7 Ways to Inspire Divergent Thinking in the Classroom

The world is unpredictable. The corporate ladder is now a maze, which means our students will need to think divergently. In this article, we explore how to integrate divergent thinking into our everyday classroom practices.

The Day I Tried to Be a Gladiator

When I was a kid, my twin brother and I loved watching American Gladiators. You remember, Lace, Zap, Blaze, Ice, and all the other characters whose names either sounded like street drugs or onomatopoeia. But over time, we became more and more inspired to create our own American Gladiators show at home. We spent a whole day sketching out our plans for how we would make it happen. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the wood, pipes, and padding we needed to make a true gladiator course. We did, however, have a baseball bat, some old puffy slippers, and duct tape, which proved to be perfect for recreating the jousting game. Next, we discussed the ideal location for building a platform. Initially, we decided to use the swingset and then build a foam pit. Unfortunately, we didn’t have foam. So, we jotted down ideas until we finally landed on the idea of the bunk bed. We stacked the two box springs and mattresses on the floor and stood on the top bunk of our bed next to a hand-painted American Gladiators sign we had created.

It was epic.

We spent hours playing our game, adding slight variations on it and eventually hacking the rules to make it less and less like American Gladiators and more and more like The Spencer Twin Gladiators. Looking back on it, I’m not sure if we ever asked permission. My parents were never really the helicopter type anyway. And we did have one moment where my brother took a cheap shot and I busted the light bulb on our ceiling fan. Or maybe I was the one who took the cheap shot. My memory is a little fuzzy on the incident.

Although we didn’t realize it at the time, something powerful was happening when we invented our American Gladiators game. We were developing divergent thinking skills. It’s the same thing that happened when we grabbed whatever random household objects we could find as apart of a competition to see who could come up with the best set of musical instruments. In both cases, we started with a bold idea and a lack of supplies. However, this creative constraint pushed us to “hack” the objects around us until we solved the problem and created something original. At the time, it wasn’t a big deal. We were just playing. However, this type of divergent thinking has turned out to be a vital skill that my brother and I both use as adults. Apparently, that’s what happens when you try to be Nitro from American Gladiators.

The Need for Divergent Thinking

In the past, students could depend on a simple formula. Do well in school, get the right degree from a university, and climb a corporate ladder. That was the formula that worked well for my dad when he was younger. But the ladder is gone and in its place is a maze. Our students will walk into a tumultuous global economy. Automation and artificial intelligence will continue to replace analytical jobs. All of those things will make it harder to climb a ladder. Our students will need to think like entrepreneurs. They will need to be creative thinkers and innovators:

In the future, students will need to be nimble. They will need to know how to experiment, iterate, and pivot. This is where divergent thinking becomes so critical. Divergent thinking is what allows students to make connections between seemingly random ideas. In the process, they find innovative solutions by looking at things from different angles, often finding inspiration from surprising contexts. Here, students learn how to “hack” items by using them in unexpected ways. They figure out how to mash-up two seemingly unrelated ideas.

As we move further into automation and artificial intelligence, our students will need to think divergently. They may or may not enter the Creative Economy. However, they will all need to think creatively and find unique solutions for complex problems.

How to Develop Divergent Thinking in Students

We, as educators, can boost divergent thinking for our students by integrating it into our daily practice. The following are specific strategies you can use as you inspire your students to think divergently.

#1: Use multiple types of divergent thinking.

You can use divergent thinking activities as quick warm-ups to activate creativity or as a brain-break in the middle of a more analytical task. These activities take five minutes, tops. In some cases, you might do a visual divergent thinking activity. You can show students a semi-abstract drawing and ask them to generate a list of possible ideas for what that picture might represent. Other times, you might present students with two or three items and then ask them to generate a list of possible things they could make with those items. One of my favorite language-oriented challenges is to ask students to change one letter in a sports team to make something new (so you end up with the Pittsburgh Pilates, the Phoenix Nuns or the L.A. Fakers). So, again, this divergent thinking might be more visual, spatial, or language-based.

If you have 60–90 minutes, you can do a longer divergent thinking challenge. Here’s an example:

#2: Embrace Creative Constraint
Although you can do divergent thinking exercises, it helps to integrate divergent thinking into the entire PBL process. One of the key areas is through creative constraint.

Divergent thinking thrives in when we are faced with limitations. This is the core idea of creative constraint. When you have fewer resources, you have to find new ways to use the existing resources you have. I remember a time when we went to the beach without any lawn chairs or toys. Our kids started inventing their own games. When they got tired, they created their own “sand chairs” with cup holders. Suddenly, the environment shifted from a location to a design element.

As educators, we can incorporate creative constraint in a few different ways. One option is to limit the time through rapid prototyping. This might involve a quick, timed maker challenge, where they have to move through iterations quickly. Or it might be a timed free write, where students get their words out without doing any planning in advance. When this happens, students grow less risk-averse in their creativity. They also develop creative fluency, where they are able to plan, implement, and revise a creative work quickly and with a sense of agency and control.

Other times, you might limit options or materials. I remember when I did whiteboard videos with students. They had to use the whiteboard and they had to sketch it out. Their end product had to be within 30 seconds. Instead of limiting creativity, these constraints actually pushed students to think divergently. We often hear the term “think inside the box,” but divergent thinking says, “think differently about the box.” Here’s what I mean:

#3: Incorporate play.

According to a longitudinal study, 90% of kindergartners rank in the “genius” level for divergent thinking. Within five years, the number drops to 50% and has a steep decline afterward. While some of this might be the result of human development, I think there’s something else at work. Divergent thinking thrives when people play. It turns out there’s a fascinating link between playfulness and divergent thinking. The researchers defined this as “physical, social and cognitive spontaneity; manifest joy; and sense of humor.”

I remember last year when we had a huge snow storm and they canceled school. Okay, by a huge snow storm, I actually mean a few inches. This is Western Oregon, after all. Our kids made snow angels and snowmen and snow werewolves and snow ninjas. But eventually, these hours in the snow led to curiosity. My oldest son asked, “What will melt the snow the fastest?” From there, he tested every chemical imaginable and eventually designed his own de-icer. What began as play eventually led to divergent thinking.

This can be tricky in school, where we have tight curriculum maps and limited time. However, when teachers find ways to incorporate play and humor and joy into their curriculum, they create moments when students are able to think divergently. Take humor. It takes no extra time or effort but it’s a simple way to model creative risk-taking and divergent thinking. But if you want to spend a little more time, you might do a play-oriented Maker Monday challenge, where you have students solve problems by playing with items to design something new.

#4: Use divergent thinking to get unstuck.

This is a simple idea but it’s one of my favorites. Pixar’s Rule #9 in their Rules of Storytelling states, “#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.” By generating a list of “bad ideas,” you end up thinking divergently. You come up with random ideas that get you past your initial mental block, which can often lead to innovation. Going back to my American Gladiators story, my brother and I took an inventory of every single item we had that might be used to knock someone down. Our initial bad idea was the baseball bat (way too dangerous) but then we thought about adding pillows and this shifted into fluffy slippers. Divergent thinking was exactly what we needed in order to get unstuck.

You probably notice times in the classroom when students seem to hit a creative wall. They might seem disengaged or even off-task but when you look a little closer, they are scared. Scared of doing things the wrong way. Scared that people won’t like their work. Or maybe it’s less about fear and more of a general uncertainty and a sense that they can’t solve a problem. When you ask them to list “bad ideas,” you reduce the fear and help them to turn off the over-analytical mind and just get their ideas out.

#5: Celebrate creative risk-taking.

Our educational system tends to focus on getting the right answer and getting it quickly. But divergent thinking is different. It’s all about taking creative risks. Every time you choose to use an object in a different way or connect ideas that seem disconnected, you are taking a creative risk. As the leader of your classroom, you can develop a culture that embraces creative risk-taking. I used to work with a teacher who would ask students to share their “epic fails” with their classmates. Students would say, “I took a creative risk by ________. It didn’t work but I learned ________.” Then the class would cheer afterward. His students were unafraid and, as a result, they were more likely to think divergently.

But this also requires changes in how we assess. We can’t say, “I want you to think divergently,” but then use a high-stakes approach to assessment and grading. This will make students risk-averse. Instead, we can take a mastery-based approach where students know they’ll have the chance to resubmit their work for a higher grade. When they know that they can revise their work and ultimately create something that is worth putting in a portfolio they see mistakes and revision as a natural part of the creative process. You might even add a survey or self-reflection that asks students to examine whether or not they took creative risks in their projects.

I actually think creative risk-taking is important for us to do in our own practice. When we choose to design projects despite tight curriculum maps, limited time frames, and a lack of adequate technology, we are modeling divergent thinking for our students. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that this will work. It might work. It could fail. And in a system that focuses on “best practices,” this can be tricky. However, this uncertainty is at the heart of innovation.

But when we choose to say, “I’m going to try a different method” or “I’m going to hack the curriculum map,” we end up modeling the kind of creative risk-taking we want to see in our students. The thing is, they’re watching. They see the constraints we are faced with and they know when we are choosing to be divergent thinkers.

#6: Chase your curiosity.

Dyson vacuum cleaners had a huge creative breakthrough when they studied sawmills. A conference struggling to get people to sessions on time reconfigured their approach after looking at train schedules. An automotive company created a user-friendly console after applying design principals from gaming systems. These are all examples of cross-industry innovation found in a short book called Not Invented Here. And it’s an example of how divergent thinking often works. Often when people leave the echo chambers of their own industries or disciplines, they become inspired by seemingly unrelated fields. It’s no wonder, for example, that Darwin was a geologist rather than a biologist. He needed an outside perspective to transform the understanding of the origins of life.

This is at the heart of divergent thinking. You apply ideas and approaches from one domain into a seemingly unrelated context. In the process, you develop creative solutions. This feels counterintuitive but in a world where people are becoming specialists in really narrow domains, there is value in being able to ping-pong back and forth between tons of unrelated ideas, skillsets, and approaches. It’s hard to predict ahead of time. When Eiji Nakatsu got into bird-watching, he probably didn’t realize that he would apply that knowledge to a total redesign of Japan’s bullet trains. But his geeky interest in something that initially seemed impractical is exactly the type of divergent thinking they needed for their redesign.

This requires an almost nonsensical curiosity where you geek out on anything that you find fascinating. It’s all about chasing your questions and seeing where they lead you. One small example of this is the Wonder Day project:

#7: Get really bored.

I’m not entirely sure what this means for schools, but here it goes:

In a study conducted by Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, participants had to copy names from a phonebook. It wasn’t even a cool phonebook with fantasy names like Dumbledore or Flitwick. It was a standard phonebook that nobody uses anymore. After participants copied the names from the phonebook, they engaged in divergent thinking exercises where they had to come up with multiple uses for an object. This bored group scored higher in divergent thinking than the control group. They later modified this study by having participants read the phone book instead of writing out the names. This group reported higher levels of boredom and proved more successful in the divergent thinking exercise of naming multiple uses for an object.

Similarly, Neil Gaiman begins his writing process by setting aside all distractions and deliberately making himself bored. Here’s how he describes the process:

I think it’s about where ideas come from, they come from daydreaming, from drifting, that moment when you’re just sitting there… The trouble with these days is that it’s really hard to get bored. I have 2.4 million people on Twitter who will entertain me at any moment… it’s really hard to get bored. I’m much better at putting my phone away, going for boring walks, actually trying to find the space to get bored in. That’s what I’ve started saying to people who say ‘I want to be a writer,” I say ‘great, get bored.’

As a professor, I have a hard time with boredom. I want my class to be fascinating. I pride myself on keeping things interesting. But what if boredom is actually a gift? Or maybe not a gift. What if it’s more like a discipline that you have to cultivate? It’s no accident that great ideas happen when you’re while you’re taking a shower or while you’re doing the dishes (note that preferably you shouldn’t be doing both of these at the same time). We need boredom in order to make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.

For what it’s worth, I don’t want students to be bored in school all the time. However, I think there are ways we can incorporate elements of boredom in order to boost divergent thinking. For example, at the elementary level, we can have moments in a project where the whole class takes a walk. This might sound like a waste of time but there’s an interesting Stanford study demonstrating how 30-minute walks increased performance on divergent thinking tasks. Another option might be to create moments when students work for a longer amount of time on a task, completely free of distraction. But it also means there are moments when you push through the boredom of creative work; when you help students engage in deep work and hit a state of creative flow, even when it gets tedious. I’m not advocating for boredom so much as a willingness to develop creative endurance and to voluntarily choose to be undistracted in a culture that is always vying for your attention.

So, there you have it. These are seven ways you can inspire students to think divergently.

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