Questioning creativity

March 10, 2011

10 Questions for Dr. Garnet Millar

Dr. Garnet Millar has been instrumental in assisting the Association with this special issue of the magazine. Millar is the author of The Power of Creativity: Results of the 50-Year Follow-Up to the Torrance Longitudinal Study of Creative Behavior. He is the biographer (and close friend and colleague) of Dr. E. Paul Torrance, who dedicated his professional life to creating tests to model and analyze the creative-thinking process of students of all cultures and grade levels. Millar is currently an education consultant in private practice and former provincial coordinator for guidance and counselling with Alberta’s Special Education Branch.

Phil McRae, ATA executive staff officer, asked Garnet Millar 10 questions about creativity.

  1. What is the relationship between critical thinking and creativity?

In terms of learning, creative and critical thinking are mental processes that are different yet inseparable. Creative thinking is the process of generating ideas/information (fluency, flexibility and originality) and elaborating on them. Critical thinking is the process of reflecting on the merits of information generated and forming a judgment about it to suit a situation. Both types of thinking are involved in creative problem solving. For example, the Future Problem Solving Program initiated by Dr. Torrance, in 1974, uses a six-step problem-solving model that involves both creative and critical thinking. Teams of students focus on one problem area to solve and develop an action plan. Topics tackled by students may include water pollution, hunger, homelessness, school safety and literacy. Creative thinking is encouraged as students generate ideas through a number of strategies. Students develop critical-thinking skills as they focus on their better options through organizing, evaluating, refining and developing their ideas. For more information on the Future Problem Solving Program, visit www.fpspi.org.

  1. What advice would you give parents who want to encourage creativity in children?

During our longitudinal research, we asked participants to reflect on how their parents enabled creativity to flourish. I have documented the answer to this question in the 40-year follow-up and in my book The Torrance Kids at Mid-Life (2002). The findings can be summarized as follows:

a) Parents can nurture creativity in their children by providing choices

  • to follow and pursue interests,
  • to become involved in a variety of experiences, and
  • to “find it, nurture it, and don’t suffocate it.”

b) Parents need to provide emotional support to their children.

c) Parents need to control and monitor the amount and kind of television viewed by their children.

d) Parents need to be aware of their relationship with their children:

  • talk with, not to, children about ideas and concepts;
  • provide materials so children can create;
  • avoid over-programming their free time;
  • provide a structure in the home and set limits;
  • present problems that can be solved with the assistance of children;
  • provide books and computer access; and
  • ask provocative questions and provide fewer answers.
  1. How important to the creative process is a certain amount of failure, disappointment or slipping backward?

Generally, schools are concerned with preparing students to provide the right answer rather than the teacher posing a good question to explore the curriculum. A certain amount of failure and disappointment is part of creative learning. The ability of teachers and students to ask questions, especially those for which there are no predetermined answers, is an indispensable requirement in the type of learning that results in the advancement of knowledge. One of the most compelling drives in children is their curiosity. This drive expresses itself in the disposition to question and to wonder about life and people. Failure is an essential part of learning—creatively!

  1. Albert Einstein said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Do you agree?

Yes. I believe that imagination is more important than knowledge. While knowledge is important, imagination is that inner spark that drives our behaviour and keeps us learning and moving forward. One of the principles in the Manifesto for Children that resulted from the earlier longitudinal study follow-up is related to the Einstein statement. Children who maintained their creativity or imagination were “not afraid to fall in love with something and pursue it with intensity.” Also, the children found great teachers or mentors who helped them, and the children didn’t waste energy trying to be well-rounded. Central to knowledge generation was to keep their passion about their learning alive.

  1. Screen time is dramatically on the rise for children in North America and is averaging more than 10 hours a day for 8- to 18-year-olds. What do you think about the impact of digital technologies and screen time on children’s creativity?

I’m not an expert in knowing how screen time will affect creativity. It depends upon the quality of the media—a great deal of information can be accessed digitally, but learning depends on how the child/student uses the information. I believe that computers are tools that students can use to gather information to make informed and critical choices regarding various subjects. Computer programs exist to assist students to create their own movies or music. The use of the Smart Board in schools provides a good model for students to access and use information creatively. I don’t think mindless video game playing contributes much to creative thought/thinking.

  1. What is one of the most challenging questions you face in your study of creativity?

The most challenging question in the study of creativity is communicating what is meant by creative thinking and how teachers can teach for its expression in school. The emphasis on covering the Alberta curriculum and on high-stakes testing (PATs and diploma exams) has dominated teachers’ work in the classroom over the past 20 years.

  1. History is full of creative ideas that were not valued at the time. Creativity can also often lead to conflict and instability. Why is this so?

At one time, creative people were thought to be wild and too full of ideas. They were considered unstable, unproductive and not contributing to society in a meaningful way. It was during the early 1940s that Torrance, working as a psychologist with the U.S. Air Force, learned that the underlying element of survival is creativity. He discovered with air force personnel that risk-taking and other creative skills were essential for producing constructive behaviour and unusual achievements. Torrance’s single-minded pursuit of creativity led to an understanding of the skills of creativity and a test to measure creative potential.

Today, we know that developing students’ creative skills will better prepare them to compete in the global workplace. The term gold collar workers is currently used to describe people who are intelligent, creative and autonomous problem solvers with interdisciplinary knowledge.

  1. Much of your research and work speaks to the development and nurturing of creative skills. To what extent do you believe nature and genetics also affect our creative abilities?

Both genetics and nature play complementary roles in nurturing and contributing to our creative abilities. The participants in the Torrance longitudinal study were largely born of parents who were university trained and who held professional occupations. These parents valued creative thinking in their own professions and supported the schools in promoting creative expression. The homes generally provided books and activities that fostered creativity.

The schools attended by the participants were in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the 1960s. Many of the teachers were taking graduate courses at the University of Minnesota and emphasized/supported creative activities in students. Torrance acted as a consultant to the schools involved in the longitudinal study.

Little can be done about our genetic makeup, but a person can live a healthy lifestyle in order to maintain optimum physical health. However, a great deal can be done by parents and teachers to create an environment at home and at school in which latent creative ability can flourish and develop.

  1. Do gender, geography and/or socioeconomics influence creativity?

The way in which society treats males and females in respect to creative expression has improved considerably. However, I uncovered some inequalities in the 50-year follow-up with respect to gender treatment. For example, some females reported discrimination in certain careers/professions and other areas of their lives. One participant reported that she had no female professors or models in her graduate and doctoral studies, which in turn made it difficult for her to form a mentor relationship. She lamented the reality that higher education is still dominated by males. Interestingly, this same participant has established a strong relationship with one of her former high school female teachers.

Certainly geography and socioeconomic conditions affect or limit expression of creative achievement. Exposure to a rich source of ideas is central to supporting the expression of creative ability.

  1. What is one of your most vivid memories or experiences working with Dr. Torrance?

I have many memories of Dr. Torrance. The most vivid memory occurred on October 20, 2000, the date of the annual Torrance Lecture at the University of Georgia. The invited lecturer was Wendy Henry, one of the “Torrance Kids.” Torrance always presented the lecturer with a gift of appreciation. On this occasion, he decided to present the lecturer with a bronze sculpture (entitled Great Teachers Lift Our Spirits). On the way to the lecture, I asked Torrance why he had two sculptures. He said that one was for the lecturer and the other he wanted to present to the current dean of education, who had supported his work and the Torrance Center for Creative Studies, College of Education. The dean was away on business but hoped to attend the lecture. I jokingly said to Torrance: “Well, if the dean doesn’t show up, you can present the second statue to me!” I noticed a twinkle in his eyes. As it turned out, the dean of education did not attend the lecture. After presenting the sculpture to Henry, Torrance used the occasion to present one to me, saying that I had lifted his spirits by writing his biography. It was a significant occasion for me and illustrated his creative, caring and appreciative nature.