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Playing with Possibility: Divergent thinking in classrooms and workplaces

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Is much of what we think of as ‘learning’ actually making us *less* able to solve the problems we face? Are our classrooms and institutions helping us to see the world simply as it is, rather than encouraging us to envision it as it could be? If so, what does this mean and what are the alternatives for voluntary organisations looking to break new ground on their issue or cause?

Sir Ken Robinson quote

Sir Ken Robinson, in his RSA talk on ‘Changing education paradigms’, describes the notion of ‘divergent thinking’ as “the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question.”

It’s not the same thing as creativity, but it’s a critical piece of it.

It’s also where new ideas come from.

A classic test of one’s divergent thinking would be to ask ‘what can you do with a paperclip?’ Some people – the most gifted of divergent thinkers – can list hundreds of potential functions. Most of us will come up with considerably less than that. The point is to see a range of possibilities in everything, rather than simply the fixed title, value or purpose which has been established by others before.

Divergent thinking in the classroom

In the late-1960s George Land carried-out an experiment to test the divergent thinking abilities of the same 1,600 school kids between ages 3 and 5, 8 and 10 and finally 13 and 15.

Initially, 98% of the group ranked as ‘divergent thinking geniuses’. By age ten only 30% of the same group of students qualified to such a level. By age fifteen, only 10% of the kids were thinking at a ‘genius’ level of divergence.

If the same results came up ranking a more traditionally accepted measure of intelligence or ability in schools (IQ, as the obvious example), a major inquest would be in order; heads would have to roll!

But blame aside, the lesson appears clear: the way we ‘educate’ kids in public education systems is very good at encouraging a particular type of rote learning and linear thinking – memorisation, multiple choice selection, repetition – but completely devastating in its understanding (let alone nurturing) of innovation and creativity.

Clearly, certain teachers will find ways around this via their personal approach in the classroom, but broadly speaking, the ways we teach and encourage our children to learn, discourage experimentation, mistake-making and thus the trial-and-error process through which groundbreaking notions so often emerge. After all, it took Thomas Edison over 10,000 attempts to create the first light bulb, but rarely are all those ‘failures’ cited as critical to his eventual breakthrough…

Schools and industrialisation

Robinson firmly roots public education in the industrial workforce and the linear assembly line approach to production that dominated the last century. Basically, our schools teach us to fit nicely into predetermined spots along a conveyer belt, but rarely encourage us to question the value of the conveyer belt, the alternatives that may exist to it, or other ways we might get things done together.

Mass public education – from national curricula, to standardised testing – narrows our sense of possibility by grading us on our ability to – in an ideal world – achieve the same results as everyone else.

It’s not just schools

But similar phenomena emerge in most workplaces, expecting employees to ‘fill a job description’ or ‘hit targets’, rather than to figure out how they’d like to solve the problem their job is meant to address, or to see how they might be able to uniquely contribute to achieving their organisation or company’s aims.

As we settle-in to new jobs, our sense of ‘what could be’ is whittled-down until it fits the pre-existing collective experience of ‘what has been’ (for those that have come before us). The sense of organisational possibility is too-often based wholly on its past experience, inherently limiting its future potential to a repetition of that which it has done before, regardless of its effectiveness. Relatively rarely is this trend bucked and a totally new idea (which, by virtue of being new, often seems crazy, or otherwise impossible) given the full opportunity and support to grow, stumble, adjust and take root.

And considerable language has been developed around this process.

  • ‘We have to manage expectations’
  • ‘Let’s be realistic now’
  • ‘We’ve gotta be practical about this…’
  • ‘You’d better get used to it – it’s how we do things here!’

So even when a manager suggests ‘blue skies thinking’ or ‘an innovation brainstorm’, it is confined by the culture the session exists within; one afraid of the possibility of failure, but as a result, also of real success.

When our work relates to social problems that are literally costing lives the longer they continue, new ideas are truly a necessity of our jobs and not a peripheral extra we’d like to make room for if we can find the time. If we are not innovating, we are ensuring longer-term consequences of our issue will be worse than they otherwise need to be.

Trusting newbies

When people first start at an organisation, they often bring valuable insights – through exactly their lack of experience in the organisation’s ways of working – which can be of great benefit if there is the wisdom to recognise it.

Robert I. Sutton, in ‘Weird Ideas That Work’ recommends ‘hiring slow learners of the organisational code’ – people who ruffle feathers, challenge assumptions and don’t accept things as they are.

The very notion of an ‘induction’ often undermines this type of organisational learning, putting immediate pressure on new workers to conform and ignore the insights or intuitions they may have gained from previous experience, or simply from having a fresher perspective than those who have been embedded in an organisation’s culture for longer.

The message for new employees is clear: ‘our way or the high way’ or ‘learn the ropes or hit the showers’. And in turn, the relative divergent thinking of the new employee is usually lost, as it so often is in school children, the longer they spend in the classroom, with its risk-adverse culture and attempts to achieve ‘standards’, rather than diversity, in test results, but also, invariably, thinking patterns.

Never lose your sense of possibility; without it your options are invariably limited!

Linear thinking is very important. But it is not the gold standard we have given it. New ideas, by their very nature, do not emerge from purely linear thinking patterns. Those who invent best-selling products, solve intractable social problems or make critical scientific breakthroughs have not been simply following the path laid out by others before them. They are the ones who experiment, mess-up, try something crazy, try it again, learn from the process, but most importantly, see possibilities that others have yet to see.

As our sense of possibility narrows – whether as a result of time spent in schools or workplaces – so too does our reality. If we felt there was no possible way we could cook dinner (and couldn’t pay someone to do it for us), we would starve. If we felt we were completely unable to make our own bed, we wouldn’t try. If we thought we could never end Apartheid, attain women’s suffrage or create a National Health Service, we would place our efforts elsewhere. How about reigning in the financial industry, ending unjust wars or stopping domestic violence?

As is the underpinning theme of Frances Westley’s ‘Getting to Maybe’, social change occurs only after we’ve begun to see the ‘impossible’ as a distant possibility – as a ‘maybe’. To do so, requires us to see the world divergently – not as most others currently do, even if this may prove unpopular at first. People have accomplished an infinite range of achievements that had previously been considered ‘impossible’; it was only when someone decided they weren’t that changes begun to happen.

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