Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How we discourage creative children (in 1963)

I’ve been reading a lot of women’s magazines from 1963. It’s the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique this year, and comparing consumer titles from the early 1960s and now show how things have changed...

...and in some cases haven’t. In March, 1963, Redbook ran a story called “How we discourage creative children.” The sub-headline noted that “This surprising report explains why teachers, parents and even intelligence tests fail to spot the real talents of seven out of ten of our most truly gifted youngsters.” The story leans heavily on the work of Dr. E. Paul Torrance of the University of Minnesota, sometimes called the “father of creativity.” He told writer John Kord Lagemann (yes, men used to write for women’s magazines, and not just as the guy’s-point-of-view columnist!) that “IQ tests do not measure creative talent. By depending on them we miss seventy per cent of our most gifted youngsters.”

Torrance noted that “creativity involves getting away from the obvious, safe and expected and producing something which -- to the child, at least -- is new.” This, the article says, “makes extra trouble for teachers and parents. The child’s constant questioning, experimenting and exploring can make him trying to other people.”

What’s most odd about the article, though, is that this constant questioning and experimenting is presented as something that high IQ children don’t do. As Torrance said, “Suppose the problem was to improve oil lamps...The IQ mentality would apply all the known facts about oil lamps to build a better model. The creative mentality would invent the electric light.”

This either/or mentality -- that what we’d think of as “book smart” people aren’t creative and vice versa -- is often present today too. Since Torrance is lionized by the gifted community, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what’s going on. Reading a little deeper, it seems that the “IQ tests” being discussed -- at least as written about in Redbook in 1963 -- weren’t what many of us or our kids have taken. Sample questions include “How many weeks in a year? How many hours in a day? Where is Peru? If you start with ten newspapers and sell four, how many are left?” This is sheer factual knowledge, something that aptitude tests are supposed to lean less on. The creativity tests Torrance was proposing had such questions like “list all the uses you can think of for empty tin cans.” But, of course, there’s no reason such questions couldn’t be incorporated into tests for gifted programs (and often are). The article also seems to advance the idea that intelligence and creativity aren’t simultaneously present, which seems to be the author and editors’ attempts to hook readers. Torrance is known for the threshold hypothesis, which is that low IQ and low creativity are related, but that past a threshold (around IQ 120) they’re not necessarily related. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be both present -- and in many cases, are, as any parent who’s fielded questions from a 5-year-old on whether you can add and subtract from infinity, and whether you’d still pray to God if you lived on Mars? and what about Pluto? knows.

That said, the advice on how to nurture creative children is fascinating, with some interesting ideas:

Don’t discourage fantasy. “One of the qualities of the creative person, young or old, is his ability to move freely back and forth between the world of facts and reason and the vast realms of the mind that lie just below the surface of consciousness.”

Don’t hold him back. Let your kids try things and fail. “It’s never too early for self-initiated learning,” said Torrance.

Make creativity rewarding. “Sixth graders who are rewarded for originality and interest produce much better stories than children who are rewarded for correctness, but they also make many more mistakes in spelling and grammar.” (OK, I’m not so keen on this one -- there’s no reason you can’t check your spelling and grammar in a second draft! Then again, we live in an era of spell check and word processing programs, which no one had in 1963)

Avoid sexual stereotypes. “Sexual stereotypes are destructive of creativity,” Redbook noted (we’ll just ignore that this is in a magazine full of cooking and diet advice). A little boy who refuses to play with dolls because his parents criticize it is missing out on lots of forms of expression.

Don’t judge him by his reading and writing. “Creative children often lag behind the group in verbal abilities” -- well, they could, especially if you have a gifted child with dyslexia. On the other hand, there are plenty of gifted creative writers who do great on this front. I’d call this a wash.

Allow freedom to experiment. “Instead of laughing at him, encourage him to test his statements, imagine what the world would be like if they were true. Don’t pin him down to ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Parents and teachers both have a tendency to confuse getting right answers with being morally right.”

Help him use his creativity in social relations. “One of his biggest problems in life will be getting along with others without sacrificing the qualities that make him creative and ‘different.’ Help him use his sensitivity to be kind, his insight to be understanding and tolerant of those who don’t see things his way. Show him he can assert himself without being domineering, work alone without being withdrawn, be honest with others without being overcritical. Prepare him to accept the fact that anyone who has original ideas must be prepared to be a minority of one, at least for a time.” That’s good advice for parents of any kind of gifted child.


Lindsay said...

Whoa, that's really interesting! I wouldn't've expected that degree of understanding so long ago.

I find it especially interesting that they say to avoid sex stereotyping. Yet throughout the article the gifted child is "he" and "him"? (And the sex stereotype they mention holding a kid back is a stereotype of masculinity, not femininity). Where are the gifted girls, and where's the discussion of how sex stereotyping affects them? Were gifted girls not thought to exist, or was their giftedness not thought worth cultivating because they'd just grow up to be housewives anyway?


Jeffrey Shoemaker said...

You know, I would have never thought that GT was in the mainstream during the 1960's. Way to go and look back! I never would have thought to do that.