like science, writing, and art that are process-based, and can produce dynamic results in stimulating creative thinking plus individual and/or group productivity.

In the past ten years brain-based research shows that Intelligence Quotients, or IQs, can be raised, and recent research is currently pointing to the same for creativity. So, this article will explore 20 mental exercises and techniques to raise your Creativity Quotient, or CQ.

Let Thinking Strategies “Pump Up” Your Creative Thinking

(For lack of a better way to organize the following strategies, they will appear alphabetically)

Brainstorming, one of easiest techniques to build fluency, flexibility, and originality in a classroom, is a broad group of thinking techniques where students try to spontaneously contribute ideas for a solution to a problem. The term brainstorming was popularized in a 1953 book, Applied Imagination by a Madison Avenue advertising executive Alex Faickney Osborne.  Reintroduced in the 1970s by San Diego State University writing gurus Leif Fearn and Nancy Parnum, brainstorming to create a list of many, varied and unusual ideas prior to writing cemented its place in creative thinking and creative writing.  

Since then, researchers have made many improvements to the original technique. Brainstorming combines a relaxed, informal approach to problem solving with lateral thinking. It encourages students to come up with thoughts and ideas that can, at first, seem a bit crazy and definitely “out-of-the-box”. Some of these ideas can then be crafted into original solution for the problem, while others can spark even more ideas. This helps to get students unstuck by jolting them out of their normal ways of thinking, making unusual associations or connections, and by often improving class dynamics. The old adage, “Two brains are better than one”, surely applies to all brainstorming activities.

During brainstorming sessions, teachers and students should avoid criticizing or rewarding ideas because the point is to open up possibilities and break down incorrect assumptions about the problem’s limits. Judgment, analysis and labeling at this stage tend to stunt idea generation and can deter group dynamics.

Taking Your Brainstorming To a Higher Altitude

When using brainstorming in your classroom don’t be disappointed if the first attempt is less than stellar, but don’t think it won’t work. Repeated use, like any exercise for stiff, unused joints or muscles increases range slowly, improves lubrication to the areas and increases circulation and future success. 

But, if after repeated use, you are not getting enough quality ideas, try using some of the further articulated brainstorming approaches below to increase the number of ideas (fluency), the different ideas (flexibility) and the more unusual ideas (originality). After all, variety is one of the components of creativity.

  • Brainwriting is a variation on brainstorming that allows everyone in the class to participate in a non-threatening way by having the class simply write down their ideas on slips of paper, note pads, group idea pages, chalkboards, etc. I utilize this strategy in class when I need to poll the class’s ideas prior to beginning a unit of study.  Once written down on sticky notes the ideas are easily categorized by similar concepts to help with my analysis of the areas I need to cover, with student ideas often spurring ideas of my own.
  • Reverse Brainstorming helps a class solve stated problems by combining brainstorming and the reversal technique, describing an idea, concept or a problem by what it is not. Instead of “How would you describe creativity?”, the teacher might ask. “What is creativity not?”
  • Rolestorming encourages students to take on other people’s identities while brainstorming. The theory is that if you pretend to be someone else, you will feel more comfortable putting your ideas forward, and because you may come up with more ideas if you look at a problem from someone else’s perspective. Rolestorming, play-acting with a problem-solving purpose, is freeing and fun.  What would Benjamin Franklin, Pablo Picasso or Einstein do?    

Starbursting focuses on generating questions rather than answers. Webbing questions help students to look at a problem from different perspectives.

“Hole”-Brain Drawing features a hole cut out of a piece of blank paper. Students must use the hole to be an integral part of a detailed drawing.
*Denotes my own strategy title that I have used for over 15 years.

“I’m Positive It Is a…” Strategy is a companion activity to the “Hole”-Brain Drawing above. Students select a random positive shape (cut from the papers for the above activity), glue it on their papers, and then must use it as a component in a detailed drawing.  The students may outline the shape and embellish it with details, also.

Magic Doodles (Sensational Scribbles) is a creative strategy I have used for years to prompt quick, fluent, flexible and creative images. Students are asked to transform an odd number of random lines into a complex drawing of related or interrelated objects.

Metaphorical Thinking, in language arts, is a descriptive technique that is highly useful in making connections between seemingly disparate items or concepts, and often creates a clearer understanding than simple similes that state what something is like.  Since making connections is essential to creative thinking, metaphors are a great tool to utilize.  Learn more about metaphorical thinking.

““Time is money” is a metaphor. By thinking about time as money, you can create powerful images. Time wasted is money down the drain. Time well spent is an investment. The seconds are ticking away.” 

Mind mapping is a lobed or webbed drawing used to visually organize information, ideas and opinions. A mind map is usually organized around a single, broad concept in the center, with major related ideas/concepts branching out from that center.  Supporting and/or different ideas branch out further from those lobes.  Many creative thinkers love mind mapping for its artistic possibilities, often including the illustration of concepts or ideas included to create truly descriptive works of art.  The mind map below on creative intelligence is one of many available online at and is designed by Emily and Alan Burton.

Mnemonic (or Acronym) Sentences is a strategy that each of the five letters in a five-letter word must be used in order to begin five words to make a complete sentence.  It seems that with the advent of TABS in 1984, the state of Texas and modern education is in love with acronyms, so I started using this thinking warm up in class as students are getting supplies.  Once they are trained on the procedure, students look for the word of the day on the board as they come in.
For example, if color is the word, the letters are: c, o, l, o, r. When made into a sentence of five words beginning with each of those letters in order the results could be: Criminals often loosen our rules, or Caterpillars originally loved opening roses.

Patterning Prose/Poetry Selections: Poetry and simple prose formats can assist young students to create complex descriptions and messages by not having to create the actual syntactical format of the writing, words or phrases. One of my favorite prose selections to pattern, or follow its format, produces a step-by-step description of a process. “My Rules” by Shel Silverstein in Where the Sidewalk Ends originally is about a demanding girl’s requirements for marriage, but its format can be used with different concepts in so many ways.   

”If you want to be (creative, an artist, a scientist, the president…), or
If you want to (paint, think, write, experiment, type…), here’s what you have
to do:

This is only one of the over seventy-five poetry and prose selections to pattern that are included in Super Kids Publishing Company by author Deborah Robertson.  Intended to be used in a variety of ways: a center approach on cards, an individual writer’s studio, or as a full class lesson, these prose and poetry formats provide confidence in young students and encourage fluent, flexible, and original thinking and writing.  Creating a product often helps to further validate brainstormed ideas.

Poetry Formulas, similarly found in Super Kids, like the cinquain, the diamante, the alternator, vertical and five-sense, are simply stated, line-by-line requirements for including brainstormed ideas in a poem. Again, producing a product cements the fluency, flexibility and creativity spurred by the idea gathering process of brainstorming.

Randomness is a thinking strategy that tries to make sense of the unrelated. I have adapted this technique and call it “Thinking Outside of the Box”. I write pairs of unrelated words on small slips of paper, place in a small box, and select random students to draw out a pair for the day. Students then draw in their thinking journal, sketch book, on doodle pages, or in margins of paper, their ideas on how the two are related.  For example, the pair “happy and scary” produced an image of a mummy enjoying himself at the carnival, Frankenstein riding a merry-go-round while “sticky and furry” produced a mouse in glue, a bear drinking honey from a bee hive, and a Velcro fastener on a model’s fur coat.

Reversal Strategy can be used to define hard-to-describe terms and concepts by basically describing what the term or concept is NOT. When students in my classes had trouble coming up with a succinct list of descriptors for creativity or creative thinking, I had them list what it is not.  That list, an elaborated description of critical thinking, then was reversed to produce a concrete list of descriptors for creative thinking.

SCAMPER is a mnemonic that stands for: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Another Use, Eliminate, and Reverse. While Alex Osborn, credited as the originator of brainstorming, originally came up with many of the questions used in this technique, Bob Eberle, and education administrator and author, organized the questions into the SCAMPER mnemonic.  French artist Benoit Philippe utilizes several of these techniques in his free e-book, Creative Exercises for Artists and Everyone Else.

Transformational Drawing exercises fluency, flexibility and originality by asking a student to change a shape, an icon, a symbol into part of something else.

Visual Comparisons/Contrasts utilize art prints, actual objects (objet d’art) to allow students to observe and draw comparisons and contrasts, like visual Venn diagrams, that show the individual (contrasting) characteristics of the items, as well as the common (comparing) characteristics. Author Bob Raczka’s book, Unlikely Pairs, is one of my favorite sources for visual comparisons and contrasts.

“What Ifs” Game is a drawing warm-up game where students are asked to draw fantastic changes by asking the question, “What if….?”  Thinking that is parallel to the SCAMPER technique is used when students possibly have to substitute, change, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate or reverse an idea in order to come up with a solution.

Wordles, or Word Clouds are teacher/student produced graphic designs using an online computer site like that take the class’s composite list of descriptors, statements, or questions and analyzes them for repeated word content. The program then produces a full color graphic that, by size, color, position and font, shows the most common ideas stated by all the class, while also including all the many, varied and unusual ideas. The following example is about Wordles themselves from online.
If you and your students try this highly varied list of creativity-building exercises, one a day, as an everyday ritual, your collective creative strengths and endurance will improve. Remember, “Creativity is contagious. Pass it on.”  Albert Einstein


Marvin Bartel, Art Rituals in the Classroom, 1993, 2001, 2012.
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, Newsweek, “The Creativity Crisis”, July, 10, 2010.

Emily and Alan Burton, “Creative Intelligence”, a mind map on

Benoit Phillipe, Creative Exercises for Artists and Everyone Else, free online at:

Bob Raczka, Unlikely Pairs, Millbrook Press, 2005.

Deborah Roberston and Patricia Barry, Super Kids Publishing Company, Teacher Idea Press, 1990.

Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Harper and Row Publishers, 1974.

Robert Evan Wilson, Psychology Today, “Play the ‘What If? Game’, September 10. 2012

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia