In the fall of 2019, I stood before my early childhood class and began discussing creativity. I shared knowledge about convergent and divergent thinking and proceeded to ask my students challenging questions. “Does anyone here know what problems the world will face three, five or 10 years down the road?” The room was silent. Unbeknownst to my students or me, the very next semester COVID-19 would change our working and learning environments in a way that none of us could have imagined only six months earlier.
Each semester, I challenge students to use divergent thinking to solve problems that do not yet exist. I share with my students that while convergent thinking is valuable in providing answers to some questions, it does not answer all; in some cases, it can even create more significant problems as it only provides one solution and dismisses others. However, of greater importance to the future of work and learning is the ability to develop the muscle of divergent thinking – that is, to think in such a way that it provides multiple approaches to address a problem or challenge. It is essential for all people from all backgrounds – children, students, teachers, employers, and employees – to think about how to solve problems differently and in numerous ways.
We cannot forecast our future problems and the answers to solve those problems. It is essential to teach our children how to think divergently so they are empowered to solve the issues they will encounter in the future. As educators of young children and college students, it is our goal to present well-designed learning activities and assignments that help our students develop and use divergent thinking to prepare them for the future.
Since the pandemic hit, we all have been trying to thrive in work and learning environments that are new to us. Faculty at the college converted face-to-face classes into online classes over two weeks. Many employers of my Early Childhood Education Program students halted, while experts continued to study pandemic conditions, including transmission and the best safety protocols to overcome the disease. These early childhood programs found ways of transitioning to become places where the students could return in the safest manner envisioned at that time. Many of my students returned to work, working with young children and their families, in June 2020.
My students had to think divergently to offer learning activities in a way that would decrease the transmission of COVID-19. They had to think of how to provide learning activities in new ways for young children. The way they communicated with families also changed. No longer were parents coming into facilities to pick up their children. Teachers no longer had the opportunity to talk with parents at drop-off and pickup times.
During this time, my students and I met online and discussed how policies and day-to-day activities needed to be different. The students were and continue to be encouraged to think and share solutions for the ongoing, ever-changing demands of educating young children during the pandemic. One of the ways to share knowledge is to provide learning opportunities that students can use to become proficient in divergent thinking in the classroom.
The state of Illinois has become more aware of the long-term issues that have been a part of early childhood education – staff turnover, undereducated teachers and low wages across the profession. Illinois now is using creative approaches guided by divergent thinking regarding how to solve these long-term issues.
Waubonsee Community College will be part of working on these issues over the next three years as we partner with other agencies in the state and our communities to move early childhood education forward. We are committed to sharing knowledge through divergent thinking to serve our students, young children, and families in and around our district.
• Linda O’Connell-Knuth is associate professor of early childhood education at Waubonsee Community College.