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Synthesis: Defined and Explored

Synthesis: Defined and Explored

Combining separate elements to create something new.

Bloom's taxonomy revised

In their historic revision of Benjamin Bloom's (1956) taxonomy of instructional objectives, Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) described creativity in the language of problem-solving. They identified three phases of that process: generating, planning and producing.

  1. Generating consists of identifying a problem and developing hypotheses about how it might be solved. This is a time of divergent thought, and is most fertile when students are encouraged to come up with as many ideas, hypotheses, rationales, or arguments as possible.
  2. Planning consists of designing a method for implementing one or more of the solutions generated (i.e., sequences and sub-goals). This stage stops short of execution. Planning is not often emphasized, as it is often rolled into the third stage of producing.
  3. Producing consists of executing the solution that has been generated and planned. It is best to give students assessment criteria from the outset, to make possible the assessment of objects they produce. This makes their generating and planning more productive.

Creativity beyond problem-solving

While Anderson and Krathwohl charted the structure of creativity in problem-solving contexts, other authors offer a slightly broader description. Plucker et al. (2004) defined creativity as "the interaction among aptitude, process, and environment by which an individual or group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful as defined in a social context" (p.90).

Rhodes (1961), offered an elegantly simple model for all the elements of the creative context--the "Four P" model. This model includes:

  • the creative person,
  • the creative process,
  • the creative product, and
  • the creative "press" (the environment).

Of these four, classroom teachers have the most control over the creative environment (the "press").

Amabile and Griskiewikz (1989) have identified eight characteristics of an environment which can encourage creativity: (1) adequate freedom, (2) challenging work, (3) appropriate resources, (4) a supportive supervisor, (5) diverse and communicative co-workers, (6) recognition, (7) a sense of cooperation and (8) an organization that supports creativity. Encouraging "intellectual rebellion" in an inquiry-based classroom with frequent small-group learning seems a natural setting to encourage creativity in these ways, as does any structured exercise in which students are given certain resources and must combine them to create something new.

Halpern (2003) described many ways the teacher can organize class time to encourage : brainstorming, stretching and rejecting paradigms, allowing time for incubation and insight, stimulating analogical thinking, making the familiar strange, and using images as frequently as possible (pp.404-425). Being creative and proposing something new can be an intellectual risk, so care should be taken to ensure that one’s classroom atmosphere is conducive to synthesis.

Why cultivating synthesis is particularly important for first-year students

In 1970, William Perry published the first edition of Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years: A Scheme. His framework of college student development has become classic, and was revised in 1998. In short, it describes a process of development in which students move from simple dualistic (right/wrong) thinking, through a growing awareness of subjectivity and then relativism, and finally arriving at an understanding of the need to make a commitment in the face of relativism. The divergent nature of creative generation suggests that supporting synthesis may be among the more important steps a teacher can take to help students grow out of a dualistic perspective. Ultimately, facilitating students' abilities in this area enables colleges and universities to fulfill their mission of equipping students to create new knowledge.


Amabile, T.M. & Gryskiewicz, N.D. (1989). The creative environment scales: Work environment inventory. Creativity Research Journal, 2, 231-253. Cited in Kaufman, J.C., Plucker, J.A., & Baer, J. (2008). Essentials of Creativity Assessment. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons.

Anderson, L. W. and David R. Krathwohl, D. R., et al (Eds..) (2001) A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. Allyn & Bacon. Boston, MA (Pearson Education Group)

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. New York: Longman.

Culvenor, J., & Else, D. (1997). Finding occupational injury solutions: The impact of training in creative thinking. Safety Science, 25(1), 187-205.

De Bono, E. (1986). Six thinking hats. New York: Little Brown and Company.

Halpern, D.F. (2003). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (4th Edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum.

Perry, W.J. (1998). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Plucker, J., Beghetto, R.A., & Dow, G. (2004). Why isn"t creativity more important to educational psychologists? Potential, pitfalls and future directions in creativity research. Educational Psychologist, 39(2). 83-96.

Rhodes, M. (1961). An Analysis of Creativity. Phi Delta Kappan,42. 305-311

Roukes, N. (1988). Design synectics: Stimulating creativity in design. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications.

Von Oech, R. (1990). A whack on the side of the head: How you can be more creative (Revised Edition). New York, NY: Warner Books.

Waks, S., & Merdler, M. (2003, May). Creative Thinking of Practical Engineering Students During a Design Project. Research in Science & Technological Education, 21(1), 101-121.