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Divergent & Convergent Thinking

Divergent thinking has been hot recently.  But it's part of a bigger picture.  Here's a brief explanation of the difference between divergent and convergent thinking--and a model for how they best work together.

With convergent thinking, we begin with pieces of information, and we converge around a solution.  Information might be a question, a problem, pieces of evidence, or data.  Most math problems require convergent thinking; they offer pieces of information, and you arrive at a single conclusion.

Divergent thinking works in the opposite direction:

With divergent thinking, we begin with a prompt, and we generate many solutions.  Examples of prompts that stimulate divergent thinking include: How many uses can you find for a paperclip?  Tell me a story about a rabbit.  What might be challenging about being the president?

Notably, divergent thinking can be taught, practiced and improved.  I'll post more about this in the future.  For information about measuring divergent thinking see this post on four ways to measure creativity.

Note, however, that while some people refer to divergent thinking synonymously with creativity, it's not the same as creativity.  (Similarly, convergent thinking is not the same as critical thinking.)  Creativity--meaningful creative work--happens when divergent production is measured against criteria, when we assess the value of divergent solutions against certain standards:

This is the combination of creativity and critical thinking.  This is also the key to assessing creative work.  If we can identify the characteristics of a good solution, then we can measure the value of each response, however different and original they may be.

If someone uses a paperclip to unlock a door when he or she has forgotten his or her key, then we recognize both the divergent thinking (using the paperclip in a new way) and the convergent production (lock + paperclip + jiggling the paperclip a certain way + pulling on the door = open door).  Similarly, if someone artistically bends the paperclip into the shape of a hummingbird, then we recognize the divergent thinking of the artist (using the paperclip to make art) and we and the artist use convergent thinking to assess the results (it has recognizable and elegant wings, eyes, beak and tail).

In these ways, convergent thinking can produce new ideas scientifically, and divergent thinking can produce new ideas artistically.  The best artists and scientists combine convergent and divergent together to produce meaningful art and creative science.
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