5 Techniques to Promote Divergent Thinking

Encouraging students to generate many solutions to a particular problem leads to more creative thinking and better problem-solving.

April 12, 2023
Johner Images / Alamy

Service robots. ChatGPT. Drone deliveries. In a constantly evolving world, the ability to think creatively and divergently is no longer a nice-to-have attribute but an essential skill. That’s why creativity, problem-solving, and innovation are among the top 10 most critical skills of the future, according to the World Economic Forum.

With the rise of new technologies that excel at convergent thinking, it’s becoming increasingly clear that schools must prioritize divergent thinking in students to equip them for a future of unpredictable challenges and opportunities.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking

The concept of divergent thinking was founded by psychologist J. P. Guilford in 1956. Divergent thinking is the process of generating many different ideas and possibilities in an open-ended, spontaneous, and free-flowing manner. Typically, students have been trained to find the most direct path to one “right” solution. This is called convergent thinking.

However, most problems don’t have just one solution. Divergent thinking allows students to see a problem or concept from many perspectives and helps them generate numerous viable solutions, fostering innovation and creativity. Plus, because there’s no right or wrong answer, it encourages open-mindedness, leading to better solutions.

5 Techniques That Foster Divergent Thinking

1. SCAMPER is a creative thinking strategy that generates new ideas for students by asking questions to make them think about modifying and improving existing products, projects, or ideas. SCAMPER is an acronym for substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate, and rearrange.

I use the SCAMPER technique to foster divergent thinking by challenging students to develop new ideas for the work they are already doing.

For example, a few days after assigning a project, paper, or long-term assignment, I like to use this digital SCAMPER sheet to walk students through the process of SCAMPER, so that they take the time to look at what they are doing through a new lens. Students record their answers and then use the sheet to guide them to modify and improve the ideas or concepts they are working on.

2. Mind mapping uses visual diagrams to connect and organize information. It’s an effective way to promote divergent thinking and creativity in the classroom, as students have to think of how their learning connects. I use mind mapping to help students generate new ideas, explore different angles of a topic, or review how the material they are learning builds and connects.

To create a mind map, students start with a central topic and branch out with related ideas and subtopics, using different colors, shapes, and images to differentiate between them. Mind mapping uses keywords or short phrases and connects related ideas with lines or arrows.

Students can do mind mapping individually or in groups. Mind mapping fits in well as a review at the end of a lesson or the end of a unit, promoting retention and comprehension of information. I like giving students a choice when mind mapping using a digital template like this or drawing their own using colored pencils and paper.

3. Brainwriting is similar to brainstorming and is used to help at the beginning of a project or assignment. Brainwriting encourages shy or introverted students to express their thoughts by writing them down. Brainwriting also enables students to take their time to formulate ideas and build on suggestions made by others.

One popular form of brainwriting I use in class is the 6-3-3 exercise. This exercise has students get into groups of up to six participants and write down three ideas each on a piece of paper or sticky notes within three minutes. Once finished, students swap the pieces of paper and read what another participant came up with before adding three more ideas to what they read.

After students have added to the new ideas they received, the group discusses and considers all ideas and agrees upon the next steps for their project or assignment. Brainwriting is an excellent way to foster creativity in the classroom and encourage participation from all students.

4. Reverse brainstorming calls on students to brainstorm ways to make a problem worse or create more related issues. Doing this activity in class helps students identify potential obstacles and encourages critical thinking skills. I use this approach to engage students and generate new ideas in the classroom for planning a project or a paper, or before starting an assignment.

To start reverse brainstorming, I present a problem or challenge to the students and give them 5 minutes to create ways to worsen the situation. For example, I might ask students how to plan a research paper due in the coming weeks or question the wrong way to start a problem. Students then create a list of ways that would make the problem worse and explain why.

This allows students to identify potential roadblocks they may not have previously considered before starting a problem and helps them develop solutions to overcome barriers. Plus, it gets students talking about common misconceptions and errors when deciding how to tackle a problem.

5. What-if scenario planning involves having students imagine different scenarios and consider their potential outcomes. To use this technique in the classroom, I start by presenting a plan or problem to the students. Then, I ask students to imagine different what-if scenarios, such as “What if the problem were solved differently?” or “What if the situation were completely different?”

This technique allows students to consider a range of possible outcomes. It also allows them to look at content in new ways, from historical events to math problems. It’s a compelling way to promote critical thinking skills. What-if scenario planning is also an effective way to build students’ confidence in their ability to approach problems from different angles, which can be a valuable skill for future success.

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By honing divergent thinking skills, students can tackle complex problems head-on and develop innovative solutions that keep pace with technological change. After all, the future belongs to those who can think differently and develop game-changing ideas.

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  • Creativity
  • Critical Thinking
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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