How to Use Divergent Thinking to Succeed at School

Aliya Mrochuk

August 15, 2016

As a University writing tutor, the most common thing I hear from my students is, “I’m just not good at this.” At some point in the writing process they ask me to accept their apparently fatal (academic) flaws and move on. They try to tell me, as they were once told, that they simply aren’t smart enough to complete their essay.

My students’ doubts reflect a history of education that buys into the myth of innate academic ability as the sole predictor of success at school. It’s an idea that has been criticized over and over again—perhaps most famously by education adviser Sir Ken Robinson in the most viewed TED Talk of all time—but that still rings true for many students. Part of the problem is that students are often told that there is only one right answer, only one right way to get to that answer, and if you’re doing it wrong then it’s game over. In tandem with exam anxiety, this pressure paralyzes students to the point where they’re afraid to suggest any answer for fear of looking stupid.

One solution is to do away with the pressure of the perfect, singular answer with divergent thinking. In the words of Ken Robinson, “Divergent thinking is an essential capacity for creativity.” When using divergent thinking methods, the number of interpretations of and solutions for any given problem are endless. Instead of stressing about writing the perfect thesis or solving the equation in one try, divergent thinking encourages students to explore and record as many options as possible without judgement. Only once every possibility has been delved into is it time to start asking questions and using reason to narrow your focus to the best choices.

Divergent Thinking Robinson
While this sounds like a simple concept, divergent thinking goes beyond coddling students who don’t like being wrong. Statistically, students who are encouraged to use divergent thinking methods demonstrate greater confidence, improved mood, stronger academic ability, and a penchant for entrepreneurship.

According to intelligence scholar James Flynn, the effect of divergent thinking also reads on a standardized scale. Since 1930, average IQ scores across the globe have consistently increased. One explanation links this improvement to upgrades in human “mental artillery:” the ability to classify, to use logic on abstractions, and to take the hypothetical seriously. In other words, the ability to produce and analyze hypotheticals, to use divergent thinking, has helped people become better thinkers.

So, how do we teach divergent thinking?

  1. Encourage Questions. Instead of evaluating ideas as good or bad, distill the strongest solutions by asking questions about their effectiveness, their relevance to the problem, and their shortcomings.

  2. Reframe Failure. Treat failure as the middle of a healthy process, rather than the catastrophic end. As Robinson said, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

  3. Collaborate. Allow students to build off each other, combine their ideas, and foster a creative community.

  4. Think Strange. This exercise is popular amongst interviewers. Take an everyday object like a stapler or a paperclip, and ask students to think of as many unconventional uses for that object as possible. Go for quantity: nothing is too strange!

  5. Start at the End. Instead of asking students to brainstorm solutions, ask them to formulate a problem. This can be framed however you’d like—by location, demographic, subject, etc.—but work towards problems that are clear, concise and purposeful.

Good luck!

To learn more about the benefits of divergent thinking, start here: