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Being divergent

Creativity doesn’t thrive in an environment of convergent thinking and needs us to look outwards and not just inwards.

School, it seems, prepares us to assemble the facts and bring them together to find a solution. In other words, it requires us to take information from different sources and bring them together to find a predefined answer. This is what we would call ‘good research’ and allows us to get at the right, albeit pre-determined, response and works well when answering exam questions. It isn’t rote learning but is a puzzle with an answer. The problem is, though, that such convergent thinking allows for reliability and consistency but it doesn’t allow for the “productive, original, shaping, artistic, artful, inventive, innovative, imaginative, enterprising, fanciful, ground-breaking or trend-setting” solutions we talked about last week. To be creative we need a different approach.

What we need instead, at least in the first instance, is divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is creative thinking. It is a creative elaboration (think embellishment or expansion) of ideas prompted by a stimulus. In the case of the original conceptualisation of ‘divergent thinking’, i.e. the initial study where participants were engaged in open-ended tasks where they were asked to think of alternative uses of objects such as a barrel, a paper clip, a brick, boot polish, and a blanket (see Ken Robinson’s exploration of divergent thinking). Such thinking forced them to look outside of convention and to divert from established ways of thinking. In other words to be divergent. 

That is not to say that convergent thinking and divergent thinking aren’t related. Memmert argues, “when we face a problem, we need to find possible solutions (divergent thinking) before we choose one of the options (convergent thinking)”. In this way we (as thinkers and problem solvers) use a range of cognitive process such as: “cognitive flexibility, focus or defocus of attention, the (new) combination of stored though content, or the evaluation of the feasibility and practicability of an idea”. It isn’t important, for the purpose of this blog at least, to be able to understand all of these processes but it is important to acknowledge the limitations of only thinking convergently. 

Modern science has found that analytical thinking and creative thinking occur in different hemispheres of the brain (although for many tasks we need to use both hemispheres and both ways of thinking). As such, by expanding the ways in which we ask young people to think we are challenging them to use different parts of their brain to help them out. We are stretching them and asking them to step outside of established thinking and find new solutions. Such solutions maybe fanciful and unrealistic but wasn’t the same once said about flight or electricity?

Memmert focuses on the work of Robert J Sternberg and argues that in his “integrative model” there are four levels that we need to consider when we talk about creativity: (1) interacting resources (such as intelligence, knowledge, intellectual style, personality, motivation, and environment), (2) domain-specific “creative” abilities, (3) a portfolio of “creative” projects, and (4) assessments of “creative” projects. While Memmert doesn’t explore Sternberg’s model in any depth (and doesn’t explain levels 2, 3, and 4) he does argue that the six resources “are subject to a complex interrelation, and that they are interdependent with regard to the generation of domain-specific, creative solutions in a given task”. 

While it is hard to understand the specific impact that Sternberg’s model might have in sport and physical education (and in support of Memmert he does indicate that he has developed a sport specific model that he will discuss in chapter 4) it is clear that creativity is a complex, interrelated process that should be given special attention in our work. That said creativity is not one thing. While it is easy (well at least easier) to come to a single answer through convergent thinking it is much harder to come to a consensus of opinion when divergent thinking is involved. After all, how many possible uses of a paperclip or brick are there? 

Creativity is defined as a stochastic, combinational process which, in short, means it is randomly determined. It is, in the words of Memmert, “characterised by unsystematic drifting, that is chaotic and this allows for the emergence of loosely connected associations”. It is ill-defined and comes without any prior notion of the outcome. This is a massive step change from the organised drills and practices that dominate sport and physical education. It is also, according to research in computer modelling, not always conducive to “constant or even improved performance”. Sometimes creative thinking promotes sustained improvement but at other times it can prompt continuous deterioration as well as down-up (initial deterioration followed by improvement) and up-down fluctuation processes.

It is important to acknowledge the limitations of only thinking convergently. 

While it might seem daunting – especially given the global drive for improving standards – that our work as teachers or coaches might lead to deterioration in performance don’t we see this all the time in the real world? Expressions like “you are only as good as your last game”, “a slump in form”, or “a steady decline” show that this is a regular occurrence in sport and often occurs when sports men and women can’t replicate “previous form” or success. That doesn’t mean they give up but it does mean they need to find new ways of doing things. Perhaps they’ve been found out or in trying to develop a new ‘trick’ have lost some of their old form.

Limited research in education (none of it in physical education) shows that “well-designed creativity interventions can indeed foster divergent thinking in a number of different domains”. In doing so pre-school students have been shown to increase “not only their verbal creativity (fluency, flexibility, originality) and their graphic creativity (elaboration, fluency, originality) but also their behaviour and traits of the children’s creative personalities”. What would happen if the same ideas were applied to sport and physical education? In seeking well-designed creativity interventions what could we do for the young people in our care? 

So in thinking about how we might consider this blog, I leave you with a task and a few questions:

1. How many uses can you make out of a paperclip? – have a go and try

2. Now you have done this or considered this – how could you create a task for your students to do this paperclip task? How would you support them?

3. Do you promote this type of thinking in your lessons/sessions?

4. If so, how?

5. If not, how could you do this? Pick a lesson and see if you could change the way you structured learning to promote divergent thinking?

6. Do you think learning would be strengthened? Or not? And why? 

Memmert, D. (2015). Teaching Tactical Creativity in Sport: Research and Practice. London: Routledge.

Physical Education has a multitude of functions, roles and expectations in today’s Education systems to have a positive impact on Student learning.  I believe that it is important to decide, based on the needs of your student learners, the role/function of PE courses at your school for all grade levels.  There are always outside influences (exams, curriculum needs, space, timetable) but with what you have - what are the needs of your learners?  This will help you know What units, activities and concepts you are going to teach and How you are going to teach them.

The philosophy at my current school in our PE dept is that we want to embed in our students a love affair with movement and to understand that they need to be involved and to start wherever they are and to then move forwards.  We are not building elite athletes and we are not about winning at all costs. However not all students are in the same place when they arrive in your classroom.  It is important that we as the teachers, create activities that test out our students and allow them to shine not just athletically but also to create problems for them to solve that allow them to learn from their interactions, failures, motivation and perseverance in new situations.  

I am not an expert in Creative Thinking in the PE environment, but on reflection I can see that some of my activities do create opportunities for Divergent thinking - students are given problems that need to be solved or questions that don’t have a prescribed answer - that allow the student to think or to try out their ideas and then reflect on how things went.  An example would be in our Invasion Games unit where small teams (3-4 students) are working to get the ball from one End line to the other past 2-3 defenders - with the teacher offering no rules or suggestions on how to do this.  It is interesting to see the students work through the process of no rules or skill drills - only that they need to creatively get to the end, and any which way is fine as long as the ball is over the End-line.  There are so many ways to do this, and by changing the space, time allowed, ball or equipment used you can really ensure that they have to think pretty hard about HOW to achieve their goal.

My students are very involved in TGfU and Game Sense in our Invasion units - this is very creative with different game play opportunities to learn about specific tactical plays and then the chance to play lots of games and practice their problem solving as they transfer their ideas into new games.  I also find if you differentiate the play (Mary can have the ball for 3 seconds and have 1 step but Billy has 5 seconds and as many steps as he likes) to challenge students at their own levels, that the creativity for how teams utilise their different students and rules is endless - and the idea that they need to create new plays with what each other can do creates more involvement for my students,  A discussion about ‘Fairness’ has been an eye opening experience for my students as they start to realise that the teams were not fair when the rules were the same for everyone - actually this was unfair.  It is very satisfying to have the students’ self-select rules for themselves and offer suggestions to others as part of their feedback loop - they come up with some very unexpectant ideas.

I find watching professional sport is so exciting when the players are not going with the expected play - when I watch the New Zealand Rugby team I can see lots of creative movement and plays that are executed out of unexpected situations - and this is so exciting to watch!  But to get to this level, these players have amazing skills, fitness, teamwork etc. and I do think that for us as practitioners to get our students to be more creative, often relies on losing something else from our lessons such as time for more skills or drills or fitness or game play.  I find it hard to balance the movement and activity against the problem solving and possible inactivity when it comes to the discussion and reflection and planning and creation of these activities.  It is this balance that takes up a lot of my planning (and anxiety to get things right!) - to create meaningful activities that will promote athleticism and a greater understanding of movement but underlying all of this are non-physical PE concepts (such as leadership, communication, creative thinking) and this is the true learning that I am hoping my students will take away.  

Thank you Dr. Ash for making me think hard about Creative Thinking - Divergent and Convergent and to consider how these are defined within the context of my own PE classroom.

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