Divergent Thinking Exercise

Divergent thinking

Thanks, Sir Ken Robinson, for continuing to be a huge inspiration in my 9th & 10th grade art classes.  For the last 3 years, I have started the class with the RSA Animate video, Changing Education Paradigms (which to date has been viewed over 11 million times!), to familiarize my students with the idea of strengthening their divergent thinking skills.  His challenge to think how many ways you can use a paper clip is just perfect for my students, and I conduct a class competition to see which class can come up with the most ideas.  I stand at the board and furiously write down their ideas (we have 50 minute classes).  We don’t edit; it is a free flowing activity and stream of consciousness.  My 6th period class was the winner today (the Pre-AP Art II students) with 313 ideas on the board before the bell rang!

I just love doing this with the kids at the beginning of school!  Most of the classes today really got into it, and their ideas were wonderful.  There were even unique ideas between classes – not every idea was unilaterally thought of.  I think today, my 14-16 year olds felt like they were geniuses, as they let their imagination fly!  Now to keep the creativity & divergent thinking exercises flowing throughout the year!  To really strengthen their divergent thinking muscle, we have to practice, so between each art project we will do different activities to strengthen their brain.  I really do love my job!

Creativity Exercise – Story Telling from Art Postcards and the Surprising Results

Wow!  My students blew me away today, but not really in a good way.  One of my goals this year is to have more creativity exercises interspersed throughout the year to help stretch their creativity muscle.  I have a very large art postcard collection, so last night I had this idea of selecting postcards that had some sort of narrative aspect to the work, staying away from obvious narratives like religious scenes.  I selected quite a variety, including the work of Frederic Edwin Church, Edward Hopper, Duane Hanson, Gustav Klimt and Sandro Botticelli.  I had 30 cards selected; some cards were famous paintings, others not.

I conducted this exercise with my sophomore Honors class, both Honors Art II and Sculpture II students.  I started the activity by passing out one sheet of computer paper to each student and had each of them select a card (the backside of the postcard was all that was visible to them so they couldn’t see what they were getting) from the fan of cards I held in my hands.  Next, they wrote the title of the artwork at the top of their paper.  I gave them one minute to begin a story about the image they had – I asked them to write their name and the word “beginning” on the paper, and when I said “Go!”, they would start their story.  When the minute was up, all papers and their image postcards were passed to another person who would write the middle of the story – they also had one minute.  When that time period was up, the paper and postcard was passed to the last person who would write the end of the story.

They had a great time doing this, and after we finished, asked if we could do this every week!  Wonderful!  So happy to have my students excited and engaged!  I gathered up all of the stories and postcards and took them to the Elmo to project for all to see, and to read their quick stories.  Each group called out which postcard I should read next!  They were so excited, and happily, we had enough time in class to read all of the stories.

But, when I started reading the stories, I became dismayed and puzzled.  Out of 25 postcard stories:

  • 4 stories centered around boredom
  • 13 stories centered around death (by shark, by bombing, by dragons, or other mysterious causes)
  • 1 story centered around tyranny
  • 3 stories included drinking in the scenario (and not lemonade like the story below)
  • 1 story alluded to a 16 year old girl’s rape

Really?!?  These are the stories our children are coming up with?  I can assure you that the postcards I gave them were not of bloody battle scenes but more of the bucolic pastorale narrative type.  I am truly dismayed about these tales.  One story, which showed 2 small children with water balloons in the kitchen was a gruesome tale of killing their oldest sister with a gun while she was doing homework and pushing her out the kitchen window into the small blow up pool below.  They also killed their father, who met the same fate, then dumped the water balloons on the bodies.  This is crazy stuff.  I did read the stories, as I wasn’t sure where they were headed, and of course, they knew what they had written. They howled at their tales.  As each story came along with these terrible themes, my heart fell.  What is informing our children’s imagination?  Death?  Killing?  Boredom?

I imagined I would write a post about this and include a postcard and the story that goes with it, but I have to say, there is hardly one I care to share with my reader.  There are a couple I will post here:

Frederic_Edwin_Church_The_IcebergsFrederic Edwin Church’s, The Icebergs, 1861, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art

  • (Beginning) Hook finally opened his salt-crusted eyes.  He vaguely took in the scenic ambiance around him, and then saw his ship.  It was a wreck.
  • (Middle) He decided to go back to sleep because he was that kind of guy.  After sleeping what seemed like 3 hours, he climbed down and decided to ride out on seals to look for his comrades.
  • (End) Plot twist!  He slept for 70 years instead.  Everyone he loved was dead, now he had only the seals for company.  His tears plopped into the ocean, salt mixing with salt.


Henri Manguin, Femme à l’ombrelle, 1905, oil on canvas, 24 in. x 19 5/8 in.

  • (Beginning) In the flower beds overlooking a river in Rome, Lucille sat under the shade of a tree and her orange umbrella.  Her sister,
  • (Middle) was a clown in the circus downtown and orange was her favorite color.  As she sat enjoying the sun, a man walked towards her.
  • (End) Lucille was very scared.  This man, a shady figure approaching her, who could this be?  The man jumps at Lucille.  Lucille is frightened to see that it was her sister disguised as a man.


Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, 1951, oil on canvas, 29″ x 40 1/2″

  • (Beginning) We were just sitting down to eat dinner hearing the nice ocean waves outside the door.  This was the first time I’ve been on a cruise.
  • (Middle) They looked outside for a good view and saw sharks trying to eat people.  They wanted to help…
  • (End) Being a fan of shark week, I decided not to help because sharks are dangerous so we closed the door and listened to ‘Summer Breeze’ while drinking an ice cold lemonade.  That was the best summer I ever had.


Paul Cézanne, Peasant in a Blue Smock, oil on canvas, 31 3/8″ x 25″, Kimbell Art Museum

  • (Beginning) His beloved wife passed away and with those memories on his mind, this old and lonely man was sitting at his porch.
  • (Middle) While he was sitting on the porch, he could remember those days when his wife would be coming home, walking under the sun holding an umbrella.
  • (End) When his wife was tragically killed by a sudden bout of hiccups, his life was changed forever.  He painted his whole house blue, her favorite color, and only wore blue to represent his feelings and in memory of her.

I believe that’s enough for you to get the idea.  I’m not going to give up on this activity, they did love it so.  But I wonder if I have to put some parameters around the nature of their story?  I want this to be their thinking, but I find their collective thinking to be morose and gruesome.  I would love some feedback from you, dear reader.  Would you give them more direction, or let their storytelling go where it goes?  Would you query them about this line of thinking?  How would you handle a situation such as this?