Is This Your Final Answer? What Happens When We Insist on a Definitive Solution

…“What if” thinking encourages new solutions to seemingly impossible problems.Think Like a Five Year Old

One of the biggest creativity killers is our need for a final answer. This need is properly known as convergent thinking, and the ability to accept multiple answers is properly known as divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is not synonymous with creativity but is a key principle of creativity.

As a case study to test your own thinking about this, consider this question about the Bible:

  • How many points are there in a parable?

The parable of the prodigal son is perhaps the longest and perhaps most famous in scripture. It’s the story of a son who demands his inheritance, squanders it in a far off land, then returns home in shame, and how the father reacts. (It’s in Luke 15:11-32 if you want to read it.)

Is there one meaning to this story, or multiple meanings? Perhaps it depends on the character with whom you identify. The “point” of the story is one thing from the perspective of the father, another from the son, and yet a third from the older brother.

The beauty of story is its ability to provide multiple meanings.

We return to beloved stories again and again, not because the stories change, but because we change. In the story of the prodigal son, perhaps at various life stages, the same man resonates with all three characters.

We may agree with this in principle, yet by our actions, we often suggest that there is only one meaning to find. When we insist on convergent thinking, and look for a single “point,” we reduce the power of our stories and their ability to speak in unique ways in time and space. We do this in our work life and in our spiritual life, where we look for final answers to our deep existential questions. As I write in my book Digital Storytellers:

Has it ever struck you how little the Bible is present in worship today? Most of the time, Protestant worship is expository. In the past, worship contained both the telling of the biblical story itself, and a commentary on it. Now, we almost always get the commentary. Sermon-centered worship, if based on the Bible at all, is mostly the presentation of one person’s understanding of biblical stories; based on his or her private, quiet analysis of Biblical text. 

We’ve gotten used to the idea of the final answer. We skip the movie and go right to the criticism and review. We want the explanation – it’s easier, faster, and seemingly “final.”

In our schools, companies and churches, we teach convergent thinking, or at least it happens naturally and we don’t stop it.Think Like a Five Year Old

But do we lose something when we drive straight to the point, when in fact there may be more than one point, for various people and at various times in life? Perhaps what we lose is an ability to explore, and in the exploration the opportunity to discover new wisdom and insight.

Modern education prefers final answers.

Creativity researcher Sir Ken Robinson notes that our modern educational system’s emphasis on standardized testing is exacerbating the problem. You’ve heard the story. American kids are “falling behind,” so we continue to push for higher standards and more rigorous testing. The statistics are depressing, and I don’t mean the test results. Here’s one: up to 70% of high school senior year reading is now non-fiction. Literature is increasingly lost. (For why this is bad, see above.)

But what is happening on the other side of the world, at the highest end of the global rankings?

In 2010, high school students in Shanghai, China’s largest city, finished first in an international standardized test of math, science, and reading proficiency given to students in sixty-five nations. The United States finished between fifteenth and thirty-first… Not everyone in China, however, viewed this result as an unmitigated triumph. Some expressed concern that an emphasis on rote learning was smuggling creative thinking and intellectual risk-taking. “These are two sides of the same coin: Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests,” Jiang Xueqin, a deputy principal at Peking University High School in Beijing, wrote in an essay in The Wall Street Journal shortly after the test results were announced. “For that reason, they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.”

A principal at a school in Shanghai that figured into the international testing was concerned enough about the stifling atmosphere that he instituted reforms to foster more creativity. One of his innovations: a weekly talent show. (Michael SokoloveDrama High)

 

Most problems have multiple answers.

The effects of quantifying learning won’t be known for a long time, but the potential loss of creative thinking is frightening. I am not a chicken little by nature, but a greater emphasis on creative thinking is critical in our schools, churches, homes and communities. While the value of the humanities is foremost that they teach us to be human, it’s becoming increasingly clear that through their proclivity to promote divergent thinking, they also serve a quantifiable benefit. Sokolove writes,

In 2011, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, first established in the Reagan administration, highlighted current scientific research and issued a call for greater emphasis of arts education. “The brain prioritizes emotionally tinged information for conversion to long-term memory,” the authors wrote, citing music and theater education as examples of disciplines with the potential to “cause an actual change in the physical structure of neurons.

  • In what areas of your life do you see a need to know the final answer?
  • When is it appropriate and good, and when is it a hindrance?
  • How might acceptance of multiple answers aid your personal, work, and faith life?
  • What steps can you take to encourage divergent thinking?

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).