Guide to Teaching Convergent and Divergent Thinking

Published: Jan. 24, 2019, 9:44 a.m.

What is Convergent and Divergent Thinking?

Convergent and divergent thinking are valuable tools in the classroom, but the concept didn’t start in the classroom. It started in the discipline of psychology. The terms convergent and divergent thinking came from American psychologist JP Guilford in the 1950s. Guilford's theory of the structure of human intellect identified three factors of intelligence that help define a person’s overall intellectual ability. The three factors (or dimensions) of intelligence are operations, content, and products.

The Operation Dimension

The terms convergent and divergent thinking are derived from the original five kinds of operations (or intellectual processes) within the operations dimension of intelligence developed by Guilford: Convergent production (now called convergent thinking) means taking pieces of information to arrive at a single solution. Norman Webb developed a hierarchy of cognitive complexity when it comes to performing assessments. According to Webb, information falls within four distinct depths of knowledge (DoK) or levels of cognitive complexity that students should know: Since convergent thinking primarily deals with arriving at a single possible response to a solution, you can expect assessments (in PA the PSAA or in HI the EOC) asking questions requiring convergent thinking to focus on the first (or second) DoK level. Determining the correct answer to a multiple-choice question is a primary example of convergent thinking because it requires students to focus on recalling information or a specific skill/concept. Multiple-choice questions require students to examine the accuracy of all response choices before selecting the one which best provides a plausible solution to the problem. These types of questions require limited skills and virtually no creativity to arrive at a plausible response. Study tools used to foster convergent thinking are memorization techniques (i.e., mnemonic devices), flash cards, and practice drill questions. Convergent thinking involves taking pieces to create the whole, which means students take concepts and materials from a variety of sources to formulate a single response. There is no room for exploring other possibilities because the pieces that lead to the single response will guide the students only one plausible solution. Therefore, learning occurs in a direct path because students are being guided to arrive at a definite, single answer. In contrast, divergent thinking gives students a prompt that allows students to use critical thinking skills to generate possible responses. It promotes risk-taking in the classroom, which allows for more flexibility in the classroom because it allows students to use their imagination. For example, a classroom environment that teaches divergent thinking will be one that encourages imaginary play and a variety of projects that promote creativity. The types of questions that are created when promoting divergent thinking will be focused on prompts that act as guiding questions to generate open-ended responses. These responses will focus on students operating within the third (or fourth) DoK. For example, instead of giving students a multiple-choice test on the US Civil War, students can be given an essay question that allows them to explore a variety of factors that lead to the US Civil War. Now, students can explore information that may not have been in their textbook to help formulate plausible responses to the problem. Therefore, using an essay test on the US Civil War in lieu of a multiple-choice test allows students to ponder answers they may not have considered if given a test requiring only one correct response or mere recall of textbook information. This is because the essay topic encourages students to analyse all information they have gathered on the US Civil War—from the textbook and other experiences—to formulate their own possible responses.

  1. Cognition- The ability to interpret, understand, become aware and discover.
  2. Memory- The ability to store information and recall information.
  3. Divergent Production- The process of creating multiple solutions to a problem
  4. Convergent Production- The process of arriving at a single solution to a problem.
  5. Evaluation- The process of determining whether an answer is valid, consistent or correct.
  • Level 1 – Recall & Reproduction
  • Level 2 – Working with Skills & Concepts
  • Level 3 – Short-term Strategic Thinking
  • Level 4 – Extended Strategic Thinking

A Note on Convergent vs. Divergent Questions

It’s not as easy as it sounds to come up with questions that are undoubtedly promoting convergent or divergent thinking.  However, there are two important points to keep in mind when formulating your questions concerning convergent and divergent thinking. For starters, convergent questions will be those that require a single response or answer. Divergent questions are open-ended questions by nature since they promote the discovery of multiple plausible responses or answers to a problem. They also promote increased student engagement in classroom learning.

How to write original convergent and divergent questions

Keeping in mind the above examples of convergent and divergent questions, you can employ these tips to help you formulate your own: *For example, you may discover how three or four convergent questions could be combined to ask a divergent question. *For example, “suppose” questions take into consideration the “who” and “what” concerning a given topic.   Now, let’s look at the context in which to present convergent and divergent questions.

  • Search far and wide for the answers — To verify a response to a problem, you start by looking for possible answers. Convergent questions should be easy to formulate keeping this in mind because there is only one plausible answer that can be derived from the textbook,  lesson outline or class notes. Since divergent questions require strategic thinking, there are other possibilities to be explored outside the textbook and other class materials since students get an opportunity to explore their creativity.
  • Focus on the beginning — The way your question is worded will say a lot about how the question is to be answered. For instance, you can anticipate convergent questions to start with terms like “what,” “who,” “when” or “where.” Divergent questions typically start with terms like “suppose,” “pretend,” “what might” or “how could.”
  • Make convergent questions before divergent ones* — Sometimes, the best way to arrive at good divergent questions is to start with convergent questions on the topic.

Appropriate Classroom Opportunities for Convergent and Divergent Thinking

The appropriate classroom situations for promoting convergent and divergent thinking are during the introduction of a learning unit, during practice or study situations and at the end of a learning unit. Here are four opportunities to promote convergent thinking: Here are four opportunities to promote divergent thinking: *For example, a topic may have three sub-topics that can each be divided into two more points. Students engage in extended strategic thinking when they take these visual cues and turn them into separate paragraphs within their essay. There will be three main paragraphs (the body of the essay), and each of these paragraphs would cover two key details.

  1. The lesson unit on World War I will cover material that students may have a problem with piecing together. Because of this, you can give students an interactive timeline to help them keep track of key events. The class can be divided into small groups to complete their group timeline for the unit.
  2. Help your students arrive at the correct answer to a word problem by allowing them to see how key terms within the word problem help reveal the mathematical equation(s) involved in solving the problem. Then, once students can identify the mathematical equation(s) required of the word problem, they can solve the problem on their own. Information from their textbook and the class notes can aid in formulating the answer.
  3. During a discussion on the plot of a short story, you want students to have the opportunity to discuss important events in the story without giving the plot away yourself. To foster convergent thinking, prompt students with questions asking “who” performed significant events in the story, “where” did key events take place and “when” key events take place in the plot structure.
  4. It’s the end of a unit. You want your students to review for their unit test. You can have students play a Jeopardy-style game that allows them to recall key terms and concepts that will be covered on the assessment.
  5. Brainstorming. Brainstorming is by far one of the most ideal divergent thinking techniques done in today’s classroom because it allows students to come up with multiple responses within a short timeframe. Students engage in short term strategic thinking (DoK level 3) to accumulate ideas. All ideas are documented during the brainstorming process are kept and referred to when determining which ideas will be selected.
  6. Journaling. Maintaining a journal can also be considered a brainstorming technique often employed outside of the classroom environment. The journal is the place where people make note of spontaneous ideas, thought clusters, and other pointers that can be transformed into books later. This is a common technique used during the prewriting stage that aids in organizing and expounding on existing information. The next opportunity, freewriting, is often considered a basic form of journaling.
  7. Freewriting. This technique involves students writing nonstop about a topic within a selected timeframe. Freewriting is often called a brainstorming technique because all ideas are considered and not thrown out until all information has been reviewed. The goal is to produce uninterrupted creativity since attention to grammatical and semantic errors are ignored during this process. Once students are able to review their generated material, they are able to organize and rearrange their material into logical patterns or clusters.
  8. Mind or Subject Mapping.* This is where brainstorming is visually represented in a map or other type of image. The topic (or problem) has branches stemming from it that represent various aspects of the topic (or problem). Now, students have a visual cue to use to further develop their ideas (extended strategic thinking, remember?).

The Complementary Nature of Convergent and Divergent Thinking

To put it simply, divergent thinking unfolds and broadens; convergent thinking narrows down and focuses, filtering the set of creative options to identify and clarify the next step.  Although we have discussed convergent and divergent thinking in this guide as separate terms, they aren’t mutually exclusive. As stated earlier, convergent thinking can lead to divergent thinking, but the opposite is also true in some instances. For example, when recalling what item a certain character bought from the old library that led him on a scary adventure, you could get students to perform divergent thinking by having them ponder how things might have been different if the character had chosen to buy an item that did not have the same type of magical ties as the original object chosen. Your question could begin like, “How might Jonathan’s adventure been different if the item he bought from the old library did not have ties to an old house with a haunted history?” You could also get students to explain reasons why Jonathan may not have had an adventure at all had he chosen certain types of objects to buy from the old library. Now, you can transform their brainstorming into convergent thinking by having them select the scenario that would have most likely happened if Jonathan had not chosen the object connected to a haunted house. Thus, the complementary nature of convergent and divergent thinking allows students to shift from mere information recall to effective essay (and other creative) writing.

Final thoughts

Promoting opportunities to engage in convergent and divergent thinking allows students to address problems both in and out of the classroom. Student-centered learning thrives in environments that make use of opportunities to use convergent and divergent thinking. Group activities and student participation opportunities are more successful when the learning environment has an interplay with convergent and divergent thinking. Hopefully, the information in this guide has given you an insightful starting point for being more aware of how you can introduce and promote convergent and divergent thinking.