When we stop talking about creativity and innovation in abstract terms and start thinking about how they originate, we get divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is more than thinking outside the box; it’s thinking without the box, and imposing structure later.
The goal of divergent thinking is to generate many different ideas about a topic in a short period of time. It involves breaking a topic down into its various component parts in order to gain insight about the various aspects of the topic. Divergent thinking typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing manner, such that the ideas are generated in a random, unorganized fashion. Unexpected connections are often drawn
This type of thinking is found among people with personality traits such as nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, and persistence. Divergent thinking is not the same as brainstorming. Brainstorming is a technique that encourages divergent thinking, but it’s only one of many, as you will read in a moment.
The benefits of divergent thinking are huge, especially in a day and age where employers value skills over knowledge. Decades of research have shown that students who are exposed to divergent thinking methods early in their education become more creative, both immediately and later on in life.
Studies conducted by a Cornell University research team in 2012 found that divergent thinking improves language proficiency and performance. That same year, psychologists from the Netherlands revealed that divergent thinking leads to positive mood swings while convergent thinking leads to negative mood swings. Patrick Ledwidge from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says that graduate students, in particular, could benefit from a heightened does of divergent thinking, as graduate research frequently involves testing boundaries and putting forth original theories.
An article published this year presents the first measure of divergent thinking that can be used with children as young as 2 years, and shows that some children are better at divergent thinking than others and that children’s divergent thinking increases with age. Scientists have also found a positive correlation between divergent thinking and entrepreneurial potential.
One pivitol study, conducted by researchers at the University of Auckland, found that young children who understood the concept of false beliefs (the fact that people’s attitudes don’t always reflect reality) performed significantly better on divergent thinking tasks than children who did not. Again, it’s the ability to identify multiple possibilities that forms a basis for creativity.
And although some of us may associate creativity with things like art and emotion, the research shows that divergent thinking actually stems from logical, unbiased thinking. A study published this year found a negative correlation between emotion comprehension and divergent thinking, suggesting that we think most divergently when our perspective isn’t colored by emotion.
When it comes to leading a successful career, divergent thinking can be a huge help. Openness to experience is a personality trait that relates to divergent thinking and is therefore related to creative performance in organizations. Research shows us that openness to experience, coupled with an attitude toward divergent thinking, are positively associated with employees’ creative performance.
At Kalyani University in India, researchers found a number of interesting facts associated with divergent thinking, including that learners with more complex analytic cognitive structure show greater ability of divergent thinking, that an individual’s perception of him or herself affects his or her divergent thinking, that scholastic achievement and divergent thinking are related, that individuals with a high self-concept were found better in all aspects of divergent thinking, and that rural learners performed better than urban learners with regard to divergent thinking.
There’s still a lot to be discovered about divergent thinking, but we know that it produces highly intelligent, creative individuals. Teach your students to think divergently and you’ll never worry that you haven’t made a difference. Here’s how to get started:
- Fast, frequent failures. Making as many mistakes as possible as quickly as possible means you’re heading swiftly towards the right solution to a problem. Try holding “flash flub” sessions where students learn to be comfortable laying out all possible solutions in front of others. Read more about the value of mistakes.
- Thank Google. You can find anything on Google these days. Doesn’t this mean students are in danger of forgetting how to learn and solve problems of their own? Studies actually suggest that it allows you to spend more time thinking about deeper questions since you have instant answers to the shallow ones. Open up the discussion on this one. See what your students think. Read more about using Google for education.
- Solve the right problem. When they are solving a difficult problem, urge students to start with the most basic phrasing of a question. Help them find a faster way to fail, recover, and try again. If the question they are trying to solve takes longer to grasp than the solution, they are solving the wrong problem.
- Zig where others zag. It can be highly productive to think differently, and it pays off in the long run. The founder of The Economist credits “Blue Ocean Strategy,” or staying away from the “red waters” of fierce competition, with the success of the magazine. Find other real-world examples and share them with your students.
- Respond to curiosity when it arises. Encourage students to answer their own questions now, not later, while the curiosity is still burning. This is when divergent thinking has the highest chance of being cultivated.
- Defer judgment. Practice this yourself, and encourage students to practice it. Remember it includes both criticism and praise.
- Encourage numbers. Have students collect every possible idea before settling on a solution.
- Support the strange. Encourage students to strive for the unusual and explore different perspectives.
- Combine ideas. Look for combinations of ideas that might work together. Building off the ideas of others is a great place to start.
- Create a tolerant environment. Divergent thinking is more likely to thrive in an environment that permits different types of expression, encourages risk, and allows failure. As teachers, we can support divergent thinking by facilitating and supporting individual expression.
- Provide support and encouragement when ideas are blocked. The more patience you put into this, the more likely students will be to pursue their own ideas, even when they’re a little foggy at first.
- Encourage autonomy and ownership. Praise individuals for their unique ideas, and refer to their ideas later as “Sally’s solution” or “Andrew’s question.” Read more about encouraging intrinsic motivation.
- Help learners appreciate how they learn. Talk about the process of learning and how it occurs differently under different circumstances.
- Brainstorm. During brainstorming, students spontaneously contribute ideas in response to a problem statement. Crafting a good problem statement requires some skill. You don’t want the problem to be so broad that it will be difficult to find patterns in ideas and possible solutions. You also don’t want it to be so specific that the solutions seem relatively inevitable. Keep the number of students in a brainstorming group fairly small so that no one feels lost in the crowd. Additionally, form groups of students who will naturally have different perspectives from one another.
- Substitute. What are the alternatives to materials, processes, and methods students are already using/doing?
- Find the connection. How can students combine seemingly disparate ideas?
- Adapt. How can students adapt something they’re already doing or using for a new project?
- Modify. What materials, processes, or methods can students modify to solve a problem?
- Diversify. Can students put a material, process, or method to another use?
- Eliminate. Think in terms of removing, not adding. What can students do to eliminate problems and inefficiencies? What materials, methods, and steps can be eliminated?
- Rearrange. How can students move around materials, method steps, and processes to solve a problem?
- Brainwrite. A terrific exercise. Have groups of students brainstorm first on sticky notes or index cards, without speaking to each other. This encourages all voices to be heard and prevents people from forgetting their ideas as they wait for an opportunity to speak. Then, have them share their ideas and build upon them together. In a variation of this technique, one student writes down three ideas on a piece of paper in response to a problem statement and passes it on to the next student, who continues the process.
- Six Thinking Hats. Pioneered by Edward de Bono, the Six Thinking Hats exercise encourages parallel thinking, or viewing a problem from different perspectives depending on which “hat” you’re wearing.
- Discuss lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is a type of thinking that uses unorthodox or seemingly illogical methods to solve problems. In his book, Serious Creativity (1992), de Bono describes some lateral thinking techniques for spurring creativity.
- Use concept fans. Representing a problem as a central circle, have students write down possible solutions as a series of lines radiating outward from the circle. If the solutions aren’t quite what the student wants, tell them to reframe the idea. Draw it as a second circle connected to the first circle and write down possible solutions for the new problem. Keep repeating the process, reframing problem statements and fanning out ideas.
- Be provocative. Start with a provocative statement like “We should abolish standardized testing.” Then ask students to examine the consequences of the statement, potential benefits, the circumstances in which the statement describes a good solution, and the resources needed to make the idea work. Next, change the parameters of the idea, e.g., “We should make standardized testing less than 5% of our education efforts,” and begin the process again, repeating until students come to an agreement. Read more about helping your students find their voice.
- Try random input. Have students choose a random object (e.g. a noun from a dictionary or an object on their desk) and associate it with a problem they’re thinking about. What are the connections? How can these connections be used to solve or expand upon the problem?
- Challenge ideas. Encourage students to ask why something is done the way it’s done. Challenge problems, solutions, or anything in between. The idea is that when you challenge something, you start thinking of alternatives.
- Disprove. Have students take the traditional view of something and challenge it. See if they can support their own different position.
- Use technology. Technology offers some exciting ways to complement and enhance divergent thinking techniques. Try Youtongo, an online brainstorming platform, for starters.