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100 years later, Torrance's creativity still flows

Kathryn Kao

October 19, 2015

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In the 1960s, Dr. Ellis Paul Torrance piloted a new test featuring two stuffed toys, a monkey and an elephant, that children could use to explore three mental characteristics: fluency, flexibility, and originality.

These toys, along with 1,117 books, articles, chapters, tests, and book reviews, serve as a lasting reminder of Torrance's innovative and groundbreaking contributions to the development of creative potential. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Torrance's birth, and the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the College of Education is honoring his contributions to the field of creative development.

As a teacher and counselor at the Georgia Military College and research psychologist in the Air Force Survival Training Program, Torrance discovered his lifelong passion—learning how to identify creative potential.

He determined that creative thinking and problem solving were critical elements needed to survive in any given situation, and he believed that every individual possessed a unique strength and that education should be built on these strengths rather than weaknesses. In fact, in the late 1960s, Torrance noted the creative strengths of disadvantaged children at a time when most educators were using a deficit view. He noted that children from poverty outscored middle-class children on creative measures that required them to think of multiple uses for common objects; their poverty led them to be resourceful.

Decades later, these principles continue to affect how creativity is nurtured, and the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking remain the most widely used tests of creativity.

Today, the monkey and elephant reside on the desk of Sarah Sumners, interim director of the Torrance Center. Sumners and Mark Runco, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, recently completed the first phase of a two-part study on the implicit theory of creativity. The research uses a social validation method to examine the different internal definitions people hold about creativity.

The goal is to use theories of creativity held by different segments of the population to help everyone understand their own ideas of creativity.

"People hold their own implicit theories about creativity, and often, those are wrong," says Sumners. "If we can understand how people feel about creativity internally, then we can help correct what we actually know to be creativity and look at those two things together."

The first phase of the study gave Runco and Sumners a general idea about what people think creativity is and how it relates to explicit variables like discovery, innovation, intelligence, and originality. With implicit themes identified in the first phase, the Torrance Center can then construct a quantitative survey for participants to determine how they compare, overlap, and constrain creativity.

Another research project involves Torrance's tests, and whether training on the Figural version of the test might improve scores for adults more than general creativity skills training. While teaching adults the creativity skills similar to the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking scoring criteria may help them maximize their own creative potential, there is evidence to suggest that this won't expand someone's ability to do better on the test.

In other words, says Sumners, you can only be so original. "You can't think of more original ideas if you don't already have more original ideas."

But the mere fact that Torrance's tests are still applicable today, and are still a part of viable research, is a testament to his lasting legacy in the field of creativity. Today, the stuffed animals may look more like Beanie Babies than plush toys, but the foundation of the research remains just as strong.