Critical Thinking/Creative Thinking

Divergent Thinking as a Path to Creative Problem-Solving

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Gina Merys, Associate Director, Reinert Center

Much of the learning students are called to do in academic courses, especially at the introductory level, focuses on convergent thinking—thinking that aims to identify one right answer. At its best, this process requires students to learn how to use logic, analyze choices, and make decisions; in essence, convergent thinking is critical thinking. While one could argue, and I often do, that convergent thinking requires a measure of creativity on the part of students, it can also be said that, on its own, convergent thinking runs the risk of moving students away from creativity into rigidity.

Partnered with convergent thinking, divergent thinking obliges students to use imagination, generate possibilities, and create solutions. At its best, it causes students to experience fluidity among answers and ways to synthesize multiple perspectives to reach a common goal. Lauded by artists, mathematicians, and executives, a pedagogy of divergent thinking is often used when looking for new ways to approach challenges.  When one examines the eight types of fluency characteristics associated with divergent thinking, as classified by Guilford in her germinal text on the subject, it is clear why this style of creative reasoning is appealing in so many different disciplines. These characteristics are as follows:

1. Ideational fluency—the ability to generate many new and different ideas in a situation relatively free of preconceived expectations and restrictions

2. Associational fluency—the ability to produce words and phrases in a new context with individual meaning by transferring vocabulary and concepts from other areas of literacy

3. Expressional fluency—the ability to disassociate from one’s perceived organizational patterns to envision another form of investigation and expression

4. Spontaneous flexibility—the ability to produce a variety of possible ideas, strategies, visual figures, calculations, etc., in the moment freely or in response to a prompt

5. Adaptive flexibility—the ability to reconstruct a problem or situation allowing for and encouraging in-depth investigation, dissection, and understanding

6. Elaboration—the ability to supply unlimited details to complete and/or expand a given outline or initial skeletal form

7. Originality—the ability to produce uncommon, remotely associated, and/or clever responses

8. Sensitivity to problems—the ability to recognize that a problem exists from multiple perspectives and needs attention integrating resources and interconnecting participants (Guilford, qtd. in Gallavan and Kottler, 166).

When designing a divergent thinking project, assignment, or exam, it can be helpful to use the list of fluencies above as a way of categorizing the objectives one has for students. Of course, these characteristics can work both as individual characteristics, as pairings or as a set, depending on the project at hand.

Creative problem-solving that uses divergent thinking strategies can be included in many different disciplines as an approach to active learning. For instance, asking students to find the commonalities between two or three different theoretical approaches, setting up brainstorming activities, assigning students to grapple with case studies that do not have one clear solution, presenting challenges that can be solved through multiple processes, organizing problems as sets that would not ordinarily be solved together, or providing readings from multiple genres and viewpoints, could each stimulate creative thinking. Ultimately, the most holistic approach to learning creates opportunities for students to practice both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, which can be especially effective when used in concert on one project or set of projects. In this way, students learn to use their abilities to think creatively and think critically as part of the same process, preparing them to do the kind of thinking work that will be required of them throughout their lifetimes.

To learn more about how to incorporate divergent thinking into your teaching, contact the Reinert Center at

Works Cited:

Gallavan, Nancy P. and Ellen Kottler. “Advancing Social Studies Learning for the 21st Century with Divergent Thinking. The Social Studies (2012) 103, 165-70.

Guilford, Joy Paul. 1968. “Factors That Aid and Hinder Creativity.” Studies in Educational Psychology, R. G. Kuhlen, ed. Toronto: Blaisdell Publishing. 334–341.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, spring contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does creative thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?