The father of creativity

Paul Torrance thought IQ tests were an inappropriate way to gauge true intelligence. So he devised methods of testing creativity that are now employed the world over.

B Y - A L E X - C R E V A R

Evelyn Bain walks through the playground at Barrow Elementary in Athens, stops near the swings, and calls out to her first-graders, who bump into each other like keystone cops.

"Spectrum!" she shouts as a young girl runs over and hugs her hard around the waist.

"Hello, Liza," she says.

"Hello, Ms. Bain."

Then Liza also starts to shout:

"Spectrum!"

Soon, eight first-graders are zig-zagging to the Spectrum trailer while the other first-graders continue recess.

Inside, Bain's "gifted" students sit at small tables and work on exercises inspired by the research of UGA's Distinguished Professor Emeritus E. Paul Torrance. The purpose of the activities is not to push as many facts into their brains as possible, but to expand their ability to think originally.

Torrance (top of page) teaches a problem-solving technique to students in Santa Rosa, Calif. The Torrance Test shown above measures creativity by asking students to embellish sets of supplied shapes.

Thinking originally has been the crux of nearly 60 years of work for Torrance. In that time, he has invented the benchmark method for quantifying creativity and has arguably created the platform for all research on the subject since. The "Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking" helped shatter the theory that IQ tests alone were sufficient to gauge real intelligence; they solidified what heretofore was only conceptual—namely that creative levels can be scaled and then increased through practice.

Torrance's soon-to-be-released book, Manifesto: A Guide to Developing a Creative Career, includes the results of his 40-year longitudinal study of creativity—the only one of its kind.

"I suppose creativity is a part of intellect, but there are many abilities involved in intellect," says Torrance, who still keeps office hours at age 85. "For the full development of creativity in children and adults, I am convinced they have a better chance in life if their best abilities are identified and encouraged.

"Originally, people thought a test could not be created. One issue was creating a test anyone could respond to—regardless of previous experiences. We did that and now the test has been translated into over 50 languages."

"He is the father of creativity," says Joan Franklin-Smutney, director for the gifted at National-Louis University in Evanston, Ill., and creative editor at Ablex-Greenwood, which will publish Torrance's upcoming book. "His research has become the framework for the field and he is a catalyst for expansion."

Heightened awareness of the importance of creativity has led to the development of gifted programs all over the world. In Georgia, a student's success on the Torrance Tests is key to admission into gifted programs—which exist, according to Sally Krisel, because every school system is charged with targeting students' learning levels. When students excel, they deserve to be challenged—and gifted programs are a great way to accomplish that.

Torrance with his sister at the family farm near Milledgeville (1922), where his shortcomings as a farmhand convinced Torrance's parents to send him to college.

"Georgia was one of the first two states to mandate gifted programs in all state systems for kindergarten through 12th grade," says Krisel (MEd '82, PhD '00), who is the state's director of gifted programs. "I have no doubt Georgia has excelled because of the influences of people like Torrance."

The Torrance Tests—combined with longitudinal studies, heightened creativity awareness, and improved teaching techniques—gave rise to the field of creativity. A natural by-product of Torrance's research is UGA's Torrance Center for Creative Studies.

"Our purpose is to continue Paul Torrance's work and to provide a forum for research and foster academic and applications discussion," says Torrance Center director Juanita Matthews-Morgan. "The Center promotes programs for children, training for teachers, new publications, and helps cross-fertilize ideas by bringing visiting scholars from all over the world."

In Bain's gifted classroom at Barrow Elementary, students are at work on their first activity. Encouraged to come up with as many ideas as possible—a concept that is central to Torrance's creative problem-solving research—they brainstorm possible uses for an empty cream cheese container each has in front of them.

"And children," says Bain (BSEd '74, MEd '75), "there's no such thing as . . . ?" "Wrong ideas!" they say in unison. Next, the students work as a team to transform a random shape Bain has drawn on the board into something recognizable.

"Without Spectrum," says six-year-old Liza, "I'd miss all the fun challenges."

"These Torrance activities are similar to ones found on the Torrance Tests," Bain says after dismissing her class. "It's amazing how much teachers learn about the talents of children through this process. We learn that different kids have different ways they need to be challenged."

The Torrance Tests take two forms: verbal and figural. The verbal consists of the student inventing uses for common things, such as a stuffed animal. First, the proctor asks, "How would you make this a better toy?" Students' responses are then evaluated for originality (based on past responses), fluency (number of ideas), flexibility (number of different categories), and elaboration of the ideas.

As director of the Air Force Advanced Training Survival School in 1951, Torrance learned that, under extreme conditions, the best pilots always demonstrated creativity.

The figural is more objective. The student starts with a simple shape like a circle and tries to incorporate it in a more complicated picture. The results are judged on the same criteria as the verbal. Props and shapes are scrutinized constantly for effectiveness.

"They don't feel like tests," says Bonnie Cramond (PhD '82), a professor in the University's educational psychology department and a research fellow at the Torrance Center. "As opposed to written intelligence exams, the Torrance Tests don't ask questions that inherently exclude some students. For instance, a question about a regatta might make sense to a student from Savannah—and no sense to someone else. The Torrance Tests are blind to culture; they can be given to a kindergartner or a grad student."

Torrance's home, in the Five Points area of Athens, is designed to hold and disseminate information. "Hello," he says after opening the front door, and then it's through the living room to the most important room in the house, the office. On one wall, he keeps hundreds of alphabetized books; against the other, a domino-like line of gray file cabinets with meticulously filed folders on anyone who has had the pleasure of working with Torrance.

Asked how he has managed to be so prolific—he's written dozens of books and more than 2,000 published articles on creativity—Torrance is characteristically modest:

"I've had a lot of time."

But the truth is, his curiosity burns as brightly today as it did more than six decades ago, even before he earned his his undergraduate degree from Mercer, his master's from Minnesota, and his doctorate from Michigan.

Before Torrance demonstrated how creativity could be tested and accounted for as a legitimate aspect of intellect, IQ was the test of merit—to the exclusion of all else. If you had Cezanne's vision or Einstein's imagination, but you had trouble with math (Einstein flunked it in in high school), you would miss out on all the learning opportunities gifted children have and, thus, have a tougher time reaching your intellectual potential.

Such scenarios puzzled Torrance, who began teaching high school in his hometown of Milledgeville in the late 1930s. He remembers encountering two rowdy Georgia Military College students, whom he knew had potential.

"It became my ambition to channel their energy," Torrance recalls. "And then I read Square Pegs in Square Holes by Margaret Broadley. It described how the boys were just 'too full of ideas' and 'like wild colts.' Their energy just needed to be harnessed."

Torrance and his wife Pansy were married in November 1959, just after he began testing elementary school students in what would become a 40-year longitudinal study of the value of creativity.

Torrance laughs when he thinks back to how he helped them eventually corral their creativity: "One became a school superintendent and the other was Secretary of Labor in Ford's cabinet."

Two hours into the interview, the sun begins to set and Torrance is just getting started. This is a man who still rises at six every morning and spends the day dictating to his secretary, answering e-mails, and editing his latest book. He diplomatically cuts the interview short by signing a poster for Manifesto for Children, which outlines his seven tenets of creativity, the first of which is "Don't be afraid to fall in love with something and pursue it with intensity."

Manifesto, the book, which includes results from his 40-year study, describes, says Torrance, how over time his test subjects "struggle to maintain their creativity and use their strengths to create their careers." The exhaustive research—which correlates test scores of 1950s elementary school students with what they achieved later in life—shows that factors such as war and raising families can be obstacles to a creative career.

"We found that after 30 or 40 years other things became more important than achievement, intelligence, and creativity," says Torrance. "I call these 'Beyonder' characteristics, such as persistence, courage, willingness to take a risk, and loving and doing what you can do well."

The study led to the publication of the Torrance Tests—and with his return to his home state as chair of UGA's educational psychology department. The Torrance tests, although refined over the years, have been the test of choice ever since.

"Dr. Torrance's work gives us breakthrough information we mortals can pick and choose from, according to need," says Krisel. "Parents learn how to support their children, teachers find ways to tap into the students' learning processes, and counselors discover ways to increase students' opportunities."

But as much as anything, the study confirms creativity as an aspect of intelligence. Based upon Torrance's vast platform of work, creativity is not just an extravagance or embellishment of personality; it's a critical life-skill that all sectors of society—from hospitals to the military—teach in order to create better problem-solvers.

Torrance was director of a field unit doing research in support of Air Force survival training in 1951, when he first defined creativity as:

The Torrances flank Gov. Joe Frank Harris, who proclaimed April 8-14, 1984, "Georgia Future Problem Solving Week."

"Whenever a person is faced with a problem for which he has no known or practiced solution, some degree of creativity is required." It was obvious to him, then as now, "that people who employed creativity were the best at what they did. The best pilots were creative in their performance."

Fifty years later, the world has caught up to Torrance's thinking.

"The focus no longer needs to be whether or not it can be tested—we see now that it can—but on its application," says Freddie Reisman, director of the Drexel/Torrance Center for Creative Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Reisman, a former chair of the department of elementary education at UGA, founded the center in 1999 and says she doesn't believe there is another person who holds the distinction of having two centers named after them and focused on the essential tenets of their research. Reisman is now director of Drexel's school of education. "We are now learning to combine creativity with everything."

It is with considerable humor that Torrance recalls how he wound up in educational psychology. Born on a Milledgeville farm in 1915, he walked and talked at a very young age. But he also had learning disabilities—mainly problems judging depth perception. Ironically, those disabilities were a turning point in his life.

"I couldn't plow a straight line," he recalls. "So, when I was about 13, my father said to me at the dinner table, 'It's plain to see that you could never earn your living on a farm. You have to get educated. And it's time you ate your peas with a fork.'"

Torrance's self-effacing nature has contributed to his ability to communicate with and influence several generations of educators. Indeed, when you talk to anyone about Torrance—regardless of the task in front of them—they drop everything and say:

"Absolutely, I'll be glad to talk to you about Dr. Torrance—anything you need to know."

There is an undeniable sense that those who have been taught by him, either directly or indirectly, are indebted to him.

"Over a period of years, he continually proves himself a genius—and not just in theory but in application, which has affected thousands of teachers and millions of students," says Joan Franklin-Smutney. "His work will not perish because he genuinely wants to see humankind progress."

Torrance, 85, maintains regular office hours and is about to publish a landmark book.

Back to Top . Up Front . Features . Alumni Profiles . Class Notes . Back to Current Issue