Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is how an individual can generate multiple unique ideas or solutions. When brainstorming ideas and solutions, divergent thinking also allows you to find relationships between concepts or processes that may not necessarily be similar if comparing the ideas side by side. Divergent thinking is considered the first step in a problem-solving approach, where you are free to explore ideas that may be counter to current ways of thinking or doing. It allows you to expand ideas so that you can start from a small point and broaden your thought process to include multiple, varied solutions.

Within the brainstorming and innovation process, typically, you see divergent and convergent thinking packaged together. Whereas divergent thinking begins the problem-solving process and generates multiple and varied ideas, convergent thinking then allows you to find connections between some or many of those ideas so that you can narrow down and focus on specific options to explore further.

Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking can be an essential skill for students to practice because it allows them to get comfortable with the idea generation process. Whereas, especially within the classroom, society is often structured so that only one solution is deemed “correct”; divergent thinking allows you to explore variations to ideas and alternative perspectives. In addition, it can help foster curiosity about the world around you, and as mentioned earlier, it is one of many components of creativity.



The brainstorming process is a typical example of divergent thinking. In brainstorming, a student generates many ideas, typically to support a common theme. You may see brainstorming often in the idea generation process before a creative writing assignment or as a means to generate ideas for a project-based learning activity, for example. While brainstorming is sometimes found within a class curriculum as a natural extension of an activity, some students may still struggle with the process of generating new ideas from nowhere. Additionally, while many students may be able to develop a few ideas through the brainstorming process, often, children may get “stuck” after a short time and cannot think of more creative ideas. Fostering brainstorming is a skill that will improve students’ detail generation process within classroom activities and help foster an increased propensity for creativity. Brainstorming ideas to enhance creativity can be practiced in various ways, but this article will focus on a concept called “Reverse Brainstorming” to give you a specific activity you can provide to students to help aid them in the idea generation process.

Reverse Brainstorming

Reverse brainstorming is a way that requires you to list what would not work in a given scenario. In fact, this technique is so successful that even the company Pixar® uses it when writers brainstorm ideas for upcoming films! When you are stuck moving forward with an idea, you can list what would NOT happen next. This can help support students with mental writer’s block in a classroom context. It can help students analyze a scientific experiment or help students uncover a chain of likely events in a historical timeline, among many other uses. Reverse brainstorming is helpful because it allows you to visualize unlikely ideas and solutions and helps you, in turn, discover more likely ideas. For example, consider this simple activity. One day, you ask students to practice generating new and creative ideas by listing all the different uses they can think of for a mug. Some students may begin writing down obvious answers, like “drinking coffee .”Other students may start recording more out-of-the-box responses, like “a swimming pool for mini-dolls .”At a certain point, though, students might get stuck- they have generated all the ideas they can think of and can’t push their thinking any further. However, stopping at this point won’t help you achieve your goal of fostering stronger creativity skills in your students. This stage is where reverse brainstorming can come into play. If students struggle with generating varied uses for a mug, you might instead ask students to develop ideas for how a mug CANNOT can be used. Perhaps students brainstorm ideas like “I can’t play video games on a mug” or “I can’t eat a mug .”Listing ideas for what cannot happen or cannot be done opens an entirely new perspective for analysis. As students begin to generate a new list of how a mug cannot be used, they’ll simultaneously begin to create more ideas for actual uses for a mug. For example, “I can’t play video games on a mug, but I can make a tabletop game with a mug and a beanbag that I toss,” or “I can’t eat a regular mug, but I can build a mug out of cookie dough, bake it, and now I have an edible mug!” Reverse brainstorming can begin with students listing what cannot be done. Then they can analyze those ideas to brainstorm further additional uses that may have escaped them initially.


When asking your students to generate multiple ideas, either as part of an extension activity or integrated within a classroom lesson, first allow students to “struggle” on their own with generating as many ideas as they can, without assistance. Once you note that they are at a stopping point, and can no longer generate any ideas, pose a limitation. You can ask them to now think about what ideas WON’T work. In a science course studying parallel and series circuits, you might ask students to reverse brainstorm the following: When given a simple circuit, describe what you CANNOT build with it. In a creative course, you may ask a student to generate ideas for a story about a sad girl. But you provide your students with a caveat: the story cannot occur in the winter or rain and cannot occur in her home. Or, when designing a new art piece, brainstorm ideas WITHOUT using a paintbrush or canvas. You may even just use this activity as a creativity-building exercise: Describe what a paperclip CANNOT be used for. In each scenario, after students have built their “cannot” list, then ask them to again consider how the idea or object can be used. This often opens up additional ideas that the students have not yet considered. Perhaps the science student understands that a regular circuit cannot be used for reading a book- but this led the student to realize he could build a circuit into a nightlight that is used for reading! The creative writing student may begin to think about how she can create a story about a sad girl juxtaposed against the backdrop of a sunny, happy scene. While the art student may have struggled with a unique art idea, perhaps now, knowing she cannot use a paintbrush or canvas, she chooses to use string and paint to create patterns onto a t-shirt. The student that brainstorms ideas for a paperclip may find that he cannot use a paperclip to write, but this leads him to consider how he can build a desktop pen holder out of paperclips.

The reverse brainstorm approach can often lead to more creative ideas to allow you to pursue a thought even further! This simple technique can be an easy skill to teach students as another method of helping to expand creativity both within and outside of the classroom.

It is also essential for students to use these words in their writing as well. To encourage this, you could provide a word bank when having students respond to a prompt and explain they must use all the words in the word bank accurately in context as they respond. See Figure 1 for an example of this next. You can provide a prompt for students to answer, but require students to select vocabulary from a provided work bank to help them reinforce their understanding of each word they previously learned in class. In this example in figure 1, students are participating in a science class, and the teacher has prepared a simple prompt using vocabulary words related to their astronomy lesson. Notice the words chosen for this activity- these words, like revolution, could have multiple meanings depending on the classroom in which the child is learning. These tier 2 words selected help reinforce student’s understanding of the English Language while simultaneously helping them review important academic content they learned in class.

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