Examples | Convergent vs divergent thinking | Why divergent thinking is important | Why convergent thinking is also important | How to help children improve divergent thinking
What Is Divergent Thinking?
Divergent thinking is a style of thinking that generates a range of alternative solutions or ideas to a problem that has multiple answers. Although it does not equal creativity, divergent thinking is often used as an indicator of an individual’s creativity1.
This thinking style is non-binary and more explorative in nature. Divergent thinking (proposed by J. P. Guilford2) is sometimes referred to as lateral thinking (proposed by Edward de Bono)3.
Creativity is commonly assessed through divergent thinking tests because divergent thinking is a tangible quality that can be quantified and evaluated. The belief is that coming up with multiple new ideas is a creative process that often leads to unique solutions and creative ideas, both of which are characteristics of creativity4. It is, therefore, one of the most studied aspects of creativity.
Divergent thinking examples
One example of divergent thinking is the use of a paper clip. Most people can come up with 10-15 uses for a paper clip, but a divergent thinker may come up with many more—upwards of 200 different ideas!5
Another example that demonstrates the divergent thought process is a brainstorming session. In the session, a list of possible solutions to an open-ended problem is created in a spontaneous, free-flowing manner. The goal is to generate as many ideas on a particular subject as possible. In this simple process, unexpected connections are often found within a short period of time.
Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking
The opposite of divergent thinking is convergent thinking. If divergent thinking is all about coming up with creative solutions to a particular problem, convergent thinking is about evaluating a problem and coming up with a single correct answer6.
In simple terms, a basic math problem (e.g. 1+1=2) is a convergent thinking task. You follow the logical steps in mathematics to arrive at the one answer.
In contrast, some math word problems require you to consider different aspects of the problem or additional solutions using divergent thinking.
To succeed in school, our kids must have both convergent and divergent thinking7.
Why Divergent Thinking is Important
Most of the greatest and most successful thinkers in the world have had to engage in high levels of divergent thinking. Thinking divergently is how innovative solutions are found, how scientific discoveries are stumbled upon, and how complex problems are solved10.
Creativity is the human ability or skill to think up something new and unique11.
Children who score high on divergent-thinking tests tend to be able to come up with more unique ideas. They are better at creative problem solving by seeking original solutions to reach goals, and they are more inclined toward higher-level, evaluative thinking12.
Studies have found that individual differences in divergent thinking are an important factor in determining if one will be a creative problem solver regardless of a person’s intelligence and expertise13.
Divergent thinking is most definitely something we want our kids to be good at.
Why convergent thinking is also important
Despite society’s favorable attitudes towards creativity, convergent thinking strategies should not be abandoned.
Innovators rely on divergent thinking to generate great ideas and convergent thinking to evaluate the ideas’ practicality.
Creativity isn’t just about thinking divergently. A convergent thinking approach is also an important aspect of creativity. To be effectively creative, one needs both types of thinking.
How To Help Children Develop Divergent Thinking
If you think of your little children, you may realize that in many ways, they are naturally divergent thinkers. Most children are innately creative.
Children engage in creative thinking to a very high degree. In their early years, imaginative play is the dominant type of play they engage in8. 98% of kindergartners engage in “genius” levels of divergent thinking. However, by the time they are 8-10 years old, that number drops to about 50%9.
You have probably noticed that in your own life, your creative performance and divergent thinking ability are relatively low.
After all, so much of adult life is about structure, coming up with concrete solutions to problems, and thinking in more black-and-white terms. We tend to lose that out-of-the-box thinking the older we get.
The good news is, that there are things that parents can do to help their children improve their creativity. Here are some tips to help your child develop divergent thoughts.
Ask open-ended questions
Ask your child open-ended questions.
In a school environment, students are often instructed to find one right answer to a problem. This is called a closed problem. Closed problems do not allow for divergent ideas.
Open-ended problems, on the other hand, can be solved in many different ways. They promote thinking from different perspectives allowing for creative solutions to be developed by combining previously learned knowledge14.
Encourage social pretend play
In pretend play, children act out fantasies or make-believe scenarios. They make up and act out storylines that are not real. It can be done alone or in groups.
Playing pretend in early childhood is associated with creativity and divergent thinking, but only in a social setting where play happens in a group. Hence, encourage your child to play pretend in a group environment to foster divergent thinking15.
Do not demand blind obedience
Suppose your child finds a few dirty rocks in a park and asks to take them home. The first thing you might think is that they’re too dirty, and you don’t want them in your home.
However, your child may see things quite differently. When given the chance, they may paint them to make pet rocks, build a rock garden, decorate the yard, etc.
If they insist on bringing the rocks home, you may be upset about their noncompliance.
Creativity and obedience are often at odds.
Children with creative personalities are often not appreciated by adults. Usually, creative thinkers are playful, stubborn, emotional, open, and can be discouraged and thought of as disruptive16.
When we command blind obedience from our children, we are teaching them to accept only one solution, the one their parents have approved, which is the antithesis of divergent thinking.
In order for our children to develop divergent thinking skills, we must give them the freedom to explore the world on their terms whenever it’s safe to do so.
Teach how to question assumptions properly
Creative people are able to question assumptions and challenge the norm17.
In many ways, it is our job to teach our kids to think in an organized and compliant way. We want them to listen and obey instructions. For example, we want them to understand the rules of solving math problems, and how to properly sound out words when learning to read.
But if you want to cultivate an “out-of-the-box” type of thinking in your kids, allow them to question assumptions and hone their critical thinking skills. Being able to challenge the norm not only fosters divergent thinking but also teaches kids how to analyze problems.
Nevertheless, not demanding blind obedience does not mean encouraging defiance. Children must also obey when necessary, like in situations involving safety or health.
Learn a second language
Learning a second language in the early years may help foster divergent thinking.
Studies have found that children who learn a second language in elementary school years have more flexible and divergent thinking than those who speak only one language18.
Humor and happy music to create happiness
Research finds that positive mood enhances divergent thinking, whereas negative mood inhibits it19.
So listening to happy music20 or being immersed in a humorous environment21 is associated with more creativity in terms of divergent thinking.
Another way to promote divergent thinking relating to one’s emotional state is the practice of meditation. Meditation, commonly used in Buddhist meditation practices, has been found to improve one’s mood scores and thereby enhance divergent thinking22.
Improvising (improv) is the act of generating ideas spontaneously on the spot without the benefit of planning or refining beforehand. Improvisation has been found to be strongly related to divergent thoughts.
Children can practice improvisation in many ways.
Improvisation options for children include verbal games that require them to invent new words spontaneously23, improvisation theatre, improvising dance classes24, and unscripted art projects25.
Get adequate Sleep
Sleep deprivation – even short-term, such as one night – can hinder our ability to think divergently. A well-rested body and mind are essential for coming up with flexible strategies and generating original ideas.
Scientists have found that loss of sleep adversely affects divergent thinking tasks, but not convergent thinking tasks26.
Final thoughts on divergent thinking
We all want our children to be successful, both in school, and as they venture out into the world. Being a strong lateral thinker is crucial to our children’s success. As parents, our instincts are often to try to get our kids to think in more linear, organized ways. But if we recognize that our children’s innate divergent thinking is a gift and an asset, we can begin to nurture it and encourage our children to become creative thinkers.
- 1.Silvia PJ, Winterstein BP, Willse JT, et al. Assessing creativity with divergent thinking tasks: Exploring the reliability and validity of new subjective scoring methods. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Published online May 2008:68-85. doi:10.1037/1931-3822.214.171.124
- 2.Guilford JP. Creative abilities in the arts. Psychological Review. Published online 1957:110-118. doi:10.1037/h0048280
- 3.De Bono E, Zimbalist E. Lateral Thinking. Penguin; 1970.
- 4.Runco MA, Acar S. Divergent Thinking as an Indicator of Creative Potential. Creativity Research Journal. Published online January 2012:66-75. doi:10.1080/10400419.2012.652929
- 5.Robinson K. Changing Education Paradigms. .; 2010.
- 6.Colzato LS, Ozturk A, Hommel B. Meditate to Create: The Impact of Focused-Attention and Open-Monitoring Training on Convergent and Divergent Thinking. Front Psychology. Published online 2012. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00116
- 7.Mann EL. Mathematical creativity and school mathematics: Indicators of mathematical creativity in middle school students. Presented at: University of Connecticut; 2005.
- 8.Russ SW, Wallace CE. Pretend play and creative processes. American Journal of Play. 2013;6(1):136–148.
- 9.Abbasi K. A riot of divergent thinking. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2011;104(10):391-391.
- 10.Runco MA. Divergent Thinking. Ablex Publishing; 1991.
- 11.Kwon ON, Park JH, Park JS. Cultivating divergent thinking in mathematics through an open-ended approach. Asia Pacific Educ Rev. Published online July 2006:51-61. doi:10.1007/bf03036784
- 12.Brophy DR. Comparing the Attributes, Activities, and Performance of Divergent, Convergent, and Combination Thinkers. Creativity Research Journal. Published online October 2001:439-455. doi:10.1207/s15326934crj1334_20
- 13.Runco MA, Okuda SM. Problem discovery, divergent thinking, and the creative process. J Youth Adolescence. Published online June 1988:211-220. doi:10.1007/bf01538162
- 14.Becker JP, Shimada S. Presented at: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; 1997; 1906 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191-1593.
- 15.Johnson JE. RELATIONS OF DIVERGENT THINKING AND INTELLIGENCE TEST SCORES WITH SOCIAL AND NONSOCIAL MAKE-BELIEVE PLAY OF PRESCHOOL CHILDREN. ETS Research Bulletin Series. Published online June 1976:i-16. doi:10.1002/j.2333-8504.1976.tb01089.x
- 16.ALJUGHAIMAN A, MOWRER-REYNOLDS E. Teachers’ Conceptions of Creativity and Creative Students. The Journal of Creative Behavior. Published online March 2005:17-34. doi:10.1002/j.2162-6057.2005.tb01247.x
- 17.Sternberg RJ, Williams WM. How to develop student creativity. In: ; 1996.
- 18.Landry RG. A Comparison of Second Language Learners and Monolinguals on Divergent Thinking Tasks at the Elementary School Level. The Modern Language Journal. Published online January 1974:10. doi:10.2307/323983
- 19.Vosburg SK. The Effects of Positive and Negative Mood on Divergent-Thinking Performance. Creativity Research Journal. Published online April 1998:165-172. doi:10.1207/s15326934crj1102_6
- 20.Ritter SM, Ferguson S. Happy creativity: Listening to happy music facilitates divergent thinking. Windmann S, ed. PLoS ONE. Published online September 6, 2017:e0182210. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0182210
- 21.Ziv A. The influence of humorous atmosphere on divergent thinking. Contemporary Educational Psychology. Published online January 1983:68-75. doi:10.1016/0361-476x(83)90035-8
- 22.Capurso V, Fabbro F, Crescentini C. Mindful creativity: the influence of mindfulness meditation on creative thinking. Front Psychol. Published online 2014. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.01020
- 23.Lewis C, Lovatt PJ. Breaking away from set patterns of thinking: Improvisation and divergent thinking. Thinking Skills and Creativity. Published online August 2013:46-58. doi:10.1016/j.tsc.2013.03.001
- 24.Sowden PT, Clements L, Redlich C, Lewis C. Improvisation facilitates divergent thinking and creativity: Realizing a benefit of primary school arts education. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Published online May 2015:128-138. doi:10.1037/aca0000018
- 25.Beaty RE, Benedek M, Silvia PJ, Schacter DL. Creative Cognition and Brain Network Dynamics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Published online February 2016:87-95. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.10.004
- 26.Horne JA. Sleep Loss and “Divergent” Thinking Ability. Sleep. Published online September 1988:528-536. doi:10.1093/sleep/11.6.528