Tuesday, August 4, 2015

How Technology Can Foster Divergent Thinking in Our Students

By EdTechManiac, Darin Anderson

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell lines out the differences between convergent thinking and divergent thinking by discussing two different types of questions.

The first question type, Gladwell explains, is the convergent kind, often used by prestigious universities and high-powered corporations to measure intelligence and aptitude of potential applicants and employees. Convergent assessments, such as the Raven's Test (or Raven's Progressive Matrices), developed by psychologist John C. Raven in 1939, are typically used to determine a person's IQ.

Raven's assessment gives users a series of multiple choice questions in the form of patterns, and they are to identify the shape that will complete the pattern. Simply stated, the convergent mind will be better able to decipher the patterns and ultimately end up with the single correct answer. From the total number of questions answered correctly, the test-taker is given a final IQ score. If it is high enough, Gladwell notes, he or she receives a free pass to Harvard, Cambridge, or another such institution. If it is too low...hello, State U!

Gladwell also touches on a second question type - those of a divergent nature. This style of questioning opens up opportunities for creativity and imagination, as well as analysis and cognition (landmarks of convergent tests). Outliers describes just such a question:
"Write down as many different uses that you can think of for the following objects:
1. a brick
2. a blanket"
The testing subject is then given a fixed amount of time to provide as many responses as possible. There are no "right" or "wrong" answers...just answers. Thus whatever direction(s) the test-taker chooses to go, the results are divergent.

A quick comparison between the two types of questions may lead to some of the following conclusions:
  • Only Smart people do well on convergent tests
  • Average and Below Average people do not excel on convergent tests - they're too hard for them
  • Smart people can also do well on divergent tests...because they are smart...Duh!
  • Average and Below Average people can do well on divergent tests because there are no wrong answers; they are fail-proof
  • Convergent tests are a better method of assessing intelligence than are divergent tests
  • Analysis and reasoning are more important to intelligence than creativity and imagination
I suppose in the world of "logical" thinking, these theories might pan out. However, before you draw your final conclusion, take a look at the divergent test responses of two people tested by Liam Hudson, a noted British psychologist:
  1. High School Student named Poole: (Brick) To use in smash-and-grab raids. To help hold a house together. To use in a game of Russian roulette if you want to keep fit at the same time (bricks at ten paces, turn and throw—no evasive action allowed). To hold the eiderdown on a bed tie a brick at each corner. As a breaker of empty Coca-Cola bottles. (Blanket) To use on a bed. As a cover for illicit sex in the woods. As a tent. To make smoke signals with. As a sail for a boat, cart or sled. As a substitute for a towel. As a target for shooting practice for short-sighted people. As a thing to catch people jumping out of burning skyscrapers.*
  2. High School Student named Florence: (Brick) Building things, throwing. (Blanket) Keeping warm, smothering fire, tying to trees and sleeping in (as a hammock), improvised stretcher.*
*Source: Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. 1st ed. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008.

Given the choice to associate with either student, which of you would pick Poole and who would chum around with Florence?

Now, how about a closer look at their respective aptitudes?

Poole is defined in Gladwell's book as a student "in a top British high school," while Florence was described by Hudson himself as "a prodigy, with one of the highest IQs in his school."

Both able and willing, but, as Gladwell poses it, which student is more likely brilliant and creative enough to win a Nobel Prize?

Looking back at some of the most successful people of our time, we see names like Walt Disney, Martha Stewart, Steve Jobs, and Oprah Winfrey. Certainly, these folks, and hundreds of others, have exhibited a certain creativity and innovation along with astute cognitive abilities that helped them on their path to greatness.

But what about this list of similarly successful folks?
(L-R) Taylor Swift, Rhonda Rousey, Kevin Hart, and Lionel Messi (Highlights here!)
While this group exhibits notoriety in pop culture arenas, they each certainly display the same kinds of creativity that we look for in sports and entertainment figures. Those qualities and ideas have even crashed their way into the corporate world. Enterprises like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are famous for offering - even requiring - their employees to spend time being creative. This freedom to explore and create without fear of failure has led to some groundbreaking technology that most of use daily without so much as a cognitive thought.

It is this kind of philosophy that should permeate each and every school system across our country. So much is said in education today about creativity, imagination, and risk taking...but nothing ever really has happened on any kind of large and meaningful scale. There is so much resistance to change.

However, the ball is rolling and it is gathering steam (S.T.E.A.M. - get it?) as is evidenced by the huge movement towards education technology and associated programs such as Ed Camps, Maker Movements, and Hack-a-Thons that pop up all over the country on an almost daily basis.

And that is the crux of my argument. Technology use - in and out of the classroom - can help foster divergent thinking in a way that was unheard even 5-10 years ago. Divergence has typically been seen as an anti-societal norm, especially by the so-called establishment. Going against normalcy was met with detention, suspension, or expulsion when in fact it could have been an opportunity for exploration and development. (Understand I am not talking about malicious behavior in school, although such is often exhibited as a result of boredom or irrelevancy of content in the classroom.)

Now that divergent ways of teaching, learning, and thinking are becoming more mainstream, educational technology is poised to make an even bigger splash.

Here are a few examples of how technology can help foster divergence in the classroom:
  • Collaboration with other like-minded users via social media. No matter how big or small one's location is, a student cannot always rely on having someone nearby who shares the same ideas and interests. With the ease of social media, students of all ages can find and reach out to others with similar goals and aspirations. In the case of October Sky, for example, how much would those boys have benefitted from social media contacts outside of West Virginia?
  • Access to various points of view. With careful and calculated consumption, our students can learn as much as they want about nearly any subject and from all angles. A wolf protector in Chicago, for example, may learn how the predator affects the very way of life for a farmer in the Intermountain West. Or an avid hunter might understand how some Native American cultures view certain animals.
  • Access to material that was once only available for the social elite. No longer must the teacher or the textbook be the sole sources of information. In fact, we have more access available to us in digital format now than ever before. In Good Will Hunting, there is a famous line that goes as follows: "You dropped 150 grand on a (expletive) education you could have got for $1.50 in late charges at the public library." First uttered in 1997, the words seem to be even more true now, and we don't even have to leave our couches!
  • Avoiding functional fixedness with online gaming. Growing up, you perhaps thought that your mother's sauce pan was made for just one thing...a drum, of course! Then one day, you had a crazy idea - what if you could make macaroni and cheese in the inside of your drum?? Viola! Functional fixedness destroyed. Daniel Pink is well known for his book Drive, in which he offers this set of pictures that depict and experiment conducted by psychologist Karl Dunker in 1945. The task was to attach the burning candle to the wall with only the thumbtacks. With some creativity, it becomes possible...as long as the box is seen as more than just a container for holding tacks. This kind of divergent problem solving is on display in a game called Limbo, available here. It's a bit dark, but it does get the job done. As do many, many other games.
The notion of divergent thinking is nothing new. However, encouraging our students (and teachers) to think that way has often been viewed as a bit of rebellion at worst, or non-compliance at best. Changing the perceptions of "it-worked-for-me" parents, community leaders, and legislators has been a struggle as well.

The fact is, while some aspects of traditional education are irreplaceable, so many others are outdated and irrelevant with 21st Century teachers and learners.

In the early 1900's, Robert Frost penned words that turned out to be well ahead of his time:
What if Frost's teacher had told him there was only one road to take?

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