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, on the other hand, requires the individual to restrict ideas to those that might be identified as most correct, or “best” for a specific problem.
Perhaps this tendency to move away from divergent and creative thinking is due to the fact that we’re indoctrinated into an educational system that values one answer or solution, and generally frowns upon 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. In these environments, 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.
This indoctrination process seems counterintuitive to the dispositions and skillsets necessary in a digital, networked classroom. In these environments, students may often know more about technology use and need to serve as the leader of instruction. Sadly, in many learning contexts, the role of creativity, and forms of divergent thinking are often rejected in favor of playing the game and just getting through school. To break this chain and focus on developing the creative confidence of students, we need to confront and problematize their own epistemologies about teaching, learning, and society.
Constraints & limitations
Many students struggle in solving problems when not provided with any instructions, materials, directions, or examples. Yet, the research suggests that these are the elements necessary to have students initiate creative thoughts or engage in innovative, divergent thinking. It is these constraints that we meet in the problem solving process that often serve as the gateway for divergent thinking and innovation.
Haught-Tromp (2017) and Stokes (2017) discuss constraint as having two parts that include “limiting” and then “seeking something else”. Constraint is sometimes viewed as having an initial stage (the problem), search space (consideration of possible processes), and a goal state (using the most effective process to find the solution) (Newell & Simon, 1972; Haught-Tromp & Stokes, 2017). Within the search space step lies the process of substitution in which less effective strategies are replaced with more effective ones to reach the goal state. When more complex problems call for creativity, the search space is filled with multiple choices with various outcomes and organized in such a way that most effective strategies are often used first.
Fostering divergent thinking through constraints
Adding limitations or constraints to the learning or problem solving process might seem like the last thing we ever want to do. If you’ve been under a deadline for a creative project, or felt the burden of a blank page or canvas, you know the paralysis that occurs as you try to get something started. Especially if we’re guiding students or mentoring others, it might seem counterintuitive to place constraints on the process. However, by gradually embedding limitations into the process, we have an opportunity to scaffold learners and prepare them for future instances when these roadblocks arise.
To inject some constraints into the process, try out some of these strategies in your own process, or your work with others.
Constrain time. Setting a timer may be a contrived experience, but it often adds some stress to the working environment. You might try the Pomodoro Technique by using a timer and working in 25 minute blocks of time to add a limitation by timeboxing your work.
Constrain tasks. Force yourself to commit to small, achievable goals that lead up to larger goals. We often identify large goals and all of our work is conducted with an eye on completion. Force yourself to focus of the small tasks and ignore (as much as possible) the larger contexts.
Constrain focus. Limit yourself by ensuring that you focus your work by “single-tasking” like a monster. Many times in our work we multitask by having multiple browser tabs open, adding extra monitors, listening to podcasts while working, etc. Do more by doing less.
Constrain support. Constrain the amount of personnel you add to a project. Collaboration is a big key in many of my classes. Sometimes students suggest that they could have done a better job with more people on the team. Nope. Sometimes adding more cooks to the kitchen doesn’t help.
Constrain time. Add limitations, even artificial limitations to the work or problem by adding deadlines. Nothing helps motivate better than a deadline, even a self-imposed one. Identify a timeline for completion of the work, and be explicit about benchmarks and deliverables.
Constrain through cultivation. Brainstorm more and cultivate more ideas to add more “noise” to the problem solving process. Thinking through possible solutions with others often makes the work more complex, and adds layers of complexity that you wouldn’t have by working individually. Sometimes you can really innovate by thinking inside the box.
Cultivation through constraints
Educators need to identify opportunities for creativity and divergent thinking to be embedded in the classroom. However, this discussion must extend beyond formal education and consider how these experiences can shape student futures. Kim and Park (2012) identified that a “knowledge-based society should focus more on developing individuals’ diversity and creative talents capable of producing unique, practical and intelligent values rather than merely growing technicians or intellectuals” (p.115).
This causes us to question what values and systems we use to indoctrinate our youth. Do we value individuals that think in new, innovative ways or those individuals that give the correct answer without deviating from what is needed. By examining how divergent and convergent thinking are accepted in the classroom, we can better understand how students generalize their thoughts in the world.
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