Assessing Level of Creativity in Academics: Sternberg’s Propulsion Theory of Creativity

Posted on April 16, 2011


Author:  Sanjay Goel,


As per Sternberg’s propulsion theory of creativity [1], creative contributions are attempts to propel a field from wherever it is to wherever the creator believes the field should go. He proposed following four-level taxonomy of creative contributions.

  1.  The lowest level consists of paradigm preserving contributions that leave the field where it is through replication.
  2. The next creative level is of paradigm forwarding contributions that move the field forward in the direction it already is going. This movement may be forward incrementation or advance forward incrementation.
  3. A higher level of creative contributions is paradigm rejecting. Such creations move the field in a new direction from an existing or preexisting point. It involves redirection or reconstruction.
  4. The highest levels of creative contributions are also paradigm rejecting. This rejection is not to redirect the field from an existing old point, but to restart the field in a new place, and move in a new direction from there. It requires re-initiation and/or integration. Inter-disciplinary approaches stimulate such thinking.

Implications of assessing academics:

An overwhelming majority of  academic research and  projects in most disciplines fails to demonstrate the creativity beyond first level.  Only some are examples of second level. Finding the examples of 3rd or 4th level creativity in academic research is not very common.  It is for the academic  researchers to evaluate the reported research in their disciplines to assess the level of creativity. 

Similarly, the higher education in most disciplines including engineering education at most universities does not make a strong enough and deliberate attempt to inculcate the habit of out of box thinking.  Fast expanding size of doctoral education is further increasing the fraction of paradigm preserving creativity in academics.  It is a matter of concern that this expansion is not necessarily helping in expanding the creative contributions beyond such kind of  lowest level of creativity.

The processes of the education fail to motivate the students to reject the existing paradigms .  The education managers and  educators need to ask themselves as to how can they  create the conditions to stimulate  students’ engagements in paradigm rejection through redirection, reconstructionre-initiation, and/or integration.  

In my view,   a mind  has the competence to create out of box ideas, rejecting existing paradigms,  only  if it has exposure to multiple perspectives and paradigms.  Cross fertilization of diversified  ideas helps in creating novel ideas.    Broad-based liberal education through flexible approaches to  curriculum integration offer such a possibility of engaging students with cross fertilization of different combinations of diversified frameworks in divergent disciplines[4][5][6].   Hence,  inter-disciplinary education  at undergraduate, master’s, as well as, doctoral level is necessary for a creative future.

In order to bring higher level of creativity on education’s agenda, I have used Sternberg’s  taxonomy to define four sub-levels of ‘create’ level to revise  Bloom’s taxonomy wrt the special needs of engineering education [2][3].  I hope that an increased awareness about different levels of creativity, as suggested by Sternberg, will stimulate the educators to set level-differentiated educational goals wrt to creativity and take some steps to stimulate higher level of creativity.   

I also invite the academic community to share their pedagogogical experiences that helped to enhance their creativity.  


[1]    Robert J. Sternberg, Wisdom, intelligence, and creativity synthesized, Cambridge University Press, UK, pp 124-146, 2003.

[2]    Revising Bloom’s Taxonomy wrt Engineering Education


[4]     Well Rounded Curriculum – An Insight from Biglan’s classification of disciplines

[5]     Assess Your Curriculum and Courses Using Harden’s Taxonomy of Curriculum Integration

[6]    Do we not need to urgently make the base broader and interdisciplinary? – A Concept Note for starting 4 year BS (Interdisciplinary Informatics) in India

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