Encouraging students to think divergently

Written by: Joel Wirth | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Our obsession with exam preparation and the curriculum script is resulting in dull lessons and the loss of divergent thought, lateral thinking and creation. Joel Wirth looks at how we must be brave if we are to teach our pupils how to think

Expectant faces. A new seating plan. Tables clustered in fours. No books out. No pens. A brief increase in the volume of chatter as the year 9 students regroup themselves before settling into a hushed anticipation. Everything about this geography lesson screamed: “Today, things will be different!”

And, at the centre of this collective frisson of excitement, was an envelope...

Several, in fact. One on each group of tables. Plain brown. A4. No name or label. Sealed. They had all seen them as soon as they walked in and lined themselves against the back wall to be allocated a seat.

Once assigned their place, several inquisitive individuals had inspected their envelope with the reverence a medieval pilgrim might afford the bones of St Alban, but none had dared open it. I was almost sure I had seen one boy sniff his.

The teacher knew she had them exactly where she wanted them and she smiled beatifically as silence descended and her acolytes awaited the rituals of learning to come.

Seated at the back of the room, I too settled in for what I hoped might be one of those rare and wonderful treats: an interesting lesson.

Two minutes later, that hope lay in ruins.

The problems began when the teacher committed a grotesque error. Having luxuriated in their expectant attention for a few seconds, she took an identical-looking envelope from her desk, held it up before the class and said: “Okay, kids. On your tables is an envelope like this. Inside, you’ll find...” And, with those last three words, the bubble burst.

I have seen this same staggering thing happen three times in the past year. Why set up a lesson with a sealed envelope at its heart and then ruin it by telling the students not only what is in the envelope, but exactly what they are going to do with the contents – before we even let them open it? In doing so, the teacher has snatched compliant boredom from the jaws of genuine engagement.

But we should ask how such a thing might ever happen in a classroom. Have these teachers forgotten what it is to be a child, thrilled in the presence of a sealed package with their (metaphorical) name on it? Would this same teacher ever consider it appropriate to hand a wrapped birthday present to their own child with the words “don’t get excited, it’s only a jigsaw”?

I have been a teacher all my professional life and will tell anyone who ever asks that it is the greatest, most precious and powerful job on the planet. I have observed almost 100 lessons since September in more than a dozen schools and the overwhelming majority of them – in schools judged from outstanding to inadequate – have been, well how can I put it? Dull.

What should have happened seems only too clear to me. In the shoes of those pupils, I would want to open the envelope and discover what was inside. There might have been a set of instructions allowing my group to own the process, but even better if not.

I would have wanted the teacher to say to me: “Right, kids. There is an envelope on your desk. When I say so, I want you to open it and take a good look at what’s inside. Then, as a group, I want you to see if you can tell what we’re going to be doing this lesson and what tasks I might want you to tackle. I want to know whether this links to anything – and I mean anything – we have previously done. You know what, I am even interested if it links to anything you have done outside geography. I am also looking for interesting ideas from you that even someone as brilliant and clever as me has not thought of. You will have three minutes before I want your ideas. Okay? Go!”

But you rarely hear such scripts, do you? And so, for me, the unopened envelope in that geography lesson has become particularly emblematic of an issue we need to address.

Divergent thought

The transformation of Lego’s fortunes in the early 2000s came about when they dispensed with an increasingly niche line of specialist “themes”. These sets had failed because they demanded a high-number of highly specialised parts which were only useable with the original set.

Where Lego eventually found success was in an absolute commitment to both the convergent and divergent – to each set’s potential to be both Hagrid’s Hut and whatever a creative, engaged, inquisitive young mind wanted it to be. Roof parts would need to have the potential to double up as bird’s wings, windows as cockpits and so forth.

And this is what we are in danger of losing from our lessons – this capacity for divergent thought. For lateral thinking. Invention. Creation. Play.

Another example. A great French lesson overall but a starter where students were asked to play Odd One Out. Four categories. All foodstuffs. The teaching point is about “du”, “de la” and “des”. The class dutifully follows the instructions on the PowerPoint and successfully finds the “de las” among the “dus” with minimal academic effort.

Just to make a point, I had taken a different tack. In the first group, only one was not a carbohydrate; in the second, only one did not have added sugar, in the final list, only one was not a green vegetable.

If you are a teacher reading this, you might be getting angry: “That’s exactly the kind of picky thing that people with suits and clipboards do just so they can justify their own self-importance!” Grrr! But it is not hair-splitting, I promise you.

How not to think...

This magazine has done as much as any educational periodical to keep you abreast of all the various neuro-scientific, behavioural, cognitive advances that have started to infiltrate classroom practice in recent years and I do not intend to reassemble that storm of ticker-tape here.

However, the brain’s capacity for divergent thought is one of the more startling faculties we possess. It is especially a feature of the infant brain: think how often the toddler plays more with the empty box than the toy it contained.

Science is divided as to whether we “lose” our capacity for divergent thought as we age. It may happen for reasons of experience/nurture, because we learn what or what not to do as well as how those things should or should not be done. Or it may happen simply as a natural factor of the ageing process. It leaves open the tantalising possibility that school is part of a system which teaches students how not to think...

Whichever is found in time to be correct (probably a combination of the two), there is no good reason for us to be imposing convergent thought on students. And yet, it has been my over-whelming experience that this is exactly what we do.

The students in that French lesson, just like the geography students, staring at an unopened envelope, had lost their agency. They had become passive participants in a lesson where active engagement was the easiest option.

For the latter to happen, the teacher needed to do less work, put fewer words on the PowerPoint (always a good idea, anyway), say almost nothing. And yet great opportunities were presented – tantalisingly – to flexible young minds before being stolen away.

And the inevitable result is classroom after classroom of passive learners. A few will rebel in ways that are glaringly apparent but the huddled mass of students will just lie back in their chair and continue to do so metaphorically even if you correct their behaviour literally.

They will do what you want them to do. They will allow you to dragoon them through a series of lessons whose sole aim is to prepare them for an upcoming assessment whose sole purpose is to generate a numerical value for the senior leadership’s spreadsheet.

They will dutifully complete the “starter” task which asks them to recall the assessment objectives for GCSE history. They will even tolerate you while you tell them that you can only explore literature by producing a PEE(L) paragraph containing the word “suggests” and the extensive analysis of the use of modal verbs (I jest not: this happened last week. A 30-minute lesson segment to year 7 on the use of “must” in one line of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Year 7! Thirty minutes!).

Your students will do these things but they will learn next to nothing.

Thinking is dangerous

Teachers are responsible for this, though they are not to blame. Lessons like those above are taking place across the country every day. They are the product of a scandalously high accountability framework which has led us to believe that we have no choice but to teach year 7 like their GCSEs lasted five years and squeeze them through the mincer of 12-mark, exam-style questions from the get go.

They are the product of syllabuses so vast and content-heavy that lessons become lectures. They are a product of our fear. Fear that we will be slammed by observers for a “lack of pace” if the discussion explores territory we had not mapped. Fear that we will drift too far from our precious learning objectives if students’ free thought is encouraged. Fear that they might ask us questions we cannot answer.

Assembling a Lego set by following the step-by-step guide is an immensely satisfying process. No-one is knocking convergent thought. We solve Sudoku and cryptic crosswords, follow sewing patterns, and all those other myriad entertainments which rely on following the algorithm to reach the right outcome. It is a comforting thing to do.

But education should not be like Sudoku. Thinking is dangerous – multi-stranded, cross-discipline, creative and challenging (to us, them and everything). I like Jacob Bronowski’s line on learning: “It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.”

Promoting divergent thought

Have an open-ended question on the board at the start of every lesson. Make room for their ideas/misconceptions/bizarre lateral links. You will find that opening the field wide from the off will allow students to contextualise and connect the learning to their previous knowledge.

Review what you have got planned and think like a child. If you were a student, where might you have taken this? Where might they take it? Make time for that.

Throw in a red herring. Add something unnecessary (or wrong). Do not necessarily tell them. If you have taught them well they will spot it. That is powerful learning.

Talk less and really consider your explanations. Is there a chance for students to explore the materials or the topic you are presenting before you explain it to them? Why not just give them the poem, the propaganda poster, the group details of the rare earth metals and let them think about them before you do their thinking for them?

Get meta – much has been written about metacognition, read up, model thinking where you can and narrate their thought processes (or how a scientist, historian or philosopher might think).

Above all, let the students open the envelope to see what is inside. They need to write and ask the questions as well as answer them. They need to open the box we give them, scatter the pieces across the table and learn to build both the Knight Bus and whatever assemblage of pieces their inquisitive mind suggests.

  • Joel Wirth is a former teacher and senior leader who now works as a consultant headteacher. You can read the previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2FERRgR


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