Creativity: A Skill We All Need to Foster and Protect

Believe it or not, and I am constantly surprised by the number of educators who don’t believe it, the research is clear on all of the ways that students’ success, creativity, and growth are harmed by extrinsic motivators. This leaves many educators, including my research partner, Kristy Graber, and me, searching for ways to eliminate rewards while equipping students with the gear needed to strengthen these areas. This can be especially challenging considering how prevalent rewards are in daily life. Here is the last portion of our research paper that I have condensed into a blog post.

She’s got a smile that it seems to me

Creative thinking is not just for the arts, though fine arts classes and programs in schools are generally safe havens of creativity. Rather, all grade levels and content areas need to be welcoming ports for creative thinking. One way in which teachers can create these ports and safe havens is by teaching “perseverance in the face of obstacles and moderate risk-taking” (Sternberg and Lubart, p. 231). These two attributes will carry students forward in life and help them strive for success, even when they may not be rewarded for their attempts or accomplishments. Ideally, students will come to realize that creative thinking often leads to problem-solving, and problem-solving leads to student success and self-confidence.

Reminds me of childhood memories

Kohn also discussed ways to foster intrinsic motivation, a critical component of creativity. He offers five recommendations to improve students’ motivation; allow for active learning, give the reason for an assignment, elicit their curiosity, set an example, and welcome mistakes, thus encouraging moderate risk-taking (2018, pp. 211-212). By following these guidelines, students should become more interested in their education and hopefully find greater intrinsic motivation for learning, leading to more creative performance. Kohn also claimed that educators do not need to try to motivate students using extrinsic motivators, “Given an environment in which they don’t feel controlled and in which they are encouraged to think about what they are doing (rather than how well they are doing it), students of any age will generally exhibit an abundance of motivation and a healthy appetite for challenge” (p. 199). Incorporating collaboration, content, and choice into pedagogy is what Kohn offers educators as a substitute for rewards. In fact, Kohn states that choice, above all else, is necessary to promote intrinsic motivation (p. 252), and therefore also creativity.

Where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky

The importance of student voice and choice is not new to educators, and research supports it. Similar to Kohn, Pink recommends teachers provide students with autonomy in task, time, technique, and team to allow for increased intrinsic motivation (Pink, p. 92). Pink elaborated on Ryan and Deci’s description of autonomy as ”acting with choice” when he noted that “A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude” (p. 88). By embedding these components into their pedagogy, teachers will help students find greater intrinsic interest in their learning, which will support their creative thinking and performance.

Now and then when I see her face

While research has made it clear that the effects of extrinsic motivation are harmful to the creativity of students, however, as we also discovered, there is no easy answer to the one best way to combat the damaging effects rewards have on student creativity. And to make matters more difficult for teachers who are trying to foster creativity and intrinsic motivation in their students, there are other barricades that teachers face daily. Problems quickly arise due to practices of reward systems that are implemented building-wide or baring that, the reward practices of the teacher just down the hall or in the next classroom.

She takes me away to that special place

One big one that is outside the control of teachers, for the most part, is the reward-based programs such as the Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS), which is used by many districts in the United States. While dealing with these programs can be challenging for teachers as they work to decrease the use of rewards within their own classroom, it is achievable. Kampylis and Berki introduce creative thinking to educators as, “the thinking that enables students to apply their imagination to generating ideas, questions and hypotheses, experimenting with alternatives, and to evaluating their own and their peers’ ideas, final products and processes” (2014, p. 6). Thinking of it in these terms may help teachers build creative capacity within their students. There are other barriers besides school-wide reward systems and the teacher down the hall. Teacher turnover can also play a role in this inability to provide students with a stable learning environment that promotes creative thinking as well. We also must reconcile with the fact that rewards are relatively cheap and easy to implement, so finding the time and energy to plan, create, and implement activities and systems to promote creative thinking and nurture student intrinsic motivation can be difficult for teachers, especially as we navigate through the pandemic. The teacher shortage has only complicated this problem further since positions are more frequently filled by long-term subs or unqualified applicants who may rely on rewards to survive the year or as they learn classroom management and work toward certification.

And if I stare too long, I’d probably break down and cry

In fact, the sustainability of student creativity is now and long has been a battleground in education. The problem stems from the fact that even though there is ample evidence that shows the importance of creative thinking (e.g. Hennessey, 2002; Sternberg and Lubart, 1993; Eisenberger & Shanock, 2003; Lepper, Corpus & Iyengar), teachers regularly rely on practices, like rewards, that hinder student creativity. Swanson’s (1995) own research touched on this by noting “Ann Bogianno (Bogianno, 1978), found that teachers and parents accept the notion that offering and withdrawing rewards produces good results, better than any other teaching strategy” (p. 44). Despite that prevailing belief, the research does not lie. After his review of the research literature, Kohn (2018) concluded that “it is simply not possible to bribe people to be creative” (p. 344). As teachers, we know that regardless of how many ways to promote creativity are presented, the fact that rewards show immediate gains will always put the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations at odds unless we find a balance, or in other words, reach Ryan and Deci’s nexus. As Kohn points out, “most studies have found that unexpected rewards are much less destructive than the rewards people are told about beforehand and are deliberately trying to obtain” (p. 53), so the unexpected reward here and there will minimize the destruction of student intrinsic motivation, yet help the teacher who believes strongly in rewards still achieve balance.

Whoa, oh, oh Sweet child o’ mine

Those who have reached this point of this blog are now more awake to the power of creativity, what can diminish it, and why the world needs it. There is no succinct answer for how to fully cultivate creativity and intrinsic motivation in the classroom and beyond. However, it is good to contemplate the words of the great basketball coach, Phil Jackson, who said, “You can’t force your will on people. If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves” (Jackson, 2013, p. 16). Carrots and sticks do not create the environment that creativity and intrinsic motivation need in order to thrive. Just being aware of the effect rewards have on students and putting in place some of the practices mentioned here will help alleviate the negative effects of rewards on your students, and will also be a giant step forward toward finding that nexus.

Previous Posts in this series

Creativity, A Much Needed Skill

Finding the Nexus

Headings used are partial lyrics from Sweet Child of Mine by Guns and Roses


Eisenberger, R., & Shanock, L. (2003). Rewards, intrinsic motivation, and creativity: a case study of conceptual and methodological isolation. Creativity Research Journal, 15 (2/3), 121.

Hennessey, B. A. (2002). The social psychology of creativity in the schools. Research in the Schools, 9 (2), 23–33.

Jackson, P., & Delehanty, H. (2013). Eleven rings: the soul of success. Penguin.

Kampylis, P., Berki, E., International Bureau of Education (IBE) (Switzerland), & International Academy of Education (Belgium). (2014). Nurturing creative thinking. Educational Practices Series-25. In UNESCO International Bureau of Education.

Kohn, A. (2018). Punished by rewards the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (25th-anniversary ed.). Mariner Books.

Lepper, M. R., Corpus, J. H. & Iyengar, S. S. (2005). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivational orientations in the classroom: Age differences and academic correlates. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97 (2), 184-196.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Riverhead Books.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (1996). When paradigms clash: comments on Cameron and Pierce’s claim that rewards do not undermine intrinsic motivation. Review of Educational Research, 66, 33–38.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Motivation and the Educational Process, 25 (1), 54–67.

Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1993). Investing in creativity. Psychological Inquiry, 4 (3), 229–232.

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