Guiding Creative Talent

Excerpts from interviews with E. Paul Torrance

You can discover your child’s creativity and encourage it if you know the signs.

Suppose your child gets only average or slightly higher than average scores on the IQ tests given him at school. Does this mean that he/she isn’t gifted? That his/her potential for achievement in school and in life is only average?

That’s the general assumption . But according to Dr. E. Paul Torrance, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on creativity and intelligence, no fallacy has done more harm to children or robbed society of more creative talent.

Dr. Torrance explained: “IQ tests do not measure creativity. By depending on them we miss 70 percent of our most creative youngsters. It is true that outstanding creativity is seldom found among children of below average IQ. But our research shows that above 115 or 120, IQ scores have little or no bearing on creativity. Creative giftedness may be found anywhere along the scale except, possibly, at the bottom. The child with a so called genius IQ of 180 is in reality no more likely to make outstanding creative achievements than the child with a slightly above average IQ around 120.”

Dr. Torrance and his associates have studied thousands of boys and girls from pre-school to sixth grade. Their findings show that most children start life with a valuable creative spark and that most of them have it knocked out of them by the time they reach the fourth grade. It is not that parents and teachers deliberately squelch creativity; rather, the fail to recognize it.

In most elementary classrooms the good pupil is the one who produces what he/she is told and makes pictures like the ones in the book. The creative child, on the other hand, is not content to learn by authority. They want to make up their own stories. They draw what they see the way they see it. And because they want to make sense out of what they see and hear, they are constantly asking questions that may appear ridiculous.

“Which is more,” asks a four year old child, “12 miles or 12 hours?” “Don’t be silly,” the child’s mother says. Actually the child’s question is highly intelligent. So far in the child’s young life the number 12 has always been connected with something – miles, hours, marbles or eggs. Now it is beginning to dawn on this child that 12 is a number with an identity of its own. With this discovery the child takes their first step into mathematics.

How does creativity differ from the kind of mental ability measured by IQ?

When your child takes an IQ test, some of the questions he/she is asked have a predetermined “best” answer. If he/she is asked, “Why is it better to make buildings of brick rather than wood?” The expected answer is that brick is stronger, longer lasting, safer, and provides better insulation. A child who mentions at least two of these factors will get full credit. But the child who answers that it is better to use brick “to save our national forests” will get no credit. Neither will the child who argues that brick isn’t the better material “because brick is cold and ugly while wood is warm and beautiful.”

Creative thinking, like the thinking required in the IQ tests, is a problem solving process. But the problems that call for creative thinking are the kind that have more than one right answer. And this category includes the basic problems we all face in growing up, earning a living, and finding order and beauty and meaning in life.

The problems in creativity tests devised by Dr. Torrance and his associates, unlike those in IQ tests, have no predetermined right answers. In the “Product Improvement” test, for example, the child is handed a toy (say a stuffed plastic dog) and asked to think of as many ways as possible for changing it to make it more fun to play with. A conventional minded child made three suggestions: shorten the nose, lengthen the tail and change the color. A highly creative child made a dozen suggestions including “sew fleas on his back” and “put a magnet in his nose so he can chase a rabbit with a magnet in its tail.”

In another test, a child is given a pencil and a piece of paper filled with 36 circles and asked to see how many things he/she can make out of the circles. When one second grade girl was told she had only ten seconds left to complete the test, she still had two rows of unused circles; she immediately drew a girl blowing bubbles, with the unused circles as bubbles. Such improvisation is characteristic of creative children.

“Because there are no right answers to these creativity tests, there will never be a CQ, or ‘creativity quotient.’ Sizing up a child’s creativeness will always be a complex matter. But by observing the child at work and play you may detect creativity. Here are key signs to look for:

Curiosity. The child’s questioning is persistent and purposeful. He/she digs under the surface. As a baby he/she handles things, shakes, twists and turns them upside down. Later he/she takes things apart to see how they work. He/she experiments with words and ideas, always trying to wring new meaning from them.

Flexibility. If one approach doesn’t work, the imaginative child quickly thinks of another. To older boys trying in vain to throw a rope over a high branch to make a swing, an eight-year old suggested, “Why not fly a kite over it and then pull up the rope with the string?”

Sensitivity to problems. A child is quick to see gaps in information, exceptions to rules, and contradictions. A father tells of reciting Mother Goose to his inquisitive four-year old. “You try something simple and straightforward like ‘Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son.’ Right away he starts interrupting: ‘Was Tom about my age? If Tom was my age, how did he carry a pig? If the pig was so small, how did it kill the goose? What’s a calaboose? You mean they put little boys in jail?’”

Redefinition. Children can see hidden meanings in statements that others take at face value, and see connections between things that to others seem unrelated. It was a creative child who said, “Eternity is a clock without hands.”

Self-feeling. Children are self-directive and can work alone for long periods – on their own project. Merely following directions bores them.

Originality. Children have surprising, uncommon ideas. Their drawings and stories have a style that mark them as their own.

Insight. Children have easy access to realms of the mind which noncreative people visit only in the dreams. As one five year old told Dr. Torrance at a birthday party when she put her hand into a grab bag. “This is how I get ideas – just reach in and scrunch around in my mind till I feel like pulling something out.”

Dr. Torrance found our society pretty savage in its treatment of creative young children. In a number of first, second and third grade classrooms, he asked teachers and pupils to nominate those children who talked most, those who had the most good ideas, those with the most ideas for being naughty and those with the silliest ideas. Teachers and pupils voted pretty much alike. They credited the “best ideas” to children who tested average or low on creativity. The boy who was cited for having the “silliest” ideas and the most ideas for being naughty proved in subsequent testing to be the most creative member of the class.

In another experiment children were organized into teams of five with just one highly creative boy or girl in each. Teams were given a time limit to examine and manipulate science toys – to find out what could be done with them. In every group, although the one highly creative member usually produced the most and the best ideas, he seldom got credit. After ridiculing his ideas, teammates often adopted them. When the creative member was a girl, she was likely to pass her ideas along to some boy, who then got credit.

Parents, too, Dr. Torrance found, are hard on creative children. Even those who insist that they want their children to learn and think creatively are disturbed, irritated and embarrassed by children who do so. “Why can’t he be like other kids?” they groan. Under this parental pressure children often feel guilty about their gifts and try to convert themselves into more conventional types, either hiding or destroying the talents that make them different.

How can a parent eliminate or mitigate the pressures that make children give up their creative spark? Dr. Torrance suggested:

Don’t discourage fantasy. One of the qualities of the creative person, young or old, is their ability to move freely between the world of facts and reason, and the vast realms of the mind that lie just below the surface of consciousness. Their greater flexibility, depth of feeling and keenness of insight come from being open to vague feelings and hunches others dismiss as ridiculous.

Don’t hold your child back. Don’t be so intent on sparing your children the hurt of failure that you deny them a chance to learn from their mistakes. To learn creatively, children have to bite off more than they can chew, overestimate their capacities and take risks. Educators have found that many children can start learning long before they reach the supposed “readiness period.” The point is not to teach them creative thinking but to stop interfering with it.

Avoid sexual stereotypes. Don’t let your boy feel that it is “sissy” to be open to feelings and interested in color, form, movement and ideas. Don’t make your daughter feel that it is wrong for her to be intellectually curious, interested in exploration and experimentation. Such stereotypes are destructive of creativity.

Don’t judge your children by their reading and writing. Creative children often lag behind the group in verbal abilities. One nine year old, at the bottom of his class because of reading and writing problems turned out to be near the top on creativity tests. Most children love to dictate stories to their parents, and this is an excellent way to keep their ideas flowing.

Help your child use their creativity in social relations. One of their biggest problems in life will be getting along with others without sacrificing the qualities that make them different. Show them how to use their sensitivity to be kind, their insight to be understanding and tolerant of those who don’t see things their way. Suggest that they can assert themselves without being domineering or hostile, work alone without being withdrawn, be honest with others without being overcritical.

“I don’t want my child to be a genius,” many parents say. “I just want him to be a normal, happy, well adjusted kid.” But, as Dr. Torrance pointed out, happiness and good mental health consist primarily of using one’s capacity to the fullest. “Creative people,” said Dr. Torrance, “are, in the final analysis, happy people – provided they are free to create.”