Why Creative Problem Solving Requires Both Convergent and Divergent Thinking

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Why Creative Problem Solving Requires Both Convergent and Divergent Thinking

When it comes to developing creative ideas, often we are given platitudes, like “turn the problem upside down” and “think outside the box,” that sound nice but aren’t exactly helpful. Fortunately, by using the proven method of Creative Problem Solving (CPS), anyone can innovate.


What is Creative Problem Solving?

According to influential CPS educator Ruth Noller, CPS is best understood as a combination of its three parts:

Creative — specifies elements of newness, innovation and novelty

Problem — refers to any situation that presents a challenge, offers an opportunity or represents a troubling concern

Solving —  means devising ways to answer, to meet or to satisfy a situation by changing self or situation

While there exist many different methods of implementing CPS, a majority promote two distinct methods of thought: convergent and divergent thinking. While you might have come across these terms before, read below for a refresher!


Convergent and Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking embraces logic to identify and analyze the best solution from an existing list of answers. It’s important to note that this method leaves no room for uncertainty — answers are either right or wrong. Because of this, the more knowledge someone has of a subject, the more accurately they are able to answer clearly defined questions.

In contrast, divergent thinking involves solving a problem using methods that deviate from commonly used or existing strategies. In this case, an individual creates many different answers using the information available to them. Often, solutions produced by this type of thinking are unique and surprising.


The Best of Both Worlds

When it comes to solving the types of problems that regularly arise in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, it is sometimes assumed that convergent thinking should be avoided. On the surface, this makes sense, as complex problems often require novel solutions. Is there anything wrong with solely embracing divergent thinking strategies?

Simply put, the answer is yes. Using divergent thinking on its own might produce unique solutions, but in extreme cases, these might not be grounded in reality. For example, let’s say you want to create a vehicle that runs using clean energy. Without using convergent thinking to first understand the problem, a great deal of time could be wasted trying solutions that have no chance of working. Powering a vehicle using cotton candy or mustard will do nothing, beyond making a mess. Instead, using convergent thinking to first identify a promising area to explore (biodiesel, hydrogen, electricity, etc.), will prevent a lot of frustration and loss of time.

While this is of course an extreme example, it shows the importance of combining both divergent and convergent methods of thinking to solve complicated problems. See if you can encourage the children in your own life to embrace both modes of thinking, to help them invent the future!


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In all our education programs, we embrace the importance of CPS and view it as a key component of the Innovation Mindset  — a growth mindset infused with lessons from world-changing inventors.

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