What is divergent thinking?
Divergent thinking is one of the key indicators of creativity. It is thinking that starts from a small point and expands in possibilities. There is no “right answer” and it is spontaneous and non-linear. A typical example is, “How many uses are there for a traffic cone that has nothing to do with traffic?” Here we start from an individual object and branch outwards from it; there are few boundaries and many answers are valid.
This is in opposition to convergent thinking, an example of which could be, “What is the main use of a traffic cone?” Here we start from an individual object and look to only one aspect of it: its primary use. The process is linear and there is only one correct answer.
Why this matters in education
In a famous psychological study, children ranging from 3 to 13 years old were asked questions that test divergent thinking levels. In the early years, 98% of them ranked as “genius level” for divergent thinking. By 10 years old, only 30% of them maintained this standard. By 13 years old, it was a depressing 10%.
Part of the reason for this is of-course a wider cultural tendency that favours convergent thinking, but, as educators, we cannot ignore our roles in under-valuing and under-encouraging divergent responses. Now, I’m not saying that there is no place for convergent thinking. We all need to be able to find the correct answer, and we need to often. What disturbs me is the gross lack of balance between the two, starting from early education and continuing relentlessly.
Whether we intend it or not, children are receiving the message that “getting the answer right” is what is important. This stymies their creative, enquiring minds.
How many great works of art and science have begun with the creator’s “what if…” thought? How many acts of compassion and kindness have begun with “from another point of view…”? These ways of thinking are unlimited by the narrow possibilities and intolerance of mistakes that characterise convergent thinking. Not to mention the fact that divergent thinking is fun.
How to encourage divergent thinking in your classroom
It does not matter what you teach: divergent thinking is important for the skill-set you wish to give your students.
Divergent thinking skills can be applied to any subject area. Generally speaking, “How…” questions lend themselves best to divergent thinking. Here are some examples:
- English – “How could this scene/chapter/poem be turned into a movie/painting/dance?”
- Maths – “How is geometry important in the world?”
- P. E. – “How would having a bigger/smaller playing field affect tactics?” Possibly followed by: “What can this tell us about tactics for our regular field?”
- Art – “How would you finish your painting if I took your brush away?”
Here is a couple of further questions that have countless applications – a little challenge for your own divergent thinking, perhaps. These can be dropped into any lesson for a creative thinking boost. They are also a great, meaningful way to use time such as in tutor group/homeroom.
- How many uses are there for a coat-hanger, hair-dryer, carpet…?
- What if… we all had tails, we were all telepathic, only the children were telepathic…?
We cannot all be geniuses for sure, but if a 3-year-old can out-perform a professor, there must be a way to keep students’ natural abilities alive. Please let me know in the comments how you are keeping divergent thinking alive in your classroom.