How does creative thought differ from critical thought?

The lack of an agreed definition for creative/innovative and critical thinking makes it difficult to articulate these skills as explicit learning objectives. Creative thinking, for example, is conceptualised differently across disciplines, i.e. it is often referred to as 'innovation' in education, 'entrepreneurship' in business, and 'problem solving' in mathematics, law and engineering. A further complication is the diverse way in which the relationship between critical and creative thinking can be conceptualised. For example some educators view them as divergent skills (Baker & Rudd, 2001), others as part of the same skill (e.g. Paul and Elder, 2005, who contend that creative thinking is one dimension of critical thinking), or as complementary skills that both encourage independent and student-centred learning (Fisher, 2001). While there is no commonly shared definition of either term, definitions provide a good starting point for identifying the dimensions of each construct.

There is a comprehensive body of literature on critical and creative thought, and a diverse range of definitions (for a review, see ALTC, 2009; Baker & Rudd, 2001; Forrester, 2008 & van der Wal, 1999). They are often compared as follows:

Creative thinking is divergent, critical thinking is convergent; whereas creative thinking tries to create something new, critical thinking seeks to assess worth or validity in something that exists; whereas creative thinking is carried on by violating accepted principles, critical thinking is carried on by applying accepted principles. Although creative and critical thinking may very well be different sides of the same coin they are not identical (Beyer, 1987, p.35).

Table 1 provides a conceptualisation of critical and creative thinking along these lines.

Table 1. Critical vs. creative thinking

Critical thinking Creative thinking
Analytic Generative
Convergent Divergent
Vertical Lateral
Probability Possibility
Judgement Suspended judgement
Hypothesis testing Hypothesis forming
Objective Subjective
Answer An answer
Closed Open-ended
Linear Associative
Reasoning Speculating
Logic Intuition
Yes but Yes and

Source: Adapted from Fisher, R. (2002). Creative minds: Building communities of learning in the creative age. Paper presented at the Teaching Qualities Initiative Conference, Hong Kong.

Critical thinking

Prior the Delphi Project in 1990 (a two year cross-disciplinary project which aimed to develop a robust conceptualisation of critical thinking as an outcome of university student education), no clear consensus existed on the definition of critical thinking. Critical thinking (also known as convergent thinking) was subsequently defined by the Delphi Report of Critical Thinking (Facione, 1990) as a purposeful, self-regulatory judgment, a human cognitive process, involving the use of a core set of cognitive skills - interpretation, analysis, evaluation, interference, explanation, and self-regulation - to make judgments. The ideal critical thinker is considered to be:

Habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit (Facione, 1990, p.2).

Some other examples of definitions of critical thinking are as follows:

Critical thinking is the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome. It is used to describe thinking that is purposeful, reasoned and goal directed (Halpern, 1997, p.4).

Critical thinking is a capacity to work with complex ideas whereby a person can make effective provision of evidence to justify a reasonable judgement...critical thinking can be seen as a form of learning, in that new knowledge, in the form of the judgement, is formed in the process (Moon, 2008, p.126). any mental activity that helps formulate or solve a problem, make a decision, or fulfil a desire to understand; it is a searching for answers, a reaching for meaning (Ruggiero, 1998, p.2).

Creative thinking

Divergent thinking by contrast, is the ability to generate new, varied and unique ideas (Forrester, 2008). It involves the skills of flexibility, originality, fluency, elaboration, brainstorming, modification, imagery, associative thinking, attribute listing, metaphorical thinking, with the aim being to stimulate curiosity and promote divergence (Source: Teacher Tap online, 2007).

The terms creativity and creative thinking are often used interchangeably in the literature. They are interconnected in the sense that creative thinking is a process that contributes to, or assists in fostering creativity, however creative thinking can be viewed as part of a broader interaction of elements. Amabile (1996) views creative thinking, or creativity-relevant skills, as part of the process that contributes to creativity (alongside domain-relevant skills and task-motivation). Thus creative thinking is often used to refer to the more cognitive and definable aspect of the creative process (i.e. skills). For example, asking a student to 'be creative', or to 'show creativity' can be limited by the teacher's preconceptions, the student's personality and environmental factors. A more accessible approach to facilitating the search for alternatives, new combinations etc. would be to ask students to 'think creatively'. Creative thinking is often associated with tools and techniques such as brainstorming, problem solving and 'lateral thinking' which will be discussed under Section 2.

Some examples of definitions of creativity:

Creativity requires a balance among synthetic, analytic, and practical abilities (Sternberg & Williams, 1996, p.3).

Creativity...involves departing from the facts, finding new ways, making unusual associations, or seeing unexpected solutions (Cropley, 2001, p. 23).

The process of sensing difficulties, problems, gaps in information, missing elements, something askew; making guesses and formulating hypotheses about these deficiencies; evaluating and testing these guesses and hypotheses; possibly revising and retesting them; and, last, communicating the results (Torrance, 1993, p.233).


While creativity is typically used to refer to the act of producing new ideas, approaches or actions, innovation is thought to be the process of generating and applying such creative ideas within a specific context. Creativity can thus be conceptualised as the "starting point for innovation" and innovation the successful implementation of creative ideas (Amabile, Conti, Coon, Lazenby, & Herron, 1996, p.1155).

Some examples of definitions of innovation:

The successful implementation of creative ideas within an organization (Amabile et al., 1996, p. 1155).

The successful exploitation of new is not just the invention of a new idea that we are interested in, but that this idea is actually "brought to market", used, put into practice, exploited in some way, maybe leading to new products, processes, systems, attitudes or services that improve something or add value (The Innovation Unit, UK, retrieved from on 28 June, 2010).

While it is possible to differentiate creative thinking from other forms of thinking, more recently there has been a move to combine the teaching of these skills in order to develop students who are flexible thinkers, in an economy where people are expected to be both skilled and adaptable to the workplace (Forrester, 2008; Learning & Teaching Scotland, 2004; Ruggiero, 1988). Paul and Elder (2005) for example, view the critical and creative functions of the mind as inseparable, arguing:

Creativity masters a process of making or producing, critically a process of assessing or judging. The very definition of the word "creative" implies a critical component...When engaged in high quality thought, the mind must simultaneously produce and assess, both generate and judge the products it fabricates. In short, sound thinking requires both imagination and intellectual standards.

The view that critical and creative skills are complementary not contradictory, is reflected in Macquarie definitions of critical and creative graduates.

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This resource was developed by the Learning and Teaching Centre at Macquarie University.