The Torrance Center for Creativity

This week, I’m visiting the legendary Torrance Center at the University of Georgia. I’m honored to be delivering the 2013 annual Torrance Lecture, invited by center directory Bonnie Cramond. My topic was “Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration.”

Paul Torrance was one of the first-wave creativity researchers, who helped to found the field back in the 1950s and 1960s. In the late 1950s, he developed the first version of his creativity test, which soon became known as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, or TTCT. This test continues to be the most widely used creativity test in the world–often used for admission to gifted and talented programs, for example. You can read more about this history in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity.

In the mid-1960s, Torrance argued that schools should teach creativity, and that curriculum for all subjects should be designed to foster creative learning outcomes. He even developed a series of curricular materials that teachers could use to help students be more creative. He was way ahead of his time–in the last ten years, education leaders around the world have been advocating for creative learning as a “21st century skill,” and I also believe that we need to do a better job of fostering creativity in our students.

He lived a long and productive life, most of it at the University of Georgia, passing on in 2003–and leaving part of his estate to UGA to fund the Torrance center’s ongoing research.

It was awesome to stand in front of the glass display case containing all of Dr. Torrance’s awards. And I wish I’d had more time to peruse his book collection, which lines the walls of the center’s conference room. It was a wonderful visit–to be surrounded by people dedicated to the study of creativity.

Creativity: The Importance of Listening and Collaborating

There’s a fascinating interview in yesterday’s New York Times* with Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the Washington National Opera. Her personal experience aligns exactly with my research on collaboration and creativity:

Creativity cannot explode if you do not have the ability to step back, take in what everybody else says and then fuse it with your own ideas. Theater is one of the most collaborative art forms, and you have to be able to absorb everything that people tell you….When I go into meetings with successful business people, I’m always amazed at how much they’re able to just sit there and absorb things and then make a really good decision.

Having original ideas is what makes you successful, if you know how to implement them. It’s a rare thing because some people have the ideas and other people have the mechanics, but they can’t do both.

You have to learn how to fail.

Perhaps my biggest study of group creativity was my study of Chicago improvisational theater groups. I learned that theater is truly an ensemble art form: the purest example of group genius.

*Adam Bryant, “First, make sure your idea works on a small stage.” New York Times, Sunday April 7, 2013, page BU2.

Teaching Creativity in the University

Colleges and universities around the United States are increasingly introducing creativity into their undergraduate curriculum. They’re responding to national calls for greater creativity and entrepreneurship, and hoping to help solve pressing social problems–climate change, income inequality, global water scarcity. These challenging problems can’t be solved only with technical knowledge, or with the standard textbook procedures. In most cases, they require innovative interdisciplinary teams. Influential national reports from the Business Roundtable and the Council on Competitiveness have argued that our schools need to “educate for innovation,” that we need to transform the way we teach students. Best-sellers by authors like Dan Pink and Tom Friedman, and a popular TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, have spread the message widely.

Colleges are now getting the message. Many of them are now requiring students to participate in creative activities, or to take courses in creative thinking, as writer Dan Berrett describes in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education.* Starting this Fall, Stanford will require all incoming students to take at least one course in “creative expression.” Students at Carnegie Mellon now have to satisfy a “creating” requirement, when they create a painting or a musical composition, or design and build a robot, or develop a creative experimental design. Both the University of Kansas and the City University of New York have recently adopted general education requirements that all students take a course in creative thinking. The University of Kentucky requires all 20,000 undergraduates to take a three-credit course in creativity.

The goal is to help students learn about how creativity works; about how to negotiate the twists and turns in the creative process; and to develop their own confidence in their ability to generate creative solutions. I completely support these curricular changes; after all, the 21st century is the creative age, and every career is going to require creative thinking (except for the repetitive jobs that are being automated anyway). Most graduates will change jobs multiple times; many of them will end up in careers that don’t even exist today. They need creativity, adaptability, and flexibility more than just about any other course  we might require.

There are lots of challenges to getting this right. First, creativity research shows that you get the best results when you teach creativity within the context of a specific discipline (rather than teaching one “general creativity” course). This means that if you want creative physicists, then your physics department classes need to be changed; if you want creative computer scientists, then the computer science curriculum needs to be changed. If you just add a three-credit creativity course, but then students get the same old memorize-and-regurgitate curriculum in their STEM classes, the creativity course won’t be able to overcome the uncreative STEM teaching.

Second, different departments on campus are likely to have different perspectives on what counts as “creativity.” The professors in the art school and the music department often associate creativity with the arts; but creativity is important in all disciplines, even in science and math, and especially in engineering. (The Engineer of 2020 report, by the National Academy of Engineering, starts with the sentence “Engineering is a profoundly creative occupation.”) If you’re taking a piano class and memorizing a composition by Beethoven for the piano, is that really creative? And what about a computer science class where you design a user interface for a web site? That certainly seems creative… but, what if you’re designing a new database algorithm for a large international bank? Isn’t that creative too? (Even though the soulless depths of a bank’s back office seem to be about as far away from creativity as one can get…)

This is one reason that I’m now studying how professors teach in schools of art and design and architecture. These professors have been teaching for creativity for decades, while at the same time guiding their students towards learning important discipline-specific skills and procedures. Their teaching is domain specific, which is perfectly aligned with creativity research. My hope is that by documenting this “studio model,” I can draw out important lessons for how to reform teaching in science, math, and engineering.

I’m glad to see that so many universities are responding to the need for greater creativity!

*Dan Berrett. “The Creativity Cure.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 1, 2013