Something that fascinated me as a Primary School Teacher and School leader was the process of education and its purpose – its true purpose. What are we preparing our children for? How are we doing it?
In this blog I’ve posed some questions informed by my experiences in order to explore (sadly not to answer – to have all the answers would be lovely wouldn’t it) a key aspect of this extremely important topic – divergent thinking vs convergent thinking. Creativity v logic.
Paper Clip Genius
There is a well known paper clip experiment conducted by NASA research scientists in 1968. The task involved giving different age groups of people (from 5 year old children to adults) a set of paper clips and asking the participants to come up with different uses for them, or to create something with only the paper clips. The results revealed what percentage of each age group would be considered at a ‘genius’ level.
Surprisingly (at the time) the results showed that 5 year old children were overwhelmingly most likely to show genius levels of divergent thinking – which simply put, is creative thinking. The full results were:-
- 5-year-olds: 98%
- 10-year-olds: 30%
- 15-year-olds: 12%
- adults: 2%
Anyone lucky enough to work in an Early Years setting (Nursery, Reception class) will witness these heart warming, eye opening blooms of divergent genius on a daily basis, and as a school leader – who was lucky enough to see it myself – I completely concur with NASA’s findings over 50 years ago.
Creativity and Education
NASA’s experiment then poses questions about our education system. Does it serve to dampen creative thinking as it progresses, reducing metacognition (the process of thinking about thinking) as pupil’s get older? The answer is – it probably does. I speculate because there is little to prove a concrete answer. We can however compare the marked difference in play based, early years exploratory learning to more traditional objective based learning experienced by children as they enter the ‘system’. Is this though more of a reflection of the world we are preparing our children for rather than any malicious intent to ‘dull’ minds?
Pupils and schools are judged on results and in England this is particularly noticeable as children as young as 6 have (pre-covid) had to sit statutory SATs test to measure progress, not just for the child – but for the school itself. Logical thinking and the learning of ‘facts’ can often (not always) push out time for creative exploration.
My career in education has exposed me to two systems – the English National Curriculum and the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence. My opinions and views of both systems may not be shared by others but I can only comment on what I have experienced during my 10 plus year career.
In Scotland the curriculum runs at a slower pace and focusses on the development of the whole child.
England is very much focussed on learning and progress. That is not to say the English curriculum does not enable children to be supported, English schools are some of the best in the world for supporting pupils with SEN (or ASN if you are north of the border). However from my perspective ‘progress’ was too often measured in data – logical thinking – rather than the ‘whole child’ and allowing time for the growth of divergent thinking.
What is the best way?
In Scotland the education system is less reliant on hard data. So you’d be forgiven for assuming that there would be more space in a Scottish school for creative thinking and to some extent – from my experience – this is often true.
One of the items on the most recent school improvement plan in the school I worked in was to focus on Metacognition – that process of thinking about thinking. A curriculum that works in this way does indeed allow children to go at their own pace, but what must be noted is that the world they are being prepared for does not always allow them that luxury. Whilst key skills or KPIs (Key Performance Indicators – as they are often known south of the border) are taught in their own Scottish guise, they are most certainly not rigorously tracked from a state perspective.
What I have noticed as a parent, is that now my children are back in England, they have had to catch up with their peers after 3 years in a Highland School. Thankfully my children are typical when it comes to ability and have caught up quite well. However it can be argued they have been forced to go at a pace that suited the (English) curriculum and not themselves.
This is an individual case but the curious outcome is that by raising standards they have achieved and enjoyed achieving. It supports the theory that the English curriculum overall has a higher ‘standard’ compared to it’s Scottish counterpart.
Ultimately however it then becomes a comparison argument, which in the context of such an important issue is both pointless and foolish – they can’t be compared, not by any tangible variable.
The only thing we can consider is the core question I’m exploring. Have my children benefited logically but suffered creatively? And which is better/worse? And apart from the use of paper clips – is there really any way to measure this? Would going back into a Scottish school now show a distinct difference in their ‘ability’ or is it simply not a relevant measurement in a system where ‘creativity’ is being pushed higher and higher up the agenda?
The ‘right’ way?
This is not to say that either system is right or wrong (ideally for me a mixture of the two would be best) but it does bring into question what education is preparing our children for. The simple answer is nobody knows because a large percentage of jobs that children are preparing for, simply don’t exist yet. Therefore the argument sways towards school to be a place of creativity – divergent thinking, time afforded to developing adaptable and fluid trains of thought that aren’t anchored to restrictive ‘logical’ processes.
A Complete Rethink
For this to occur there would have to be a major shift in curriculum priorities, which is another 5 blogs entirely. It is clear though that there must be a significant change in education to ensure divergent thinking is blended more intricately with logical/convergent choice making. This then needs to be maintained into adolescence and beyond. The only way the coming generations can survive and succeed in what is an uncertain future for all of humanity is to allow more time and resource across the board to creativity.
In my novel, Tik Robin and The Krismas Goblin, the very notion of divergent thinking is doused and down right banned by the nefarious Mayor Motley Muffles, his oppressive regime stomps out anything that veers from his status quo.
However as readers will have learned it is divergent thinking that saves his world. As is often the case in many fantasy fiction novels.
Creativity is the key to a better life for everyone and as NASA proved, it starts in very early childhood. Encourage it in your children – yes do their spellings and times tables but recognise how important divergent thinking is within your home or school. One day that encouragement might just bring about a world saving idea.
AP Sergeant is a Dad, Husband, former Primary School Teacher/Leader and all round lovely human. He is the author of Tik Robin and the Krismas Goblin, literary agent, book formatter and keen naturalist. Find out more at apsergeant.com and follow him on the ‘socials’.