Divergent Thinkers Learn Sustainability Best Through Experience — In Spades

Paul Cawood Hellmund
I have seen the effectiveness of experiential learning in nurturing divergent thinking, a capacity that is urgently needed in designing and planning for greater sustainability.

Typically higher education tries to put knowledge into separate silos. Schools have compartments (colleges, departments, programs…) that don’t readily or typically interact. Moving the world toward sustainability is all about understanding interactions and working across artificial boundaries of knowledge. It’s about thinking differently and diversely, both in framing the question being posed and in formulating possible solutions. It’s about divergent thinking.

International adviser on education and TED Talk superstar, Sir Ken Robinson (2010), sees divergent thinking as an essential capacity for creativity.

Experiential learning supports divergent thinking and finding meaningful, creative solutions to our unprecedented environmental challenges. (Graphic courtesy of Benjamin D. Esham.)

Carole Wade and Carol Tavris (2008) identify traits of divergent thinkers: nonconformity, curiosity, a willingness to take risks, and persistence. Those of us who are working to make a difference in the face of dramatic environmental change should ask ourselves if those are traits we express — or can cultivate — in ourselves. Climate change and other ecological and societal challenges are urgent and should be summoning up our greatest creativity as individuals, and also determining how we educate others for a more sustainable future.

William Timpson and colleagues (2013) note the work of George Land and Beth Jarman (1992), who conducted a longitudinal study of divergent thinking of the same 1,600 young people at three to five, ten, and fifteen years of age. In the first of these tests of creativity, a whopping 98 percent of the (very young) children scored at the genius level for divergent thinking. That percentage fell to 32 when those being tested were ten years old and at the final test just 10 percent — of the same group of kids — scored at the highest level. “One thing these people had in common was that they had all been through the modern educational system,” Timpson and his co-authors wryly observe.

It seems “the modern educational system” is failing in the crucial area of helping us develop — or simply, maintain — the creative thought needed now to accomplish the dramatic shifts necessary to move us away from the brink of environmental disaster.

I’ve just spent ten years working with a little-known graduate school that offers a successful alternative for educating divergent thinkers, based on a deeply experiential educational model. For more than four decades the Conway School has dispensed with many of the traditional trappings of higher education: there are no entry exams, no grades, little lecture time,…. Instead this masters program is focused on self-directed learning with teachers who serve more as guides and advisors than arbiters of “truth,” helping students navigate through real projects for real clients with important questions about sustainability. (See examples of the students’ work.)

This kind of experiential learning can be profoundly successful in educating the kinds of creative, divergent thinkers, who will bring their nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, and persistence, to solving today’s environmental problems.

Let’s not stifle the creativity we so desperately need. We can offer more diverse choices in educational paths by recognizing the contributions that experiential learning brings to supporting divergent thought and to finding meaningful, creative solutions to unprecedented challenges.


References: Carole Wade and Carol Tavris (2008), Psychology; Sir Ken Robinson (2010), “Changing Educational Paradigms” (Youtube); William M. Timpson, Jeffrey M. Foley, Nathalie Kees, and Alina M. Waite (2013), 147 Practical Tips for Using Experiential Learning; George Land and Beth Jarman (1992), Break Point and Beyond.

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