How to Help Your Kid Be a Divergent Thinker

We’re pretty keen on anything having to do with 21st century learning. Obviously, we’re big believers in encouraging critical thought and innovation, and in the fact that presenting subjects like philosophy to young learners can have huge, lasting benefits.  Philosophy is, after all, supposed to teach you how to think, instead of what to think.

Have you ever heard of divergent thinking? Here’s a terrific clip that explains what it is and how it can benefit all kinds of thinkers. As Sir Ken Robinson describes it in the video, divergent thinking means:

  • more than just being creative.
  • being able to see many different answers to a question.
  • being able to interpret a question in a number of different ways.
As anyone who’s done philosophy with small children (or with big people, for that matter) would, we found this pretty familiar and appealing.  Done properly, philosophical education demands that learners consider a variety of ideas, and that they carefully scrutinize exactly what’s being asked of them in the first place.  This doesn’t mean any old idea is okay, as long as it’s different.  Even if there isn’t one correct answer, there are still going to be some that are better than others, and it’s our job as thinkers to consider, analyze and evaluate each one before accepting or dismissing it.  It’s also our job to throw our fair share of new ones into the pot too.  Without divergent thinkers, philosophy probably would have died out long ago.
Another part of the clip that grabs our attention is the fact that while most small children excel at divergent thinking, adults often struggle with it.  Having done philosophy with both small children and adults, we have to agree.  I clearly remember having a mature student in a lecture shake his head as I explained Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”, and the only explanation he could give was that it was just too different and weird.  I’ve also heard educators say that it’s impossible to do philosophy in a meaningful way with anyone under the age of 18.  Children in philosophy workshops seem eager to tackle new ideas, to play with them, try them out and propose their own new ones.  Adults, on the other hand, get a little intimidated by the new and the different, and are a lot more hesitant to stray from what they already know.
My question is this: could introducing philosophy to children at an early age help them to continue to think divergently as adults?  I’m not sure if this ability is something we lose because our brains change, or because we’re just discouraged from using it, but it seems to me that a little P4C could at least delay or slow down the loss.  If divergent thinking is a neurological phenomenon, could philosophy keep this important “muscle” from atrophying over time?  If our divergence from divergent thinking is learned as we age, could philosophy help to build a culture in which it just isn’t cool to leave it behind?
Food for thought.  Thank you, Sir Ken, for the bite of wisdom.

Amy Leask