Active learning is a process of opening up and closing down possibilities.
Whether you look at course, module, session or activity design, knowing that your role as an academic is to play with divergence and convergence can be really helpful. As a teacher, you are a designer and an orchestrator of learning experience.
Divergence is about opening possibilities and creating choices (Brown, 2008).
Knowledge is usually hard won, interpreted, and not a matter of certainty in higher education. Ambiguity can be an important characteristic in many disciplines where students learn immersively, taking deep dives to explore ideas and produce new knowledge. Learning requires an open and creative attitude to navigate and negotiate complexity, even when theoretical knowledge is well-established. Exploration, play, brainstorming, problem-solving, experimentation, enquiry are all examples of generative approaches to developing knowledge and they often begin by expanding and making ideas and problems more complex.
Martin (2009) proposes the value of ‘integrative thinkers’: those who can take a broad view of a situation even where this breadth increases complexity when considering problems. Such people are able to consider and evaluate alternative perspectives. They are able to think laterally (de Bono, 1970) and can address detail while keeping the entire problem in mind. Such people are able to think creatively and critically.
Looking at de Bono’s description of brainstorming, it is useful to note that divergence does not by any means equate with a chaotic free-for-all. Sessions are intentional, structured and involve provocative stimuli framed by cross stimulation, suspended judgement, and the formality of the setting. As an approach within active learning, divergent lateral thinking activities make sense. Indeed, “The more formal the setting the more chance there is of informality in ideas within it.” (de Bono, 1970)
However, this opening up, or divergence, can be challenging for many students if their expectation is that they should be told what they are ‘meant’ to know. But there is no challenge in that, and therefore little meaning. Further, knowledge beyond the classroom does not work like that and so generating divergent complexity is as much a strategy for developing self-efficacy as it is for developing knowledge – we learn we are capable of devising thinking strategies. A student learns to see their own capabilities differently as they engage with learning strategies that develop their confidence, resilience and agility.
On the other hand, didactic methods are generally disingenuous to the student – they reflect the ‘spoon feeding’ tendencies of training methods. Instrumental teaching strategies simply give the students what they think they need and are characterised by little divergence or convergence. Lecturing is often described in this way, but we need to be careful. We all remember inspirational lecturers, so it is not about lecturing per se – a good lecture will be one that inspires curiosity (opening up possibilities) and engages the learner in an exploration of a topic’s dimensions before arriving at some conclusion (a convergence).
In design thinking, convergence is about working towards a single best solution having started with possibilities. From the breadth of opportunity, learning is often a matter of making sense by trying out and testing ideas, usually with others, through analytical thinking or reflection on action.
The learner has agency over their learning: they are ultimately responsible for the construction of their knowledge. Convergence, therefore, refers to the scaffolded and effective processes that teachers deploy to ensure a student learns by selecting and evaluating options, making decisions or commitments, and drawing conclusions.
Patterns of divergence and convergence can be discerned in any active learning strategy at course, module, session, and activity levels of design. They can be repeating patterns as in exploration of a pattern of weekly topics through a module or learning cycles. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (1984), for example, incorporates concrete experience (an open exposure to something), reflective observation (a convergent process of analysing what happened), then abstract conceptualisation (an expansion as the definite experience is generalised), and then active experimentation as generalised knowledge is evaluated and committed (a convergent resolving part of the cycle).
In a webinar I ran recently on divergent and convergent design in active learning, the question of assessment was brought up. It is always interesting for me when assessment comes up. It always feels like we may descend into an impasse. When considered holistically in an active learning paradigm, assessment does have an important (if sometimes distracting) summative purpose; however, assessment should really be considered strategically as a pattern to be designed within the learning experience. Within any assessment pattern there will be elements that appear to have little to do with the summative act but which are, nevertheless, integral to the assessment. This is all to be played with, but elements such as ‘outcome setting’ and ‘challenge’, for example, are orientation dimensions that may be used at the start of a module to open up and develop curiosity. Then ‘brief’, ‘question’, or ‘task’ suggest focus and convergence within the assessment strategy. Good formative feedback is about opening up and generalising the particular so it can be applied to other situations, while the summative task can be used either to test for specific application knowledge (convergence – ‘what is the correct answer?’) or create a divergent learning space (i.e. the major project – ‘tell us what you found out, why and how’). So, the design of active learning assessment strategies provides a good example of how patterns of divergence and convergence and can help the academic designer.
Here’s a list of divergence and convergence ideas:
In conclusion (but only for the moment!)
I was frustrated as an art student. I felt I got little guidance when I needed it. Everything was “open, open, open”. I felt I never arrived. It was dissatisfying – for me. I needed tension, challenge and feedback. But in other situations I have got equally frustrated – HR training courses do my head in! There is no room for contextualisation and interpretation, and quite honestly I don’t retain what I learn on those training courses. I need to be stimulated.
I don’t think I am alone. A well-designed learning experience, I think, is stimulating and has ebbs and flows, loud and quiet movements, complexity and revelation; patterns of activity that are equally inspiring and challenging, and ultimately informing in a way that makes sense to me.
Brown, T. (2008). ‘What does design thinking feel like?’ Ideo Design Thinking [blog], 7th September 2008. Online at: https://designthinking.ideo.com/blog/what-does-design-thinking-feel-like
de Bono, E. (1970). Lateral thinking: a textbook of creativity. London: Penguin Books.
Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Martin, R. (2009). The opposable mind: how successful leaders win through integrative thinking. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.