Divergent thinking in children is an exceptional gift, as well as natural (no one has yet told them what is normal and, therefore, what is not). His open mind is full of possibilities, of unusual, original and always idiosyncratic reasoning. However, sometimes that creative potential tends to die down as they grow due to an educational system that tends to standardize the way of thinking of their students, unifying perspectives.
If there is one thing that most of us know is that daring to reason differently can be dangerous. Galileo, for example, proved it in his own skin when his ideas meant that he had to finish his last years confined to his house in Florence. Open minds are those who defy the world, there is no doubt, but they are also the ones who help you move forward.
It is clear that times have changed, that the endings experienced by other scientists like Giordano Bruno no longer happen. However, other situations do occur. As noted by Sir Ken Robinson, a recognized expert in education, today’s schools are “killing” the creativity of children.
According to him, our educational centers base their curricular models on nineteenth-century systems from a time when the industrialization of society meant that some capacities were valued over others. Promoting innovation, creativity or critical thinking was (and is often) something unusual when what we have is a hierarchy of subjects and very rigid competencies to be assumed.
We forget that children come into the world “equipped” with extraordinary talents. We overlook the potential of their divergent thinking, that extraordinary psychic muscle that we sometimes weaken by educating them, exclusively, in convergent thinking.
“It’s not what you see that matters, it’s what you see.”
-Henry David Thoreau-
Divergent thinking in children
Henry David Thoreau was undoubtedly one of the most revolutionary philosophers. His unusual ideas about freedom and responsibility made him one of those figures always carried by a clearly divergent thought. Going back to their texts from time to time is undoubtedly a way of finding inspiration in multiple senses.
He taught us that life is a canvas for the imagination. He also made us see that there are people who are born with different music inside them and that we must let them go, because freedom leads to self-realization. With the children, almost the same thing happens. However, we are not always able to intuit that magical melody and that incredible potential that is hidden inside each child.
Thus, for example, experts in the field, such as Dr. Len Brzozowski, point out something interesting that he discovered when conducting a study with psychologists George Land and Beth Jarman. The data of this work was published in the book Break Point and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today.
Divergent thinking in 5-year-old children usually presents similar scores to those of an adult with high intellectual abilities. So, when these little ones are asked how many uses they can give to a cup, a pencil or a shoe, they can give up to 100 (valid) answers. An adult usually gives on average 10-12.
Now, if we pass a test of divergent thinking to a 10-year-old child, we will realize that this potential has been reduced, on average, by 60%.
Preschoolers are real geniuses
Divergent thinking in children from 4 to 6 years old presents amazing scores. It is necessary to refer to this point what the professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School, Álvaro Pascual-Leone, points out to us. Throughout these ages occur in the brain what is known as synaptic pruning.
They are those sensitive periods of the nervous system where a programmed neuronal pruning can be modified only by the experiences. If there are no adequate stimuli, that cell pruning will limit much of the learning potential in the child over time.
It is also not about having “many neural connections” because then the brain has an excess of “noise” (something that happens in the autism spectrum disorder). The key is to optimize that pruning with the most appropriate learning and stimulation. Especially in that period between 4 and 6 years, in which children have their full potential intact.
How can we protect and enhance their divergent thinking?
Divergent thinking in children has particular learning needs that must be addressed so that it does not get lost. They are the following:
- They need immersive learning. Children must experiment, feel, touch, get excited … They should do it in a group with their peers but also in solitude, to encourage autonomous work (and their own space of creativity).
- Likewise, they need to work on learning in which there is not (as far as possible) a single valid answer. Divergent thinking is skillful, generating multiple options to the same challenge. That their ideas are sanctioned often and labeled as “incorrect” or “wrong” will generate demotivation.
- To empower divergent thinking in children, it is also necessary that they feel validated emotionally. Feeling that they are accepted, respected, valued and loved will help them feel free to explore, to discover new interests, to evoke answers, ideas and reasoning knowing that they will not be criticized.
Finally, it should be noted that encouraging and protecting divergent thinking does not imply, far from it, completely eliminating convergent thinking. Actually, it is about harmonizing both dimensions. Sometimes, there are problems that do need a unique solution and children must also understand that type of situation.