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.