Understanding key differences between divergent & convergent thinking
Divergent thinking is quickly becoming a buzzword in many educational contexts as we identify ways to prepare current learners for future demands. Divergent thinking refers to the propensity for the mind to generate ideas and solutions to problems outside of normally prescribed expectations. This thinking is sometimes labeled as “outside of the box” and is usually associated with creativity. Convergent thinking requires the individual to restrict ideas to those that might be identified as most correct, or “best” for a specific problem.
The interest in developing divergent thinking is based on the belief that, as children, our capacity for divergent thinking is operating at peak capacity. In education, divergent thinking is seen as a way to foster creativity through encouraging students to explore multiple solutions, devise new strategies, and come up with unexpected and original ideas.
Divergent thinking and certain forms of creativity may be discouraged in classrooms as it places emphasis on equity of all ideas, and does not place emphasis on rubrics, evaluation, and assessment. The nuance between divergent and convergent thinking is baked into the world and the ways in which we learn. The roots of pedagogy are informed by the ways in which we generate ideas (i.e., divergent thinking) and analyze ideas (i.e., convergent thinking).
Even as these two concepts are intertwined in teaching and learning in our schools, it is important to understand their differences. It is also equally important that we create opportunities for both types of thinking in pedagogy…and our own lives.
Joy Paul Guilford’s work in the 1950s pioneered a fresh perspective on creativity which identified divergent thinking as “the intellectual operation responsible for creativity thinking.” In fact, the literature on creativity often uses “creativity” and “divergent thinking” interchangeably.
Divergent thinking is the ability to generate new and creative ideas by exploring numerous possible solutions before identifying one that works.
Divergent thinking includes messy stages of thinking in which the learner accesses and processes the ideas and perspectives of others to gain fresh perspectives and insights from which new ideas can be generated.
Characteristics of divergent thinking include processes that are described as spontaneous, free-flowing, and non-linear.
When defining convergent thinking, we often think of Runco and Acar’s definition (2012) that emphasizes correct, textbook-like solutions to problems versus original responses. In education, this can be equated to the “drill and kill” approach to teaching in which students are given the correct answer without opportunity to experience the learning process.
Convergent thinking is the ability to actively solve a simple, well-defined, accurate answer to a problem.
Convergent thinking is focused on action and outcomes of a specific learning task while reviewing the timescale.
Characteristics of convergent thinking include processes that are described as speedy, accurate, and logical.
Making this happen in the classroom
Educators may find divergent thinking to be a challenge when students explore and problematize rules and directions that exist outside of societal norms. Part of schooling involves indoctrinating students about societal norms and expectations. In many senses, it is up to school administrators and teachers to instill that students demonstrate a sense of good judgment that is determined by current societal norms and will ultimately benefit future opportunities for employment and sense of belonging. Divergent thinking and manifestations of creativity that run counter to this narrative of rules, right answers, and societal norms may not be valued.
As we age toward adulthood, it is hypothesized that this propensity for divergent thinking decreases as we are indoctrinated into cultures that value one answer or solution, and generally frown on being wrong or failing. This indoctrination may be due to school environments that build a reticence for students as they are scared to say or do the “wrong thing” in class. Teachers and peer groups establish social norms by keeping in-check behaviors and individuals that are incorrect or inappropriate. These systems of compliance and convergence are reinforced by grading policies that penalize students for being wrong, or failing. Non-normative behaviors are often frowned upon by the powers in charge of the group. In these environs, the role of creativity, and forms of divergent thinking are often rejected in favor of playing the game and just getting through school.
Finally, in education, students often focus on their work product as opposed to the process of their work. There is often a focus on the one right answer and an aversion to failing in completion of learning activities, or spending time reviewing the decisions made on the way to failure. Understanding this conditioning is especially problematic as we try to identify ways to build opportunities for divergent thinking and creativity. Perhaps, in order to build these opportunities, students and educators need to first confront and problematize their own epistemologies about teaching, learning, and society.