Divergent thinking – It’s all about classroom culture


“In the future, students will need to be nimble. They will need to know how to experiment, iterate, and pivot. ” (Spencer)

@FriedEnglish shared “7 ways to inspire divergent thinking” with me last week and the article resonated with me immensely. After all, as a scientist this is our bread and butter. Scientists are naturally curious, risk-taking experimenters so surely these things were abundant in my classroom just by the nature of the subject?

The more I read the article, the more concerned I became about the amount of options I give my students to play and to take creative risks (I got to number 5 before I could make any connections with what happens in my classroom….eeeek!). “Oh, this article must be intended for primary/middle school where they have more time to complete projects” I told myself momentarily. The focus on large long-term projects to inspire divergent thinking caused me to spiral into a little bit of panic. I want my students to be creative thinkers but the syllabus and time restraints of IGCSE and IB mean that completing long-term projects is pretty challenging.

As a result, I spent all week playing “spot the divergent thinking” in my classroom to identify day-to-day activities that inspire thinking. There were several activities that encourage creativity and flexibility that I was already doing (phew!):

  • Experimental work with minimal equipment “Can you work out the formula mass of the gas inside the lighter with just this equipment” (sometimes I let them request one extra item!)
  • Experimental work with no method eg. “Create an experiment to work out which one of these is the best antacid.”
  • Synthesising numerous hypotheses: Come up with 3 hypotheses why the colour changes? How could you test your hypotheses?
  • Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of models: lots of good answers possible.
  • Linking key concepts together. eg identify places where hierarchy is important in science.

Whilst I was reassured that these activities were already a part of my teaching I had a much bigger realisation: no matter how jazzy my thinking activities are, the kids must feel happy with being mildly confused for a while (check out my previous post on the gift of mild confusion). It isn’t easy to create a culture where getting things wrong is okay and creative risk taking is celebrated, but there’s some key factors that I’ve found definitely help:


  1. Be goofy. Let the kids see that you say stupid stuff sometimes and that you make mistakes too. A relaxed attitude is far more likely to encourage them to think outside the box rather than trying to give you the answer they think you want. (The power of humour in creativity).
  2. Tell the kids when you’re trying something new. Let them see that you’re taking risks and that it’s something to be excited about. Model the behaviour that you want to see in them.
  3. When you fail, be explicit about the learning. When something didn’t go as planned, talk about it. Discuss why you think it didn’t go to plan and how you might adjust it next time (maybe even redo the activity with them the following lesson if appropriate).
  4. Celebrate the students who take risks. Spotlight the thinking to the rest of the class, tell them individually how impressed you were with their thinking, send an email home, maybe get a marching band… But definitely make sure the kid knows that their kind of thinking is awesome.

Creating divergent thinkers is all about being intentional;  intentionally being a good role model and intentionally planning small activities that have a multitude of pathways for students to take.

Are there any other ways that you help kids feel comfortable?

Are you a high school teacher that manages to incorporate projects and really inspire that curiosity? I would love to hear from you!

3 thoughts on “Divergent thinking – It’s all about classroom culture

  1. Patricia Friedman says:

    Hi Kirstie

    Love the advice–and think it is so important that we do as you mentioned, mentor the type of learner we want our students to be. I think being comfortable with uncertainty or discussing the work we are doing as learners is a great thing to be transparent about. I reference that famous Einstein quote frequently when talking students through trickier bits of a lesson: “It isn’t that I’m smarter, it is just that I’ve stayed with questions longer.”
    When I really think about the power of divergent thinking, I’m reminded of one of my favorite videos, if you haven’t seen it–let me know your thoughts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=937iCwJd3fI&t=312s

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kirstie says:

      I haven’t seen it! I love the concept of “multi-asking” – there seems to be so many advantages with sharing ideas with a wealth of people and getting feedback. It’s all about the learning!
      Clay Shirky also has this great quote that’s now pinned to my board! “The stupidest creative act is still a creative act and that the real gap isn’t’ between the mediocre and great work, the real gap is between getting started and doing nothing. If you’ve created something, even if it’s stupid, you’ve put yourself in a position to do more . . . I’ve seen the evolution in my own work go from posting nonsense to really important work.”


  2. louiebarnett says:

    Hi Kirstie,

    Thanks for this post! Love the idea of divergent thinking. Links really well to the ideas of Ken Robinson in this TED talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity/up-next) as well as this RSA Animate (https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms/up-next). Both great watches if you haven’t seen them already.

    Robinson talks about creativity, which I think is inextricably linked to divergent thinking. I’m not sure which comes first, or even if they are the same thing. My hunch is that divergent thinking helps people become more creative.

    I agree with all of the activities you have identified that encourage creativity in the classroom. Some ideas to add might be:

    1. Students creating videos to explain concepts
    2. Students developing ‘cheat sheets’ or tools for applying concepts. I am thinking here a task that reads like: “5 ways you can use the periodic table to works things out quickly in chemistry”

    What I love most about your post at the 4 points about fostering a classroom that celebrates creative risk-taking. I think this is crucial. I particularly like the idea of modelling risk-taking and being explicit in your failure. This does two things. It shows the students that it’s ok and even useful to try and fail! And it also makes us more comfortable with failing, and this means that we as teachers will try new things more often – because we know if we try and it doesn’t work quite right, there is still lots of learning for students to have just by us trying. A lot this also comes down to building a safe classroom environment in general as well.

    Nicki Hambleton (https://twitter.com/itsallaboutart?lang=en) mentioned that I should include creativity in the scientist’s mindset (https://louiebarnett.com/2018/03/08/the-scientists-mindset/) and I agree with her. I think lots of ideas in this post could go hand in hand with that. Thanks for stretching my thinking here, I am now thinking of a series of blog post that looks at how to implement the scientist’s mindset in the classroom and for creativity, I could almost just link this one!

    Awesome work 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s