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How to Cultivate Divergent Thinking Skills?

At school, students learn and practice a "sea" of knowledge, stretching from social sciences to humanities to fitness and arts. Each subject requires a different approach. Math problems require students' logical reasoning skills, whether by using equations, trigonometric functions, or integrals – through a step-by-step process. With English essay writing, students are required to draw mind maps or "brainstorm" the benefits and damages of a specific issue such as online learning or social media culture. From there, they can outline the ideas to support the writing itself. Why is there such a difference?

The answer lies in how some activities utilize students’ convergent thinking, and others put emphasis on divergent thinking. So what are these terms and how can we utilize these thought processes to best support our children?

What is convergent thinking and divergent thinking?

Convergent thinking (CT) focuses on answers and is item-oriented. It is the ability to find the "right" answers to standard questions, and it does not require creativity or brainstorming. This way of thinking emphasizes speed, accuracy, and efficiency as people only need to recall or deduce the existing answer.

In situations where a very fast decision is required, or a solution is needed for an old problem, convergent thinking is required.

But like "rote learning", there are negative results of this way of thinking, as it ultimately limits students’ creativity when they are trying to explore different options. CT is a popular product of our traditional education system, where students are the passive learners and teachers are the content experts. People who are inclined to use convergent-thinking are typically afraid of giving "wrong" answers and consequently limited their own creativity. This thinking is not entirely useless in today’s world, but it is certainly inadequate for our 21st-century learners.

Divergent thinking (DT), on the other hand, is a thought process that begins with a question and branches out into many different solutions and ideas. We should use DT when it comes to creativity, finding solutions to a new problem (including old problems but in new circumstances). This way of thinking takes time, trial and error, to arrive at the best solution, and there are certain risks that come with it.

DT-biased people are not afraid to give "silly" ideas and solutions since they are motivated by their own curiosity "to question.”

DT has the following components:

  • Spontaneous: Thoughts come on spontaneously - in an instant.

  • Free-flowing: Thought arises freely and continuously (like a river flow as the thinker has no idea where the flow is headed).

  • Non-linear: Thoughts arise randomly, not following any certain order

Unfortunately, with the pressure of raising grades, this thinking routine is overshadowed by CT. Students all around the world are pushed against each other to get a single correct answer in the shortest time amount possible. Spending extra time wondering about other possibilities often seems superfluous. The shortage of DT could rips students of their curiosity habits, which goes against the nature of learning and leaves students demotivated.

So we decided to introduce some simple techniques to bring DT into your classroom.

Ways to cultivate your children’s divergent thinking skills

Immersive learning

  • Learning takes different forms: children must experiment, feel, touch, and get excited.

  • Incorporate structured and unstructured play in your classroom activities

  • Use brainstorming activities at the beginning of the lesson

  • Project-based learning is useful in increasing students’ critical thinking and logical reasoning skills

Let students take charge

  • Teachers only establish the umbrella (e.g., World History), but students choose the specific topics (e.g., Ancient Egypt, WW I, WW 2, the Renaissance, etc.) that interest them and align with their own curiosity.

  • Use peer teaching (e.g., a higher-level student teaches other students on a certain topic that he/she is confident in)

Teachers model curiosity

  • Admit that there is certain knowledge in the world that you are unsure of

  • Take a personal approach when you explore your students’ interests. Try to expand upon their ideas, and engage them in meaningful dialogue about what matters to them.

Validate your students' emotions

  • If students keep being punished for giving the “wrong answers”, they would be demotivated to pursue a creative approach. Let them know their emotions are validated and they won’t be criticized when discovering new interests, answers, ideas, and original reasoning.

  • In the process of promoting curiosity, there will probably be contrasting ideas that represent opposing values among your students. Make sure that the classroom is a safe space for all students to share their ideas without being judged.

Finally, it should be emphasized that

Promoting divergent thinking doesn’t mean that you should completely eliminate convergent thinking in your classroom.

Actually, it’s about balancing analytical and creative thinking. Sometimes, there are problems that do require a specific solution. This is why as teachers, we should educate students on the appropriate occasions where which type of thinking should be utilized.


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