The Difference Between Convergent and Divergent Thinking

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Kids need to be creative. To understand how creativity works in the brain, we must first understand the difference between convergent and divergent thinking. Then, we must address the lack of divergent thinking in education.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Convergent (Stickman) Thinking

Convergent Thinking
Early Academic Push
Skill & Drill
Right Answers

So many schools prey on our deepest fears and goals for our kids telling us that if we don’t prioritize academics, our kids will be “behind.”

Except the basic assumption is incorrect.

Pushing academics does not equal learning. Knowing facts does not translate into being able to problem solve. 

Children do not learn best in a “tell and show” method (aka. teacher tells them what to learn, kids show they learned it.) Sure, kids’ll learn something, but they won’t become thinkers, learners, creative problem solvers. Ritchhart, R., Church, M., Morrison, K. Making Thinking Visible (2011)

Linear thinking, or convergent thinking, is about learning facts, follow instructions, and solving problems with one right answer. Certainly it has it’s place. Math is an example of convergent thinking. Standardized tests are convergent; so is an IQ test.

A friend’s 5-year old son, David, took the IQ test and did poorly; he wasn’t a convergent thinker. He got this question wrong: What color is a banana? The “right” answer was yellow. David answered white and got the question wrong.

Like a 2-D stick figure, the Way of the Stickman is when children start ignoring the possible answers in favor of one “right” answer. In Making Thinking Visible, the authors call this surface learning. They add, “When a worksheet is being filled out, the amount of interaction is reduced and the focus becomes doing the work rather than the learning.”

The Difference Between Convergent and Divergent Thinking in Education

Possible End Results: 

learning disabilities (Healy, Jane. Different Learners, 2010)

passivity towards learning

poor problem solvers (Michnik Golinkoff, R., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Eyer, D. Einstein Never Used Flashcards, 2004)

inability to think (Kamii, 1984)

behavior problems (Semrud-Clikeman, Margaret)

Remember that revealing study I mentioned yesterday about creativity from Land and Jarman from their book Breakpoint and Beyond which Sir Ken Robinson cited in this presentation? It showed how children at age five start their schooling as geniuses in creativity, problem solving, and divergent thinking (the opposite of convergent thinking) but lose this natural giftedness with each year in school. Each year they become more like stickmen.

Divergent (Chimera) Thinking

Constructivist Approach
Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is generating unique solutions and seeing various possibilities in response to questions and problems. (Watch Sir Ken Robinson’s speech on Changing Education Paradigms.) Doesn’t a chimera remind you of seeing the various possibilities?

The Difference Between Convergent and Divergent Thinking in Education

Creativity and divergent thinking are interrelated — you must be able to think divergently to be creative.

Children become creative thinkers when they’re in learning environments that use a constructivist approach. Constructivist learning happens when kids construct their own learning by building on background knowledge, experience, and reflect on those experiences. Highly-skilled teachers facilitate the child’s learning knowing exactly what the child knows and what learning comes next for him or her. Lev Vygotsky says the learner becomes “a head taller” when the teacher “scaffolds” learning.

Convergent and Divergent Thinking Modes

      • In Making Thinking Visible, the authors explain that teachers are not delivering curriculum to a passive group of students but actively engaging student with ideas then guiding their thinking about those ideas. They call it deep learning.
      • Learners are given the freedom to think, to question, to reflect, and to interact with ideas, objects, and others—in other words, to construct meaning.” Brooks and Brooks.
      • The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and “aha” moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of “exuberant discovery,” where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning. Willis, Judy Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher (ASCD, 2006)
      • In Anne Flemmert Jensen’s paper, What do Children Need to Learn to Become Powerful Players in the World of Tomorrow?, for LEGO Education, she writes “children enrolled in preschools based on constructivist approaches do better in school in the long run (Miller & Bizzell, 1983; Marcon, 1992).” Loads of research support this finding. (See bibliography in Einstein Never Used Flashcards.)

Together At Last

But, before you run off and demand an end to all convergent thinking, don’t. We actually need both convergent and divergent thinking. 

“Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.” The Creativity Crisis by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

We just need MORE divergent thinking and much less convergent thinking in education.

–> Quiz yourself – can you spot which activities are divergent and which are convergent?

–> READ: Teach kids to think about their own thinking (metacognition)

Selected References:
Bronson, P. , Merryman, A The Creativity Crisis
Healy, Jane. Different Learners, 2010
Ritchhart, R., Church, M., Morrison, K. Making Thinking Visible (2011)
A big thank you to the artist who created the chimera, Mattia Cerato!
Divergent and Convergent Thinking
Encourage Divergent Thinking with:
Disruptus Game
MaKey MaKey

37 Responses

  1. Hi there,I read your blog named “The Difference Between Convergent and Divergent Thinking” regularly.Your writing style is witty, keep doing what you’re doing! And you can look our website about proxy list.

  2. I was in first grade at Stone School in Chicago. Miss Mitchell gave us coloring pages of fruits and vegetables. I colored the grapes green and she marked a big X over them. When I asked the teacher what was wrong she said grapes are purple. I told her I had never seen purple grapes. We had only green grapes at my house. She said I should have colored the grapes purple and don’t argue about it. To me it was like saying I should have colored the lemons purple; it wasn’t my reality. But little did I know that the following day would be even more distressing. Miss Mitchell tried to convert me from being left handed to right handed! Grapes or no grapes, I wasn’t having it.

    I enjoy and admire your website very much. You offer wonderful information about the importance of fostering creative thinking skills in our kids.

  3. Beautiful post, Melissa, with great links to many important resources and additional information. My wife has steered me to understand many of these concepts and more. We are actively engaged in providing real ways to give kids a chance to practice creative thinking with lesson plans (all free for now) and more in the works. Looking forward to more in your series.

    Of course, the banana could be green, too. Just sayin’.

  4. Great refresher course… that brought back a lot of “Oh yeah, I learned that term in college.” Hopefully I haven’t forgotten the methods, but I think I did forget a few terms 🙂 I absolutely agree that we need more divergent thinking in education and I think it is even more imperative for this generation. Most of their experiences won’t be using convergent thinking. If you think about it, networking, using the internet, social media, etc. all require the ability to not think linearly. It makes me wonder, though, if schools will catch up to this research before it’s too late. Sadly, I read an article in the Huff post education column yesterday about literacy in which the author claimed we are about 30 years behind using what research says about teaching reading and what is actually happening in many (not all) classrooms. Thanks for taking the time to provide this article. Hopefully it will help all of us to think about what we are doing!

  5. Thank you for this post. I am trying hard to encourage divergent thinking in my children. The quote you used that children start school as geniuses in creativity… and lose it with each year of school (I apologise for my quick summary of quote) makes me so sad.

  6. Love your post. Divergent thinking and innovative problem solving is definitely what I am trying to foster in my toddler. There will come a point when he’ll need to develop some convergent thinking in some areas, but I think its easier to develop that when needed, than to try and develop creativity at a later age if it hasn’t beed nurtured in the early years.

  7. Great post- thanks.

    A very clever friend of mine fell foul of a similar question to the banana one when he was a child. He simply could answer the question ‘If you go to bed at 9pm and get up at 7am, how many hours did you sleep?’

    …pause while you think of the problem inherent in this… are you a divergent thinker?…

    He couldn’t answer it because he knew that he never went to sleep as soon as he went to bed.

  8. I would agree that we do more divergent thinking in our schools. Your discussion is like a breath of fresh air. Keep up the good work!

  9. I’ve definitely noticed a trend that schools are becoming more supportive of divergent thinking than when I was in school. In the 70’s and 80’s the Socrates method of teaching was nearly universal, but we’re developing other ways to look at education – Montessori, kinetic learning, the “new math” – it’s a step in the right direction (I think).

  10. I see the increasing trend towards linear or convergent thinking in the recent debut by Lego of Lego Friends for Girls and the emphasis on one-solution kits. Not much gray area here. You are either pink or blue. You either complete the model in the diagram or you fail. Model making, or following directions, is interesting to many children, especially at a certain age. However, the increasing trend to market Lego (and other construction sets) as object specific kits or as gender specific toys rather than as an open-ended building sets is based mainly on the need for increased profits, not on what is best for the development for all children.

    1. did you sneak a peek at my post tomorrow? I use the Lego kits as an example – it’s almost impossible to get a box of Legos not in a kit! I checked at their store and they had 2 small boxes. Pathetic. And, I asked for something from their school / educational division – they said it was all online and you had to prove you were a teacher. Really? How is that in the best interests of kids?

      1. The Lego Girls series is going to be the same way as all the sets in the stores. My boys have legos and Trios… they make the “design” once then once that gets broke down the pieces get incorporated into the herd and they start making creative things with them. From what I’ve seen the Lego Friends won’t even have the flexibility to create new things, it’s essentially a doll house in legos.

        I love this article and will be sharing this series with my staff. My hope is that all the preschool teachers can start to push up the convergent thinking and reverse some of the push down academics.

  11. This is great, and provides some words and explanations for concepts that have been in my head for a long time. My overall disdain for, and concern with, the style of public education led to me searching out alternative options for schooling, because I didn’t want my bright, sensitive, creative son forced to lose his lateral thinking and problem solving approach to life. He starts at a Steiner Waldorf school this year.

    One of the best statements I’ve heard to come out of that style of education is the school principal saying: “I was at a conference for educators, and there was a lot of debate about school curriculum. Someone said, ‘We just need to decide on one curriculum that we can teach at every school.’ My response was to say, ‘We don’t teach curriculum. We teach children.'”

  12. This is a great post and I’ll be sharing it on my page—- I know there are some folks that disagree with the Montessori Method but I happen to love it- and one of the reasons is that I feel that it encourages divergent, innovative, experientially-based thinking. I love the idea that my kids don’t learn off of a chalkboard but through their hands. Great post!

  13. Put me down for the Divergent Thinking method! This is what creates leaders, inventors, innovators and people with creativity. I guess you CAN teach creativity! (or not kill it!).

  14. I always thought this was over-thinking a question (I do it all the time) and have always thought I was insane for not seeing only one answer (still do). Not much in this world is definite to me – do you think it’s just a way of thinking – black & white vs black/white/gray?

    Love this post!

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