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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.

CUE Presents the LeRoy’s Big Idea 2017 Finalists

CUE is you, the educators. CUE is big ideas and steps forward and risk-taking. CUE is always looking for ways to not only acknowledge those efforts, but to support them. To support you. We want to help you bring your ideas to life, and in that way help your students to grow and succeed. To that end we established the LeRoy Finkel Fellowship in 1995 and launched LeRoy’s Big Idea lesson design contest on its 20th anniversary. We asked for a one minute video and a pitch- What’s your Big Idea for your school? If you had the money, what would you do with it to help your kids?

You stepped up to the challenge and we received many incredible and inspiring Big Ideas. It was a challenging process, but in the end our selection panel managed to choose five Big Ideas to be represented at the CUE 2017 National Conference. These finalists will present their Big Ideas in a Saturday (3/18/17) morning session called LeRoy’s Big Idea: Innovative Lesson Design Competition. These teachers have already be awarded $500 for each idea. The audience (you!) and a eduawesome panel will watch each presentation and vote on which finalist will be awarded an additional $2000 and full rock star ISTE 2017 treatment including flight, hotel, transportation, and registration.

Let’s meet the five finalists and see what the Big Idea is.


Kim Calderon– 8th and K-2, Fowler Unified School District- Central Valley CUE

Big Idea:

STEM Buddies is designed to bring together 8th grade students with K-2 students to do STEM projects together. We (my 8th grade STEM class and I) want to create a mobile STEM Lab that we can bring to classes. Teachers would choose from a list of STEM activities, depending on the standard they want to cover, and we would take the STEM lab to them and do the activity with their students. Each STEM Buddy will pair up with a younger student and work with them to complete the project. The big Buddies will share what they have learned about different science concepts with their little Buddy while they work on the STEM project. At the end of the activity the STEM Buddies will present their solution to the project and discuss possible changes. The Buddies will also talk about how their project applies to the science standard that it is tied to. Each activity will cover different Science, Math and ELA standards where applicable. The lab needs to be mobile so we would purchase 2 Stanley rolling tool carts. We would also purchase supplies to go in our carts: small motors, scissors, duct tape, straws, wiring, cardboard safety cutters, and other materials as needed to different activities. We also pLAN to purchase 1-2 Spheros. We realize that coding can be difficult with only 1-2 Spheros but students can write it out and then test with their Big Buddy. We will reuse as many of our supplies as possible in order to maximize the amount of activities that can be done.



Amy Downs and Julie Cates– 6th grade, Annie R Mitchell Elementary- Central Valley CUE

Big Idea-

Our big idea is aligning the sweet spot of learning, the dynamic Ah Ha moment, the engagement provided utilizing Breakout EDU, & NGSS standards focusing on Ag in the Classroom. Our first Breakout topic is invasive pest species Asian Citrus Psyllid and its devastating effect on California’s citrus industry. The possible connections are endless. Local/global issues addressed: MSLS21 Ecosystems Interactions, Energy and Dynamics, LS2C Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning and Resilience. Driving question: What happens to ecosystems when the environment changes? Our students’ local region has a global impact as the Central Valley produces $6.1 billion in ag sales. Bringing our world impact into the classroom with Breakout EDU will keep us in that sweet spot of learning. Budget Plan 4 Breakout EDU Kits at $125.00 = $500 Initial student impact 250 students, District impact 2,300.


Jesus Huerta5th grade, Brawley Elementary School District- Inland Area CUE

Big Idea-

My plan is to use the money to buy 13 used amazon fire tablets, 1 set of Bloxel blocks, Bloxel app, 8 packs of (4) perler bead peg boards and 2 (22,000) perler bead buckets for a grand total of $498. This would align with art, writing and technology. First the students would use the tablet to find examples of pixel art and make their own. These bead art works are then ironed by the teacher (me) and fuse together to create 8-bit art. This will allow them to understand how to create their own characters for when I introduce the Bloxel blocks pack and the app. Before the students create their own games, they will need to write a narrative about their game. This backstory will follow them as they finally create their own game. The Bloxel board itself allows for the students to create more complex stages, enemies into bosses and much more.


Kimberly Johnston6th grade, DMUSD- San Diego CUE

Big Idea-

This project could be applied to any topic, but I will use it with a 6th gr Lit unit. Students will read the novel Hatchet and research survival, then write a realistic fiction narrative. Students will use the coding software Scratch to bring their story to life. They will create the sprites and backdrops for their story, and record sounds to set the mood. They will code an animation that blends together all these elements into a dynamic representation of their narrative.

I want students to create and express themselves. I want research to influence and ignite their creative process. I want them to see how their choices of words, sounds, and images can make others feel something. I want them to see coding as a way to allow them freedom of expression.

This project encompasses ELA, Engineering/Design, ISTE, VPA, Music & Math Practice standards.

4 USB Microphone for recording; 4 Portable Recording Box for improved sound quality in close quarters; Total: $450


Adam Juarez6-12th grade, El Monte Middle School- Central Valley CUE

Big Idea-

Student success in college and career requires creativity and innovation. We no longer live in an industrial economy. Rather, students must collaboratively problem solve to design creative, innovative solutions. It is vital our learning spaces empower students to produce rather than consume content, aligned to ISTE Standard 1: Empowered Learner. The Cardinal Innovation Center correlates to ISTE standards, impacting all departments and subject areas with solid pedagogical focus.

Classroom spaces need to be overhauled. The Cardinal Innovation Center is a student-centered, flexible learning environment. The space is designed to encourage students to innovate and find their voice, to construct knowledge (ISTE Standard 3: Knowledge Constructor). The Cardinal Innovation Center serves as a blank canvas encouraging students to design and ideate (ISTE Standard 4: Innovative Designer, ISTE Standard 5: Computational Thinker). This learning space is fluid and flexible. It has a lounge atmosphere as opposed to a traditional classroom of rows and desks. Whiteboards as well as flexible table set-ups and fluid seating fosters collaboration and increases student communication (ISTE Standard 6: Creative Communicator). This student centered learning environment makes students feel comfortable and fosters innovation and creativity.

The Cardinal Innovation Center serves as a model for teachers to see an innovative, student-centered learning environment in action. Teachers can replicate this learning space in their classroom, multiplying the impact. The space increases collaboration as teachers work with me to design differentiated lessons. Students needing enrichment activities visit the Cardinal Innovation Center under my guidance, while teachers benefit from smaller class sizes for personalized, needs-based pedagogy.

The Cardinal Innovation Center serves students throughout the school day and is also available before and after school to provide free WiFi and a safe place to collaborate, create, and innovate. As students collaborate globally (ISTE Standard 7), the center provides a safe space for students to learn and demonstrate digital citizenship (ISTE Standard 2). The lounge atmosphere allows school clubs and sport teams to support extra-curriculars by fundraising through sales of refreshments to students and staff.

To effectively align the Cardinal Innovative Center to ISTE standards, funds from the LeRoy Finkel fellowship will be used for tools such as: Chromebit ($80), Chromecast ($35), Wireless Mouse and Keyboard ($30) Rolling tables ($80 x 4 = $320), and 6 USB Charging Station/Power Strips ($20 x 2) for a total cost on $495. Chromebit and chromecast are used to facilitate digital display to promote student creativity and collaboration. Rolling tables allow for flexible seating arrangements to best meet the needs of innovative learning tasks. Charging stations/power strips promote student choice of device and learning location within the space.


LeRoy himself

Saturday, 3/18, at 9am all six of these educators will take the stage in front of a panel of rock star educators and sell their Big Ideas. By a combined vote of the panel and the audience, one educator will be named the next “LeRoy Finkel Fellow.”  The Fellow will be given a mentor, provided travel and registration to the ISTE Conference and invited to write about their idea in an upcoming issue of the OnCUE Journal. We hope to see you in the audience, ready to vote and get inspired for your 2018 Big Idea.

Doug Robertson is the CUE Blog Editor and an eleventh-year teacher currently talking at fifth graders in Northern Oregon. He’s taught in California, Hawaii, and Oregon in 3rd, 4th, and 6th grades. He’s the author of two books about education, He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), one novel, The Unforgiving Road, and is an active blogger. Doug speaks at teaching conferences including CUE Rock Star Teacher Camps, presenting on everything from technology to teaching philosophy (or teaching The Weird Way, to use his words).  Doug is also the creator and moderator of #WeirdEd on Twitter, which happens every Wednesday at 7pm PST.

Divergent Thinking in the Creative Classroom

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. […] Read More

CUE Presents the LeRoy’s Big Idea 2017 Finalists

CUE is you, the educators. CUE is big ideas and steps forward and risk-taking. CUE is always looking for ways to not only acknowledge those efforts, but to support them. To support you. We want to help you bring your ideas to life, and in that way help your students to grow and succeed. To […] Read More

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