Fostering Creativity with Divergent Thinking
The first time I ever faced a classroom of adolescents as a teacher was in the fall of 2004 in Springfield, MA, at my own old high school, in fact. As might be expected in a large urban public high school like this one, I was assigned 35 students to teach Creative Writing to, but in a room with only 30 desks! As a result, James cleverly decided to wedge himself and his notebook into a spot on a windowsill ledge in the sun, much like my cat likes to do at home.
Two free-spirited hippie types, Sharon and Sara, took it upon themselves to kick off their shoes and sit cross-legged on top of a bookcase. Meanwhile, Deirdre coyly suggested sitting on her boyfriend Corey’s lap but, in the interest of decorum, I insisted she sit at my teacher’s desk instead. Finally, late arrival Pedro quickly sized up his dilemma upon entering the crowded classroom by nonchalantly perching himself upon a clear spot on my teacher’s desk. In other words, we made the best of the situation and as is the case in large public high schools, I could expect at least five or so students would be absent on any given day so the desk shortage turned out not to be much of a problem as the school year settled in. Nonetheless, my point is that this class, the first one I taught, happened to be a Creative Writing class and from day one, teacher and students alike were forced to be adaptable, flexible, innovative, and, well, creative.
The following week, when I blithely gave out an assignment in which students were asked to write spatially organized descriptions of their bedrooms, I wound up being particularly astonished at the creativity of a boy named Angel. It turns out he actually did not have a bedroom, as he and his mother had been homeless for the last two years, spending their nights sleeping on friends’ and relatives’ couches. If ever there were a student who could’ve convinced me they were unable to complete an assignment, here he was. And yet Angel wrote one of the most amazing pieces I’ve ever read by a student. Since Angel had no bedroom of his own, he decided to pen a piece in which he first described an imaginary bedroom, then explained how this bedroom functioned as an extended metaphor for his own imagination, a place that was entirely his own and where he was in control of his ideas just as he decided how to arrange the imaginary furniture, all of which he owned himself. For instance, Angel compared those random phrases and imperfectly formed ideas that writers carry around with them that never seem to fit in their stories to being like the unmatched socks scattered around the floor of the bedroom of his imagination.
I only spent a year teaching in Springfield before taking a position at Eagle Hill but in the five years I’ve worked in Hardwick, I’ve continued to be pleasantly astonished by students’ creativity. For starters, I was impressed with how Marissa would sometimes insist on doing an assignment twice; first, the way that I expected it to be done but also the way she wanted to do it. Brendan also comes to mind, as he responded to the challenge of composing an essay about a book that changed his life (to be entered in a state-wide essay contest) by selecting a massive how-to tome that taught him advanced chess strategies, and then writing a piece where the narrative followed steps organized like the moves in a chess game between the narrator as himself in the present and as himself when he was younger (not surprisingly, Brendan wound up placing as a semi-finalist). There are many more interesting examples of my students’ creativity, so many, in fact, that I decided some time ago that one of the most important aims of my purpose as a teacher is to consistently foster students’ creativity, to strive to find ways to help them compose the symphonies and conduct the orchestras of their imaginations.
Therefore, one of the first things I like to do when assessing students I’ve never worked with before is to give two informal tests: one a basic convergence test and the other a simple divergence test. Now you may be asking, what is the difference between questions that require convergent thinking versus ones that demand divergent thinking? Well, a good example of a convergence test is any multiple choice question, such as: “When did the American Civil War end?” with the options from which to choose being a) 1860 b) 1865 c) 1879. There’s only one right answer, the other two are wrong- the objective is to give the correct answer, thereby showing one’s knowledge of the fact (it’s 1865, by the way). Most IQ tests (and certainly the entirety of an SAT or ACT test) are convergence tests. Even if a student has to puzzle something out (say, in reading comprehension), there is still only one right answer per question. However, convergence tests do not merely measure one’s ability to learn and memorize information. For instance, deduction (a la Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot & Adrian Monk) is a kind of higher order convergent thinking; similarly, everyone from physicians to auto mechanics to those who, like my mom, are obsessed with the puzzles in the Sunday paper, also relies on convergent thinking to be successful. Specifically, the convergence test I give (which is made up of two examples from Raven’s Progressive Matrices) has students trying to detect patterns using images and doesn’t require factual knowledge or even language to solve.
Meanwhile, a divergence test measures creativity so instead of converging on one specific correct answer, the test-taker is provided with one specific idea and is asked to diverge from it, in essence, to generate new ideas that are related. The one I give students comes from a chapter on intelligence called “The Trouble with Geniuses” in a recent book by journalist Malcolm Gladwell and works like this: In the time span of five minutes, list as many uses for a blanket as you can think of. (Before reading further, why not try this test on your own and see how many original uses you can come up with yourself?)
Most people will immediately think of and list some practical uses, which may result in a list of about ten uses (usual suspects include keeping things warm, comforting a baby, putting out a fire) but the truly divergent thinkers (which include many EHS students, as it turns out) can keep going and going and going. Because although blankets are bought and used for the specific purposes of keeping people warm or covering something, they could be used for many other purposes as well. If tissue is unavailable, one could conceivably use a blanket to blow one’s nose with. Or twist the end of it and use as anyone would a Q-tip. Or use as an emergency diaper for a baby. And then once the mind begins thinking of children, a flood of ideas might ensue: kids use blankets for security, but they might also drape one over a coffee table, crawl underneath and pretend they’re in a fort, they might jump-rope with a blanket or play tug-of-war with it or peek-a-boo or paint on it and voila, now the mind starts thinking of other artistic purposes- not only could a blanket be a canvas, it could be put on the floor to catch paint spills on plus drummers use blankets to muffle sound or place under their drum sets so they don’t slide across an uncarpeted floor, not to mention EHS drama teacher Harold Burnett uses blankets as props in his plays and on and on and on (all of the above, plus many others, were found on a list generated by a student of mine named Karli, a breathlessly divergent thinker who admits that without her imagination and quick ability to generate excuses, she would’ve found herself constantly in trouble as a well-meaning but rather impulsive child). Anyway, once one steps outside of the proverbial box and ceases limiting ideas to the simply practical basic uses or thinks only as one would use a blanket in their own daily life, divergent thinking truly kicks in. How would a doctor use a blanket? An auto mechanic? A priest? A criminal? A dog? Some favorite recent responses from my students that come to mind include April’s creating static electricity to shock someone or Jackson’s simply adding the blanket to one’s blanket collection. One incredibly original example that caused me to laugh out loud when I heard it came from Kevin, who pointed out that a blanket in the eyes of a bedbug amounts to a mating ground! Basically, instead of one right answer, the point is to use one’s imagination to generate ideas, to innovate, to create, to make connections, to brainstorm, to invent, to compose, to play (not that convergence thinking can’t be playful- puzzles are fun ways of using convergent thinking- only one word will fit into each block of a crossword puzzle for the puzzle to work, for example).
Nonetheless, from what I’ve seen both as a current educator and during my own time as a student, most assessment of student learning (and thereby grading and the aforementioned ACT and SAT exams, etc.) is based on convergent, only-one-right-answer (or a handful of acceptable answers, like there being several debatable causes of the Civil War) type of thinking. One of my fears is that due to our society’s current push to standardize education, we are often (directly or indirectly) discouraging or at least diminishing the capacity of students to think for themselves or to use their imaginations.
Indeed, I worry that creativity is not always as appreciated or as utilized in modern education as much as it should be. To illustrate, the Creative Writing classes offered last year were relatively under-enrolled, with one explanation being concern over how “academic” these classes might be. I understand the hesitation; even if I could assure students and parents that the Creative Writing classes at Eagle Hill are just as challenging, intellectually stimulating and rigorous as any other class we offer, there is the reality that colleges aren’t exactly demanding transcripts to be filled with Creative Writing classes. And yet what student successfully navigates the college years without exercising an ability to be adaptable, flexible, original? Could people truly be successful in any given career without not only being adaptable but also innovative and imaginative? These abilities are within each of us and yet for some students the imagination lies relatively dormant throughout the school day, perhaps even to the point where the confidence to use these skills atrophies. Just as I’ve been surprised and pleased at times by my student’s creativity, I have to say that I also often unfortunately witness students frustrated by the blank screens in front of them or turning in assignments that under-represent their original and colorful personalities. To my mind, the blank page should never hold dread but the excitement of possibility. It’s like a door one has never opened before, an ocean one has never sailed, a musical instrument or tool one has never picked up before, a classroom full of kids one is working with for the first time, etc. That said, in contrast to the frequently joyful and productive creative expressions I’ve seen of many children in elementary school, the activities of brainstorming, expressing oneself and generating ideas can be an onerous struggle for many of my high school students.
And this brings me to one question we should ask ourselves: what are we educating today’s student to be able to do in his or her future? If being creative, imaginative, innovative, and adaptable are not among the required skills students should be able to employ regularly and freely with confidence, might we be serving to cripple the minds of this generation of students, with society suffering as a result? My point here is not to simply knock the current education system or to suggest elimination of standardized tests but to ensure that we value creativity more, that we train our students to develop both their convergent and divergent thinking skills, most practically, to see to it that we balance their education in such a way that creative writing and the arts are deemed just as important as reading comprehension and math and science.
I’d like to wrap this up with two concluding ideas. The first is a true story. Several months ago, when our family was dining at a local restaurant, my daughter was given a paper placemat to busy herself with while waiting for the meal. There were illustrations to color, a word search and one particular puzzle to solve showing four images with a question printed above: “Which one of these four things does not fit?” The first image was that of an igloo, the second a snowman, the third showed a man wearing a swimsuit, goggles and flippers while holding a beach ball and the fourth was an illustration of a man wearing a snowsuit with skis. If you look at the bottom of the page, the correct answer to the puzzle is provided, which is the third picture, ostensibly because the swimmer does not fit the theme of things one would see in the winter. My daughter quickly arrived at her solution. “This is easy, Dad- it’s the first picture, the igloo, because it’s the only one not in the shape of a man!” It gives me pause when I contemplate the idea that a computer will score her ACT test one day and penalize that perfectly logical line of thinking, resulting in points taken off for an “incorrect” answer. On the other hand, I can take solace in the fact that, outside of the realm of traditional education, it is a divergent thinker’s world, and that her ability to see the world in different ways and her unorthodox intellect will be very useful to her. Of course, I’m probably preaching to the converted here, as the community reading this knows full well how diverse intelligence is. Additionally, according to author and professor Sir Ken Robinson, intelligence is not only diverse, but it is also dynamic and distinct. For more on that idea, I’d like to conclude by turning your attention to a link to a 15 minute-long video of Sir Ken Robinson lecturing at an educator’s conference in 2006, with the loaded title, “Do Schools Today Kill Creativity?” Don’t worry- as grim as that heading sounds, in my opinion, I believe you’ll find his speech to be a treat to listen to and perhaps like me, you may also actually wish it had been longer. For if anything, Robinson is an entertaining writer and public speaker- his main ideas are punctuated with colorful examples, compelling stories and frequent laugh-out loud humor. His speech is by turns captivating, witty, thought-provoking, wry, and profound. Who knows? Maybe he had a pretty good Creative Writing teacher or two somewhere along the line…