The orgin of originality

July Fourth 070 cStart any discussions on the origin of creativity and you will quickly find the group divided. On one side are people claiming it is an innate trait: you are either born with it or without it. Keep on pressing this faction and most will admit it is not exactly black or white proposition, rather people are apparently born with varying amounts of creativity. They cite anecdotal examples of young children demonstrating precocious creative ability that grow up to be a great artist, composer, or inventor  – such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

On the other hand there are people who see creativity as an skill that can be taught. Now while many of these people are attempting to advance their own curriculum for developing it, not all are. However this faction tend to insist that creative thinking be an integral part of education. They commonly view the ability to come up with original, useful ideas as our best chance at solving humankind’s problems. They refer to examples of children who grow up in artistic and creative environment that go on to produce great original works – for example Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In order to test either proposition one must first define creativity and develop a way to measure it. This investigation is already sunk because a single definition of creativity is impossible to obtain. What is original and unique in one culture, may be commonplace in another.  What solves a problems or accomplishes a goal in one society, may be nonsensical to another.  It is not the just the acts or products, but how these compare to others in the same society that is the hallmark of creativity. So psychologists have come up with their own definitions, their own research and their own tests. Actually the definitions may only vaguely relate to the research, and the tests are typically borrowed or build on other’s work.

J.P. Guilford, head of psychological research for U.S. Army,  was one of first to build and elaborate battery assessments for creativity. He first formulated a model called structure of intellect, a three dimensional model showing the relationship of mental processes,  products, and content in intellectual ability. His creativity assessments were largely a measurement of divergent thinking – generating a variety of ideas or possible solutions for a task.  Many tasks used to test creativity were based on work by Thurstone.  [1]

The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) developed by E. Paul Torrance, were based on J.P. Guilford’s work on tests of divergent thinking. They were originally scored on four scales:

  • Flexibility – the number of different categories of ideas
  • Fluency – the total number of meaningful different ideas that were generated
  • Originality – how different the ideas were from those of peers
  • Elaboration – how well the details of these ideas were developed

In 1984 Torrance removed the score for Flexibility in the figural (drawing) test and added a “Resistance to Premature Closure” score. Even those coming up with definitions for creativity keep changing their own. The major benefits of this test: can be taken by elementary school students; provides a comparative score for originality. Along with this test Torrance performed long term studies to find out what happened to the creatively gifted students who first took it in 1958.

It became apparent that high levels of creativity as a child were not the only thing that matter. Those students who continued to have high levels of creative achievement, developed an image of their future career earlier in childhood than their peers. In other words they were working towards a specific goal longer. They also had mentors to assist them in reaching creative goals. [3] Of course this still does not answer the question of whether the creativity was innate or not, but it does show that being creative as a child is not enough.

[1] Irving A. Taylor, A Retrospective View of Creativity Investigation, in edited by Perspectives in Creativity, eds, Irving A. Taylor, Jacob W. Getzels (1975)Transaction Publishers
[2] Torrance, E. (1999). Torrance test of creative thinking:  Norms and technical manual.  Beaconville, IL: Scholastic Testing Services.
[3] Torrance, E. Paul (1980) Growing Up Creatively Gifted: A 22-Year Longitudinal Study. Creative Child and Adult Quarterly, v5 n3 p148-58,170 Fall 1980
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