How to Promote Divergent Thinking in Your Students

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What would happen if, one day, NASA discovers that the moon actually is made out of cheese?

Would it fall out of the sky?

Would it spontaneously (and deliciously) explode?

Is this even worth thinking about?

In this post, I’m going to suggest that this kind of question is not only worth asking, but is also a great way to develop creative and higher-order thinking skills in your students.

These kinds of questions – questions that promote divergent thinking – are at the core of how educators can:

  1. ‘compete’ with the ocean of information that surrounds our students
  2. challenge our students to think creatively and divergently
Divergent and convergent: what’s the difference?

To explain what a ‘divergent’ question is, let’s start with a ‘convergent’ question: “What is a divergent question?” This is a convergent question because we’re trying to hone in on a singular answer – in this case a good definition of a divergent question.

Divergent questions, which promote divergent thinking, encourage a search for a range of possible answers in the form of ideas.

Convergent Vs Divergent Thinking

There is no benefit arguing about which one is better.

The point of this post is to suggest that highly analytical and informed convergent thinking can be boosted through the use of divergent questioning.

How does it work?

Let’s look back to our moon/cheese example. If the question were taken seriously, what would be the steps to coming up with a reasonable answer? I propose that a solid scientific mind would first ask themselves something similar to the following:

       Why does the moon currently act the way it does?

       What is the moon actually made out of?

       How does that stuff act differently from cheese?

       Do different kinds of cheese act differently?

       If so, what kind of cheese is it?

This is getting interesting!

Now, if we think about a convergent ‘moon’ question that you might find in a basic school test, it’d be something along the lines of: “Why does the Moon stay up in the sky?” The correct answer to this? ‘Gravity’.

Most would agree that this isn’t as interesting or meaningful.

As part of divergent questioning, convergent questions (such as ‘what is gravity and how does it operate?’) must not only be answered, but they must be researched, challenged and considered in a new light.

Applying divergent questioning to other topics

Consider another example, this time a non-scientific one.

“How many different currencies are there in the world?”

So, how would we alter this to suit a university-level macroeconomics cohort? Easy!

“What would happen if all nations used only one currency?”

Let’s take it a step further. How do we introduce elements of roleplay and make the task authentic to the real world?

“A global referendum is being held to decide whether all nations should be forced to move to using a single currency. Your task is to choose a side and write a 1000 word persuasive email that will be sent to everyone in the world ahead of the vote.”

This is a complex and challenging task that challenges not only a student’s nuanced understanding of the way international currency works, but also their imaginative ability to create a plausible alternative reality and argue its benefits or drawbacks.

This kind of thinking is what will be required in the future world of work, when all questions that begin with “what is…?” will better answered by our robot friends, leaving us to answer questions that begin with “what if…?”.

In assessing a student’s response to the above question, the plausibility of the ideas are important to think about.

The best analogies for this kind of ‘plausibility in imagination’ can be found in science and fantasy fiction.

Authors invent incredible worlds in which humans live, sometimes in the most bizarre of circumstances.

However, once that world is invented it has certain rules that are unchangeable. For example, just imagine if, upon being chased by a gang of terrifying orcs, The Lord of the Rings heroes Frodo and Sam jumped in a helicopter and beelined it straight to Mordor. It just doesn’t work!

The same principle applies in relation to the single currency task. Any student response would need to be not only imaginative, but it would need to respond to the realities in this alternative world.

If promoting the idea of a single currency, they would need to think hard about possible opposing views in order to attempt to refute them – in the process learning a lot about how currencies work while applying this knowledge in a new, fun and interesting context of their own making.

Give it a go!

So, I urge you to wrap your convergent-thinking tasks in a divergent package.

It’s hard to walk down the street without the words ‘rethink’, ‘disrupt’, ‘reimagine’ ringing in your ears from advertising, political leaders, and particularly, educational institutions.

If we want our students to do these things, we need to develop a climate in which they feel comfortable having new ideas that incorporate existing facts.

After reading this post do you have any ideas of divergent questions you could ask in your field? If so, share them below!

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