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How to Teach Convergent and Divergent Thinking: Definitions, Examples, Templates and More

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  • Teaching Strategies
Not all problems require the same approach. For many students, knowing how to tackle certain problems starts by recognizing when to apply convergent and divergent thinking.To help you effectively teach and reinforce these strategies, this convergent and divergent thinking guide will explain and explore:Read through it, and then reference it as you integrate both thinking methods into your lessons.

The definitions of convergent and divergent thinking

Convergent and divergent thinking are opposites, but both have places in your daily lessons. American psychologist JP Guilford coined the terms in the 1950s, which take their names from the problem solving processes they describe. Convergent thinking involves starting with pieces of information, converging around a solution.

A convergent thinking diagram demonstrates the process of starting with information, analyzing that information to converge on a solution.

As you can infer, it emphasizes finding the single, optimal solution to a given problem and usually demands thinking at the first or second Depth of Knowledge (DoK) level. Determining the correct answer to a multiple choice question is an example. The nature of the question does not demand creativity, but inherently encourages the student to consider the veracity of each provided answer before selecting the single correct one. Typically, he or she must apply a limited range of skills and knowledge to reach this answer quickly. This mirrors many out-of-school scenarios, wherein someone must use all the information available to him or her to make a decision.Divergent thinking, on the other hand, starts with a prompt that encourages students to think critically, diverging towards distinct answers.

A divergent thinking diagram illustrates how you, as the teacher, give students a broad prompt to encourage the generation of many solutions.

As you can see, the prompts -- in the form of guiding questions -- are open-ended and typically require thinking at the third, or even fourth, Depth of Knowledge level. Writing an essay and brainstorming are examples of exercises that demand divergent thinking. Creativity plays an important role, as students should usually reach an answer they did not anticipate upon processing the prompt. This is because the prompt should encourage them to analyze content and generate their own ideas to arrive at a range of plausible solutions. This mirrors real-life situations in which students face a broad problem without much information. Now that you understand convergent and divergent thinking, you’re probably curious about the kinds of questions that incite each strategy.

Examples of convergent vs. divergent questions

Like most teaching tasks, writing convergent and divergent questions is easier said than done. Use these examples as templates, and to guide your creation of content-appropriate convergent and divergent questions:

Convergent question example

Divergent question example

What are the components of [animal]’s diet?What might happen to [region]’s ecosystem if [animal]s were [carn/herb/omn]ivores instead of [carn/herb/omn]ivores?
There’s extensive debate in the scientific community about [phenomenon]. What are the primary reasons for [phenomenon]?Suppose that [phenomenon] never occurred. How would life within [community/region/country] function differently today?
What are the short-term causes of [historical event], which originated outside of the country where it occurred?Suppose that [causes of historical event] were actually addressed by [world leader]. What might have happened differently in [historical event]?
Reflecting on [book/play] in its entirety, what are the main reasons why [character] decided to [verb] [context]?Reflecting on [book/play] in its entirety, what might have happened if [character] decided to [verb] [context] earlier in the story?
Ms. G wants her regional government to offer [government function], and doesn’t mind paying more tax dollars to make it happen. Based on the lessons you’ve learned in this social studies class, which two parties are her best options?Ms. G wants her regional government to offer [government function]. The current government currently does not do this, but how could it adjust its budget to offer [government function]?
Mr. A wants to accomplish [goal] by [action]. Which mathematical principles should he use to determine the most efficient method of completing [action]?Mr. A wants to accomplish [goal]. How could he go about completing this [goal] in the most efficient manner possible? Support your argument using appropriate calculations and mathematical principles.
Although it’s likely these convergent and divergent question examples aren’t completely applicable to you, they should -- at the very least -- give you a clear idea about how to structure your own questions.

How to write original convergent and divergent questions

A teacher sits at his desk, writing convergent and divergent questions to present to his students.

Using the above examples as inspiration, keep these tips in mind to create your own convergent and divergent questions:
  • Focus on the beginning -- Before you get into the nitty gritty of crafting a question, you should understand that the first few words are the most important. That’s because they’ll largely deem what kind of responses you’ll receive. Convergent questions typically start with “who,” “what,” “where” or “when.” Divergent questions usually begin with “how could,” “what might” or “suppose.”
  • Search far and wide for the answers -- Validating a question starts by finding answers. You shouldn’t have a tough time answering convergent questions. Flipping through a textbook, lesson notes or an online resource should yield a clear answer. On the other hand, you shouldn’t find a definitive answer to a divergent question through such research methods. You’re encouraging students to deliver original responses born from critical thinking, after all.
  • Make convergent questions before divergent ones -- If you struggle to brainstorm divergent questions, start with convergent questions. Often, the process of writing three to four convergent questions will allow you to combine them into a divergent one. Consider the notion that divergent queries begin with phrases such as “suppose.” Answering a “suppose” question comes from understanding “what,” “who” and the answers to other convergent questions.
With examples in your toolbox -- and tips about how to create your own questions -- you need to consider the appropriate times to ask them.

When, and how, to give opportunities for convergent and divergent thinking

A teacher stands at a whiteboard after presenting a math equation, choosing which student will attempt to answer the question.

During lessons, before study times and at the conclusions of entire units, opportunities to spur and assess convergent and divergent thinking will present themselves. Here are four opportunities to encourage convergent thinking, and how to do so:

1. You’re in the middle of a math lesson, and arrive at a word problem. Don’t immediately start the problem-solving process. Instead, walk through the wording with students before giving them five minutes of independent work. Using their notes and textbooks for reference, they can determine the functions needed to solve the problem.

2. The content you’re delivering in history, social studies or language arts class is broad enough that you anticipate students will struggle to process it. As a quick differentiated instruction exercise, provide a physical timeline and list of events to small groups of students. Ask them to pin the events to the timeline, aiding contextualization.

3. You’re giving a lecture-style lesson, and want to avoid providing a solution without giving students a chance to answer the question. But they’re struggling to respond. To enable convergent thinking, present potential answers in a multiple-choice style fashion. “Who wrote [text]? Was it [author], [author] or [author]?”

4. It’s the end of a unit. To review content in preparation for an assessment, ask students to summarize aspects of the unit. For example, “List x ways to apply y skill.” Or, “In what ways did [person] accomplish [goal].” If you provide a high number of such tasks, you can run a jigsaw activity, allowing students to work together to review key material.

Here are four opportunities to encourage divergent thinking, and how to do so:

1. You’re reading a play or novel as a class, and the protagonist faces a major problem. Before learning how he overcomes it, ask the class to think of as many solutions as possible. You can run this as a think-pair-share activity. Specifically, students can individually think of solutions, pair with one another to exchange ideas and then share these ideas with the class.

2. Running through new math problems as a class, you present a broad word problem that’s rooted in skills students already have. Instead of immediately solving the question, give them 15 minutes to find as many methods of solving it as possible. After, hold a class discussion to share responses.

3. Your class has made it to the end of a history or social studies unit. They have a fresh, firm grasp on the unit’s content, meaning it’s an ideal time to pose a query that demands divergent thinking. Ask them what they believe would have happened if a given figure had done y instead of x. Individually, or as a small group, students should write a short paper on potential outcomes and impacts.

4. Students are a week or two away from starting a written assessment. Why not prepare them with a formative assessment? Simply give them a mock essay question that deals with similar subject matter, helping them study as they investigate different responses.

Although you can use them separately, convergent and divergent thinking aren’t mutually exclusive.

A diagram demonstrates how students can use divergent and convergent thinking together, starting with a prompt to generate many solutions and subsequently measuring those solutions against relevant information.

This is because divergent thinking can lead in to convergent thinking. Consider asking a question such as, “Suppose Bilbo Baggins didn’t pick up the Ring when he first had the chance. How might his encounter with Gollum have been different? What are some potential outcomes?” Students who have a firm grasp of The Hobbit would likely generate many ideas from this divergent question. This opens the door to asking a convergent question as a follow-up. For example, “Based on the different outcomes you envisioned, which one is the most probable? Why?”Linking the two thinking styles in this manner can prepare students to write essays and tackle open-ended projects, as well as out-of-school dilemmas in which they must choose the single-best course of action.

Final thoughts

Developing strong commands of convergent and divergent thinking should empower students to tackle challenging problems, in and out of the classroom. What’s more, being able to use the thinking styles -- independently and together -- is critical in many projects, group activities and forms of assessment. This is why it’s crucial to provide opportunities to apply convergent and divergent thinking, while offering scaffolding and supplementary instruction.Reading and referencing this guide is only a first step, albeit an important one.
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