Promoting Creativity in Talented Adolescents

Sally M. Reis
Joseph S. Renzulli


This entry highlights some of the major issues associated with promoting high levels of creative potential and achievement in talented adolescents. It summarizes recent research about the environmental factors, and school and home programs, that are more likely to result in the realization of creative talent.


Schoolhouse giftedness and talent refers to test-taking, lesson-learning, or academic giftedness or talents. Individuals who fall into this category generally score well on more traditional intellectual or cognitive assessments and perform well in school.

Creative/productive giftedness and talent, on the other hand, is reflected in individuals who tend to be or have the potential to become producers (rather than consumers) of original knowledge, materials, or products and who employ thought processes that tend to be inductive, integrated, and problem oriented.


We have no way of estimating the number of talented young people with high creative potential who currently fail to develop this potential in American schools; nor do we have a way to estimate how many adolescents and children have creative potential. Nationally, approximately five to ten per cent of students are identified as gifted or talented, but not all of these young people demonstrate high creative potential, and indeed, many of these talented students underachieve in school (Reis & McCoach, 2000).


Gardner’s (1983) theory of multiple intelligences (MI) and Renzulli’s (1978) “three ring” definition of gifted behavior serve as examples of multifaceted and well-researched conceptualizations of intelligence and giftedness. Gardner’s definition of intelligence is the ability to solve problems, or create products, that are valued within one or more cultural settings (Gardner, 1993). Within his MI theory, he articulates eight specific intelligences: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Gardner believes that people are more comfortable using the term “talents” and that “intelligence” is generally reserved to describe linguistic or logical “smartness”; however, he does not believe that certain human abilities should arbitrarily qualify as “intelligence” over others (e.g., language as an intelligence vs. dance as a talent) (Gardner, 1993).

Renzulli’s (1978) theory examines gifted behaviors, rather than gifted individuals:

Gifted behavior consists of behaviors that reflect an interaction among three basic clusters of human traits–above average ability, high levels of task commitment, and high levels of creativity. Individuals capable of developing gifted behavior are those possessing or capable of developing this composite set of traits and applying them to any potentially valuable area of human performance. Persons who manifest or are capable of developing an interaction among the three clusters require a wide variety of educational opportunities and services that are not ordinarily provided through regular instructional programs. (Renzulli & Reis, 1997)

These three basic clusters of human traits contain the following characteristics:

Above average ability, viewed as a general ability, includes 1) high levels of abstract thought, 2) adaptation to novel situations, and 3) rapid and accurate retrieval of information. Viewed as a specific ability, it includes 1) application of general abilities to a specific area of knowledge, 2) the capacity to sort out relevant from irrelevant information, 3) the capacity to acquire and use advanced knowledge and strategies while pursuing a problem.

Task commitment includes 1) a capacity for high levels of interest and enthusiasm, 2) a capacity for hard work and determination in a particular area, 3) self-confidence and drive to achieve, 4) the ability to identify significant problems within an area of study, and 5) setting high standards for one’s work.

Creativity includes 1) fluency, flexibility, and originality of thought, 2) being open to new experiences and ideas, 3) being curious, 4) being willing to take risks, and 5) being sensitive to aesthetic characteristics (adapted from Renzulli & Reis, 1997: 9).


A discussion of “high intellectual ability or potential” and “high creative ability or potential” must be presented separately because existing research and discussion often identify the existence of two broad categories, which Renzulli (1986) referred to as either “schoolhouse giftedness” and/or “creative/productive giftedness.”

Many research studies support a general approach that develops the creative potential of adolescents in school (Renzulli & Reis, 1994). Results of several recent longitudinal studies (Perleth, Sierwald, & Heller, 1993; Hébert, 1993; Delcourt, 1994) provide research support for Renzulli’s distinction between schoolhouse giftedness and creative/productive giftedness. Perleth, Sierwald, and Heller (1993), in their Munich Longitudinal Study of Giftedness (1985-1989) focusing on a large number of secondary students, found clear differences between students who demonstrated creative/productive as opposed to schoolhouse giftedness. Renzulli believes that both schoolhouse giftedness and creative productive giftedness should be developed in adolescents and that an interaction logically exists between them (Renzulli & Reis, 1985; 1997).

Many authors have described the personality traits, social environment, and thinking and learning styles of creatively gifted adults (Davis, 1992, 1999; Rothenberg, 1990; Walberg & Stariha, 1992; Walberg & Zeiser, 1997). However, few studies have examined similarly talented adolescents who may have the potential for high levels of creative productive work (Bloom, 1985; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde & Whalen, 1993; Winner, 1996; Winner & Martino, 1993). A consistent finding from the adolescent studies is that several characteristics, personality traits, and environmental factors facilitate the development of high levels of creativity and creative productive giftedness in young people and adolescents (Czikszentmihalyi, 1998; Gardner, 1983; Renzulli, 1986; Reis, 1998; Sternberg & Lubart, 1993).

Personality Traits and Characteristics of Highly Creative Persons: Much of the work on personality factors associated with high creative achievement suggests that there is a consistent psychological profile of creative persons, though there is considerable variety from one person to the next (Barron, 1988; Bloom, 1985; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Csikszentmihalyi, et al; 1993; Renzulli, 1978, 1986; Runco, 1992; Simonton, 1988; Torrance,1978, 1995). This cluster of personality traits distinguishes more creative individuals from those with lower levels of creative potential. Creative persons are generally considered to be open to new experience, persevering, nonconforming, and intellectually and emotionally independent. They may be impulsive yet self-confident, and often have good insight into their abilities. They may be less group-oriented, more introverted, seeking more time alone than do average people.

Other characteristics that researchers and theorists have associated with creative giftedness include awareness of one’s own creativity (Daniels, 1997) and emotional maturity, including the courage to actualize one’s abilities (Sternberg & Lubart, 1993). Creative achievers may withdraw more often, and seek solitude for some creative tasks require long stretches of concentration without interruption. Creatively gifted individuals also tend to be much less motivated by external rewards like grades and public recognition, and more driven by a love for creative work (Kirshenbaum & Reis, 1997). More recent work has also concluded that youngsters who are exceptionally creative engage in fantasy, and can openly express emotion (Russ, Robins, & Christano, 1999). The same study also found that their emotional expression was relatively stable over time; young people who expressed more emotion in their early years also did so later in their childhood.

Davis (1992; 1999) reviewed over 200 personality characteristics compiled by researchers of creative persons and categorized them into 16 positive characteristics of individuals with high creative ability or potential, as well as 12 negative traits. The positive traints include: awareness of creativeness, independent, energetic, thorough, sense of humor, original, risk taking, capacity for fantasy, curious, attracted to complexity and ambiguity, artistic, need for alone time, emotional, open-minded, perceptive, and ethical.

The negative traits include: questioning rules and authority, stubborness, low interest in details, forgetfulness, careless and disorganized, egotistical, indifference to common conventions, rebellious and arugmentative, tendency to be emotional, absentminded, neurotic, and impulsive or huyperactive.

These negative traits tend to upset the parents and educators, as well as some of the peers, of creative children, since they lead to behaviors not considered appropriate in traditional classrooms. A challenge exists for educators and parents to identify these characteristics of creativity in children and to channel creative energy into constructive outlets (Renzulli & Reis, 1985; 1997) by encouraging playfulness, flexibility, and the production of wild and unusual ideas (Torrance, 1962), as well as opportunities to pursue real problems (Renzulli & Reis, 1985; 1997).

In summary, creatively talented children may exhibit different characteristics than academically gifted children. Those with high academic abilities may have the potential to develop creative gifts and talents, yet many creatively talented students do not necessarily display high academic performance in school.

Environmental Factors: Several researchers also suggest that certain environments can help to nurture high levels of creative potential (Amabile, 1989; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Torrance, 1978). For instance, families with moderate levels of stress may promote creativity in children because children learn to tolerate tension, ambiguity, and are less pressured to conform (Torrance, 1978). Yet the creative person also needs support. For example, MacKinnon (1978) concluded that creative talent requires a need for understanding from others to convey confidence in abilities. This reinforcement and affirmation seems to address the anxieties that may be associated with creative ideas, but it does not belittle the intensity nor dismiss the reality of the creative ideas. Runco (1992) also found that creativity requires an environment that nurtures and then actively supports independence of judgment. Runco also found that creative individuals tend to be self-evaluative by nature, but this self-evaluation cannot be sustained without external support systems, and when support is unavailable, frustration may develop.

Torrance (1978, 1988) determined that the creative personality requires a variety of social and emotional support mechanisms and that denial of those needs would likely result in both physiological and psychological illnesses. These needs include parental support and understanding of frustration as it develops and the need for reinforcing experimentation. In other words, the creatively gifted individual is more likely to thrive in environments where risk taking is valued and promoted, and where there is less pressure to conform to prescribed conventions (Wildauer, 1984). These needs do not end with adolescence, but continue throughout life (Willings, 1983).

In studies of talented adolescents, Bloom (1985) points to the important influence of gifted peers who match or surpass a student’s abilities, and share the motivation needed for persistent effort over a prolonged period. Access to a peer group of students with similar passions and abilities prepares creatively gifted adolescents to cope with the realities of the intense competition and stardom that characterizes some creative careers later in life.

Csikszentmihalyi’s (1996) research on creative adolescents suggests that the pursuit of high creative achievement among this group is likely to result in reduced popularity and perhaps increased marginalization or alienation from peers. Creatively gifted persons may appear particularly odd to peers when they have interests and passions that differ from the mainstream, and a proclivity for unique thinking and self-expression. Development of creative talent often necessitates more time spent alone than for average teens, and the amount of time allocated to mental play appears to inhibit sexual awareness and independence.

Strategies: Overview

Several instructional strategies, programs and models can be used to develop and nurture creativity in adolescents. A brief summary of some of these is provided as well as a thorough description of one model designed to develop creative productivity in students. The Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) (Renzulli, 1977; Renzulli & Reis, 1985; 1997) is one of the mostly widely used enrichment models in the US. It is based on an enrichment programming model called the Enrichment Triad Model (Renzulli, 1977), developed in the mid-1970s.

Strategies That Work

In the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM), a talent pool of 15-20% of above average ability, creative, high potential students is identified through a variety of measures including: achievement tests, teacher nominations, assessment of potential for creativity and task commitment, as well as alternative pathways of entrance (self-nomination, parent nomination, etc.). High achievement and IQ test scores automatically include a student in the talent pool, enabling those creative students who are underachieving in their academic schoolwork to be included.

Once students are identified for the talent pool, they are eligible for three services. First, interest and learning styles assessments are used with talent pool students. Many schools use this process for all students. Informal and formal methods are used to create or identify students’ interests and to encourage students to further develop and pursue these interests in various ways. Learning style preferences which are assessed include: projects, independent study, teaching games, simulations, peer teaching, programmed instruction, lecture, drill and recitation, and discussion. This information, which focuses on strengths rather than deficits, is compiled into a Total Talent Portfolio used to make decisions about talent development opportunities, either for students in the talent pool or for all students. This approach is also consistent with the more flexible conception of developing creative gifts and talents that has been a cornerstone of this approach promoting more equity in enrichment or gifted programs.

Second, curriculum compacting is provided to all eligible students for whom the regular curriculum is modified by eliminating portions of previously mastered content. This streamlining of curriculum enables above-average students to avoid repetition of previously mastered work and guarantees mastery while simultaneously finding time for more creative and appropriately challenging activities (Reis, Burns, & Renzulli, 1992). A form, entitled the Compactor (Renzulli & Smith, 1978), is used to document which content areas have been compacted and what alternative work has been substituted.

Third, three types of enrichment experiences are offered, based on the theoretical approach underlying the SEM, the Enrichment Triad. The goal is to encourage creative productivity on the part of young people by exposing them to various topics, areas of interest, and fields of study; and to further train them to apply advanced content, process-training skills, and methodology training to self-selected areas of interest. In the SEM, Type I (exposure to new topics, areas and issues) Type II (thinking skills, problem solving and methods training within content areas, such as historical, scientific, etc.), and Type III Enrichment (small group or individual self-selected studies in academic or artistic areas) are offered to all students; however, Type III enrichment is usually more appropriate for students with higher levels of ability, interest, and task commitment.

Evidence that the SEM approach works is supported by numerous studies (Renzulli & Reis, 1994). Delcourt (1988) and Starko (1986) investigated student creative productivity in the SEM. Delcourt (1988) investigated characteristics related to creative/productive behavior in 18 adolescents who consistently engaged in first-hand research of self-selected topics both in or out of school, finding that: (1) targeted students do exhibit characteristics similar to those of creative/productive adults; (2) these students can be producers of information as well as consumers; and (3) the learning processes of these students merit closer attention if their abilities are to be better understood by themselves, their parents, and their teachers. Delcourt (1994) also conducted longitudinal research using the same subjects and focusing on their interests, educational and professional experiences, career plans, and projects. Results indicated that students maintained similar or identical career goals to their plans in high school and remained in major fields of study in colleges. Based upon each student’s level of involvement with his or her investigations and the quality of the projects, Delcourt’s study supports the concept that adolescents can continue to become creative young adults.

Starko (1986) examined the effects of SEM participation on student creative productivity. Students who participated in SEM programs for at least four years were compared with students who qualified for such programs but received no services. Data were analyzed by hierarchical multiple regression, as well as qualitative analysis of open-ended questionnaire items. Results indicated that students who became involved in independent study projects in the SEM more often initiated their own creative products both in and outside of school than did students in the comparison group. A total of 103 students, 58 program students and 45 non-program students of similar ability, participated in the study. The group in the enrichment program reported more than twice as many creative projects per student (3.37) as the comparison group (1.4). The group that participated in the enrichment program also reported doing more than twice as many creative products outside of school on their own time (1.03) than the comparison group (.50).

In a longitudinal study of SEM program participants, Hébert (1993) examined the educational experiences of nine senior high school students ten years after their involvement in the program. The students selected for the study were chosen because of the number and quality of the Type III products they completed during their elementary TAG Program experience. He found that: (1) Type III interests of students affect post-secondary plans, (2) creative outlets are needed in high school, (3) a decrease in creative Type III productivity occurs during the junior high experience (perhaps due to increasing demands of more teachers and peer pressure not to pursue additional academic work) and (4) the Type III process serves as important training for later productivity. Baum, Renzulli, and Hébert (1995) found that Type III studies can work to reverse underachievement in talented students, as well.

In a comprehensive examination of wide-spread efforts to teach creativity, Torrance (1987) analyzed over 150 different studies and reported that he had found “massive evidence” of positive results. Some of the programs studied by Torrance included those discussed in this section, that have been implemented to nurture creativity in talented students. National programs such as Future Problem Solving, conceived by Torrance, have taught hundreds of thousands of students to apply creative problem-solving techniques to the real problems of our society. Although not developed solely for talented students, Future Problem Solving is widely used in programs for academically talented students because of the curricular freedom associated with these programs.

The Future Problem Solving Program is a year-long program in which teams of four students use a six-step problem solving process to solve complex scientific and social problems of the future such as the overcrowding of prisons or the greenhouse effect. At regular intervals throughout the year, the teams mail their work to evaluators, who review it and return it with their suggestions for improvement. As the year progresses, the teams become increasingly more proficient at problem solving. The Future Problem Solving Program takes students beyond memorization. The program challenges students to apply information they have learned to some of the most complex issues facing society. They are asked to think, to make decisions, and, in some instances, to carry out their solutions. Little research has been conducted on this program, however. Other articles have described the success of the program in general (Chapman, 1991; Torrance, 1984), as well as success using Future Problem Solving with underachieving students (Rimm & Olenchak, 1991).

Eleven states have created separate schools for talented students in math and science such as The North Carolina School for Math and Science, and several of these stress creative products and self-selected research. Some large school districts have established magnet schools to serve the needs of talented students. In New York City, for example, the Bronx High School of Science has helped to nurture and develop mathematical and scientific talent for decades, producing internationally known scientists and Nobel laureates. In other states, Governor’s Schools provide advanced, intensive summer programs in a variety of content areas. It is clear, however, that these opportunities touch a small percentage of creatively gifted adolescents who could benefit from them.

Strategies That Might Work

Within schools that have gifted or enrichment programs, some options for the development of creativity exist through the use of resource room programs in which a student leaves his/her regular classroom and spends time doing creative projects or independent study. Some students also become involved in advanced research on topics that they select in a resource room or in a classroom. Some classroom teachers provide opportunities for creativity training or creative work or even independent study projects that provide students with opportunities to engage in pursuing both individual interests and creative work. Many districts have created innovative mentorship programs that pair students with older students or adults who have similar interests.

In addition to Future Problem Solving, programs such as Odyssey of the Mind, a national program in which teams of students use creative problem solving to design structures, vehicles, and solutions to problems such as designing a vehicle which uses a mousetrap as its primary power source. Many talented students have the opportunity to participate in History Day in which students work individually or in small groups to research an historical event, person from the past, or invention related to a theme that is determined each year. Using primary source data including diaries or other sources gathered in libraries, museums, and interviews, students prepare research papers, projects, media presentations or performances as entries. These entries are judged by local historians, educators, and other professionals and state finalists compete with winners from other states each June. Additional research is needed concerning the overall effectiveness of this program.

Strategies That Do Not Work

It is difficult to identify what does not work to develop creativity as researchers usually focus on what can increase creativity, rather than diminish it. It seems clear that some classroom environments seem to constrict creative thoughts and productivity. Too much rigidity, too few opportunities for freedom of choice and enjoyment exist in the learning process and too few teachers today concentrate on trying to develop creativity. Instead, they seem to focus on how to increase achievement test scores. The most common manner in which the underachievement of talented students is described involves identifying a discrepancy between ability and achievement described in detail by Reis and McCoach (2000) who review the issues surrounding the definition and identification of underachievement in gifted.

The absence of creative opportunities for work is widely mentioned as one reason that creatively talented students underachieve. Many talented underachievers are bored or unstimulated in school (Pirozzo, 1982; Reis, Hebert, Díaz, Rattley, Maxfield, 1995). Whitmore (1980) specifically found that the creativity of talented underachieving students is stifled in the typical classroom situation that focuses on achieving the “one right answer.” Whitmore (1980) further argued that the instructional strategies of classroom teachers, curricula, and the typical classroom climate are unsuitable for high ability students. Teachers may judge students only on the basis of their performance or apply unreasonable pressure for achievement and conduct strict, autocratic classes emphasizing rote, repetitive learning that may stifle creativity in talented learners.


The ultimate goal of education for adolescents should be engagement in current learning that inspires adolescents to continue learning and working to develop their academic and creative potential. This potential is best developed in a systematic approach that targets the benefits of the development of creative productivity, such as the three types of enrichment that are a part of the SEM approach. Type I enrichment is designed to expose students to a wide variety of disciplines, topics, occupations, hobbies, persons, places, and events that would not ordinarily be covered in the regular curriculum. In schools that use this model, an enrichment team consisting of parents, teachers, and students often organizes and plans Type I experiences by contacting speakers, arranging mini-courses, demonstrations, or performances, or by ordering and distributing films, slides, videotapes, or other print or non-print media.

Type II enrichment consists of materials and methods designed to promote the development of thinking and feeling processes. Some Type II enrichment is general, consisting of training in areas such as creative thinking and problem solving, learning how to learn skills such as classifying and analyzing data, and advanced reference and communication skills. Other Type II enrichment is specific, as it cannot be planned in advance and usually involves advanced instruction in an interest area selected by the student.

Type III enrichment occurs when students become interested in pursuing a self-selected area and are willing to commit the time necessary for advanced content acquisition and process training in which they assume the role of a first-hand inquirer. The goals of Type III enrichment include: providing opportunities for applying interests, knowledge, creative ideas and task commitment to a self-selected problem or area of study; acquiring advanced level understanding of the knowledge (content) and methodology (process) used within particular disciplines, artistic areas of expression and interdisciplinary studies; developing authentic products primarily directed toward bringing about a desired impact upon a specified audience; developing self-directed learning skills in the areas of planning, organization, resource utilization, time management, decision making and self-evaluation; developing task commitment, self-confidence, and feelings of creative accomplishment.

Today, many educators and politicians seem to be more interested in raising achievement scores, rather than in developing creativity in their students. This may be very short-sighted from an historial and societal perspective. By using some of the strategies developed in the programs that nurture creativity, we can help some students develop their creativity, as well as their academic potential, as part of their overall school experiences. It may very well be that these creative opportunities matter much more in students’ futures, and in society as well.

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