Some Possible Reasons for the
Drop In Divergent Thinking

by Marvin Bartel © 2010

  1. The instinct to learn by imitation (maybe largely genetic).  Imitation has been found to be a very important and pervasive way for children to learn many things. School culture, including the opportunities to mimic their peer group instead of experimenting tends to neglect the imaginative ways of thinking. Our brains contain mirror neurons specifically for the purpose of imitating what we see. Mirror neurons are great for learning, but they are not great for the encouragement of divergent thinking. On this page I have a longer discussion of the seduction of education by mirror neurons.

    Creative children can imitate when they need to, but they are also confident and able to do use their imaginations (imagination is also an instinct). They try things that others have not shown them (take chances). Imagination probably requires self-confidence. How do children become self-confident? Hart and Risley studied pre-school children in their homes. They found that parents that are more verbal, use more affirmatives and fewer prohibitions, and parents who tend to ask (use questions) rather than commands tend to produce better learners of language skills when they begin school. It follows that these children are better learners because they have been conditioned to be self-confident. Studies of highly creative successful adults (top artists, scientists, composers, writers, and so on) find that self-confidence is stronger than average.
    From: Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. 1995. by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.
    Others claim that studies like this do not control for inherited brain differences. I believe we do not know with certainty how much of divergent thinking
    is learned and how much is inherited. I choose to assume that we can have some influence on thinking habits and that people can choose to think in different ways if they are taught new thinking strategies. Jerome Kagan, of Harvard studied infants over many years. He found that there are a minority of individuals who are born with a much different temperaments. If temperament is variable at birth, perhaps similar variations can be expected with respect to our tendency to depend on divergent thinking. From: Henig, R. M. "Understanding the Anxious Mind" The New York Times, September 29, 2009. [retrieved

  2. Herd instinct (probably genetically instinctive and environmental). We feel more secure if we agree with a large group. Learning from peers is very influential. It requires a strong character to stand alone and make a choice for what is best or what is right when it is not popular. We need to reward courage when it happens in a positive way. Ridicule from peers (socialization pressure) is powerful. For social acceptance, we learn to forgo some of the our personal and unique habits of thinking and working. Even our positive instincts to be helpful and empathetic can be overcome by our instincts to be safe by being popular and part of the herd. In The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. 1999, by Judith Rich Harris and Steven Pinker we find many references to compelling research related to the instinctive importance of peer influences on learning and thinking habits.

  3. Obsessive parents (unfulfilled parents) in their rush to perfect the child, are prone to overcorrect, become too critical, and discourage mistakes and risk taking. While parents must use prohibitions when a child is about do make a hazardous and life threatening choice, most situations allow choices that are relatively safe. Children need to learn from mistakes and successes by making their own choices. A mind that learns to think in terms of experimentation, discovery, and verification is more apt to be open to new ideas.

  4. Teaching for tests  Many tests emphasize one correct answer. They drive teaching and learning to discourage divergent thinking. Convergent thinking based on memorization of expert answers is much different than divergent thinking that looks for the best choices from many alternative possibilities. Convergent thinking does not teach productive thinking because it is based on the memory of answers rather than thinking and self-learning processes. We can expect to see learned helplessness in divergent thinking. Methods of constructing new knowledge fail tot develop.

    Tests can measure divergent thinking and creativity, but these are not generally used in schools. The essay portions of tests are often poorly scored because of the time commitment and expertise of human readers is lacking to do it well within budget.

    What if computer programs would be designed to do the testing of divergent thinking and creativity.

    Students would type in their answers on computers. Computerized tests would use open questions. Open questions have more than one possible answer. Most of life's real questions do have multiple answers. Students could enter their best answer without regard to prior instruction. Answers to questions could earn credit for being correct, but more credit for creativity would be earned when they are solved in unique and original ways that are as feasible or better than standard answers. Scoring would be done using data bases containing all prior responses entered by test takers together with a ranking of feasibility and uniqueness. New solutions, when they are proposed would need to be assessed and added to the data base. Eventually, unique responses would become extremely rare. At that point, very little human time would be required to update the data base. The cost of testing divergent thinking and creativity could be lowered. Education could be redesigned to foster divergent thinking and creativity..

    'Teaching for the test' would look much different than what we now see being advocated in most classrooms. School science labs would be designed to actually look for new discoveries rather than to simply avoid procedural mistakes. Art learning methods would inform all of education, and everybody would learn to experiment and construct evidence based answers. Minds would learn to explore, discover, and find new ways to solve problems.

    Also see writing creative tests.

  5. Belief that knowing is better than questioning.  Many feel that being "smart" means knowing more. Traditional testing tests a very limited aspect of our important intelligences. The smartest people, if they are also creative, can ask important questions to continue the learning process. Albert Einstein said the imagination is more important than intelligence.

  6. Advertising and Mass Media (cultural). Children are influenced to fit in by wearing the "right" cloths. Advertising and mass media culture seldom encourages individuality as a route to success. Mostly, we are encouraged to fit in by being the same as others.

  7. What are the other reasons that children tend to be less able to think divergently as they grow older?  Are you a divergent thinker who can list more reasons?


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