Divergent and convergent thinking

In a recent post I shared how Y-Combinator founder, Paul Graham, offers an answer to the question “Why Smart People have Bad Ideas“.

From the piece:

I think the problem with many, as with people in their early twenties generally, is that they’ve been trained their whole lives to jump through predefined hoops. They’ve spent 15-20 years solving problems other people have set for them. And how much time deciding what problems would be good to solve? Two or three course projects? They’re good at solving problems, but bad at choosing them.

But that, I’m convinced, is just the effect of training. Or more precisely, the effect of grading. To make grading efficient, everyone has to solve the same problem, and that means it has to be decided in advance.

Soon after I published the piece, I read “Secrets of the Creative Brain“, a brilliant article written by neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen and published by The Atlantic.

By way of introduction, Nancy explains:

“I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains.”

The full article is well worth a read if you share my interests in creativity, and psychology.

For the purposes of this piece however I’ve pulled out a small excerpt where Nancy defines divergent and convergent thinking.

“Divergent thinking,” or the ability to come up with many responses to carefully selected questions or probes, as contrasted with “convergent thinking,” or the ability to come up with the correct answer to problems that have only one answer.”

Divergent thinking is the essence of creativity and yet convergent thinking is what Paul Graham believes graded education teaches.

To grade students you need to be able to compare them and to compare them you need them all to work on the same problem. Those problems tend to have a single, right answer. Over the course of the test paper the right answers are tallied and the student is given a mark.

However, problems that don’t have a single, right answer often require divergent thinking. These problems include lateral thinking, problem solving, idea generation and creativity.

Paul Graham said that people were “good at solving problems, but bad at choosing them”. That’s because there is not a singular right answer to the question “What problem should we solve”. There are many. Answering the question requires divergent thinking, thinking that we are not trained in.

The very process we use to educate, limits the education its possible to provide.

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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