Divergent Thinking in the Creative Classroom

If you want to increase divergent thinking in your classroom, make some art!

Okay, so as a visual arts teacher, I know you’ll think I’m a little biased here, but let me try to convince you.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, let’s define some terms. Divergent thinking refers to the way the mind generates ideas, surpassing the obvious, in different directions, or beyond expectations.

While there’s an obvious association with creativity here, it’s one that is certainly not limited to a ‘studio’ classroom. And despite the obvious benefits of divergent thinking, particularly in an age where creative thinking is so highly valued, in many school contexts divergent behavior is discouraged. Students who venture off-task or off-script are kept in-check by teachers and peers, while grading systemically produces overt-convergence through ‘penalties’ for being ‘wrong’. Ideally, divergent and convergent thinking work in harmony with each other; educational programs should develop a student’s ability to make good judgments and explore the relationship between divergent, generative thinking and evaluative, convergent thinking. Encouraging metacognitive learning can support students to understand their thinking and increase creative confidence.

Although creativity is often associated with art and emotion, divergent thinking may actually stem from logical and unbiased thinking. Openness to experience is also related to creative performance. Considering this, it make sense that teaching and learning strategies that hone divergent thinking skills do more than enhance a creative classroom climate, and can help students to develop an understanding and appreciation of difference.

And that brings me to the practical stuff. I’m sharing some divergent thinking exercises and strategies here, ideas straight out of my studio classroom. You may notice that many of these ideas and pedagogical approaches are also directed towards positively developing the individual’s perception self, which is in recognition of the growing plethora of evidence (perhaps confirmation of what teachers already knew) that suggests self-image affects creativity and divergent thinking.

Dive Into The Divergent

Forget ‘failure’

This is an article in itself, but ‘failure’ is a term I think we can move beyond. I know there’s a lot of ‘rebranding’ of the word in edu-circles, but can we talk about solving problems or the creative process instead? Iteration, experimentation, risk taking, resilience – these are some of my favorite vocabulary choices for this conversation!

Respond to Curiosity

It may interrupt your lesson plan, but encouraging students to find answers to their own questions: now, not later, is vital! Immediacy gives the divergent thinker a higher chance of cultivating their ideas.

Help learners appreciate how they learn.

Talk about the process of learning and about strategies for generating ideas. So many students are familiar with the term ‘brainstorming.’ But there are many other ways we can super-charge creativity or start a design-process! Have students explore a variety of ways to generate ideas individually and collaboratively. Tasks can include research into divergent thinking or some ‘warm-up’ activities that prepare students for creativity.

Move beyond ‘likes and dislikes’

Defer judgments. Instead of value-based feedback, encourage open-ended and in-depth approaches to the evaluation of student work. Encourage students to minimize expressing their personal preferences, and instead spend some time silently observing. Ask them to pose inquiry-based questions, starting a dialogue with, “Why … “, “How”, etc.

Time for technology

Through the ‘power of the undo button’, learners can do and redo, undo and do again! The instant feedback available to them on-screen, and this kind of iterative approach is something that often develops fluidly when digital mediums are used. For students that are product focused, developing an ability to take a risk or step out of their comfort zone, the digital space can provide a conduit towards confidence.

Create a sense of support

It may sound obvious, but divergent thinking flourishes in a tolerant environment; in a space that encourages self-expression and supports risk-taking. Teaching is always about nurturing quality relationships.

Divergent Thinking & Art-Making Activities

I couldn’t help but throw in a few of my favorite art-based strategies and lesson starting points for you to remix and reimagine. Wait, did I say ‘my’? Just so you know, I may have stolen some of these from the Surrealists!

Create a collage

Combine disparate images and work to discover and invent relationships based on aesthetics, the absurd or compositional structure.

Through some cutting and pasting, or digital mash-ups, students can move beyond literal meanings. The humble magazine or a selection of personal photographs can become powerful divergent thinking tools, as ‘de-coupling’ objects from their real-world functions or forming new and unusual visual relationships, can open the mind to non-linear thinking.

Pass the picture

Create a drawing and pass it on to another student to continue.

Consider lesson design and variations on this concept can allow students to experience an intensity of idea generation, develop flexibility and explore a process-driven approach. For example, ask students to work for a time on representational image of a still life, before handing it over to a student beside them. Ask students to grapple with the imagery already in place and try to use their unique angle of view in a single image; this becomes a complex visual construct. Another version of this idea is using an imaginative approach to drawing with a continuous, ever-moving line; students can use the surrealist notion of ‘automatic’ doodling or work to a theme and after a short time they are asked to pass the work on for another individual to continue.

Produce a pareidolla

Ever seen a shape in the clouds?

Pareidolia is the phenomenon of looking at an object and seeing a connection to something else that is not really there. Explore ink blots imagery, search for creatures in the clouds, or personify machine parts.

Engage in a visual analysis

Any art teacher can tell you that unpacking an image through the artist’s use of visual language has immense value for the learner.

Interpreting the meaning in a work of art requires viewers to grapple with multiple perspectives, complex meanings, ambiguity, etc. In considering opportunities to enhance divergent thinking, open-ended questions are the key. Students can be encouraged to become more comfortable laying out all kinds of opinions and responses in front of others, and perhaps they will also discover that one answer, solution or scenario is no more correct than another.

In the spirit of divergent thinking, I’d love to hear your ideas, so please share your thoughts in the comments!

Catch Cathy’s session at the CUE 2017 National Conference on Friday, March 17th, and at her closing keynote on Saturday, March 18th.


Cathy is a well-known advocate for the creative integration of technology in education, developing ground-breaking programs for students around the world that combine hands-on, tactile and collaborative ways of working with mobile devices.

As an award-winning educational consultant, presenter, author and experienced Visual Art teacher at The St Hilda’s School on Australia’s the Gold Coast, she has worked with thousands of teachers globally to connect creative technology and cutting-edge pedagogical approaches with diverse learners.

Through her bestselling books, dynamic presentations and workshops across the globe for schools, and work for prominent cultural organisations and galleries including the National Gallery of Australia, Cathy models and promotes learning across subject areas that leverages ‘hands-on making’ with 21st Century skills and tools.

Cathy is probably best known for her work on iPadartroom.com, a home base for educators to engage with innovative ideas, resources and technology for learning in that combines paint and pixels. Her site has grown to become the ‘go-to’ resource for teachers leveraging mobile devices for creativity.

Cathy is an Apple Distinguished Educator currently serving on the Advisory Board for the Asia-Pacific region. Recent accolades include the 2016 International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE) Mobile Learning Innovation Award, two Digital Innovation in Learning Award honourable mentions from Edsurge/Digital Promise and 21st Century Learning International’s Teacher of the Year finalist. Cathy’s iBook, ‘More iPad Art’ also won Best Non-Fiction and Best Reference title at the iBA Awards in Nashville.

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