Friday, January 09, 2009


I look at her sitting sleepy-eyed across the table, hair still messed with bedtime; it is eleven in the morning. I love the late night movies and lazy mornings of vacation. Having been awake for several hours and on my third cup of coffee, I buzz with the possibilities and requirements of the day at hand.

“Mom…” she yawns in protest to my impending monologue, “I just woke up.”

“I know and I’ll fix you some breakfast, but I want to talk to you about time. You know how during a busy week with school and homework and sports and play rehearsal we often find ourselves short on time? Sometimes we have to prioritize and look at what we have time for and what has to get done and decide to leave some things for later.” I tell her, moving myself closer so as not to lose her attention and I continue with my time management speech.

“Well, we had twelve whole days off which seemed like a huge chunk of time and we did a lot of putting off.” I tell her, looking straight into her big brown eyes. “First it was Christmas Eve, then Christmas Day, then the day after Christmas and time to relax and enjoy new things, then a play date and before you know it we were into New Year’s Eve. Well, believe it or not, we are down to an ordinary weekend left and there is a lot for both of us to do. I plan to pack up all of the Christmas stuff, but you need to work on finishing that chapter book and writing your review, so, I want you to make a plan for when exactly you are going to get things done in the next two days.”

Cadence’s hand rises like a student in school, “I know this is slightly off the point, but did Jesus have an older sister?” she asks.

I feel my hands slap against both sides of my cheeks in astonishment and close my eyes briefly. Managing this family is no easy task. I bite my lip as Cadence explains that packing up Christmas made her look at the nesting dolls in which the baby reminded her of Jesus. There are four. A mother, a father and one older sibling that is a girl. She just wondered about that....

I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between convergent and divergent thinking patterns.

My step-father is a brilliant man and Doctor of Education. He had used terms some time ago to describe my first and last born: high creative, divergent thinkers.

I knew that they were creative and thought the term divergent simply meant different. I have learned a great deal since then.

Convergent thinking is an inward process that takes in various pieces of information, compiles and analyzes them and produces an answer or a solution.

It is the most common and natural thought process; the way that most of us learn.

It is predominantly the way schools teach.

Divergent thinking is an outward process whereby a piece of information serves as a stimulus that produces possible solutions to a problem, often stretching into the unknown or less obvious; sort of a springboard that fires ideas outward.

We teach our children in convergent patterns; doling out little bits of known fact or information that they digest and reproduce into a correct answer. Our schools try to take our convergent thinkers beyond their natural skill into a higher level of thinking, stretching their thought process by using their imagination to go outside of the box. Science is a great example with hypothesis and experiment. It is not a natural skill for most and is gently baited and enticed in order to get our children to take risks and push beyond. Programs like “Destination Imagination” use teams of students to problem solve using these types of thinking skills in competition with other schools.

It is a desired skill.

This pattern of thinking is used as enrichment to our convergent teaching.

For the child who owns this pattern, it is a deficit.

The child wired with divergent thinking as the dominant pattern of learning is known to have a “disorder” when in fact, they have a different order.

As teachers dole out pieces of information, which the majority of students collect and digest, it is inevitable that one of these pieces will serve as the stimulus that sets the divergent pattern into gear, firing off ideas or possibilities within the mind and during this array of fireworks, the teacher continues to dole out more pieces of information, missed by the divergent thinker. The result is that they lose pace with the class, often not knowing where they are supposed to be and missing important instruction.

For the adults doling out the information, this is exasperating and the child is called upon again and again to ‘pay attention’; an abstract phrase that to them means they are doing something wrong. They don’t, in fact, know how or why they aren’t “paying attention.” They don’t know what they are doing wrong and quite simply, they aren’t really ‘doing’ anything other than following their natural circuitry.

As parents and teachers, we attempt to “correct” the “problem” with typical strategies of reward and consequence, assuming that they can change this pattern. We assume this thinking pattern is willful.

Reward for success is the most basic of training techniques, successful in teaching even our pets to ‘sit.” Like other children, the DT child wants the reward, but time and time again fails to produce the required behavior. Slowly, they begin to see themselves as inadequate.

Consequences are a part of life and by middle school, not keeping pace results in many negative ones, highlighting the difference between the DT child and their peers; often publicly which over time, erodes their self esteem.

While we accept the wiring and thinking patterns of the convergent structure in our children, encouraging them to stretch beyond, the same treatment is not given to the divergent thinker, who is required, rather than encouraged daily to fight against what naturally occurs, being told they simply “must pay attention” and they must master this other pattern; a tall order for five, eight or ten-year- olds who barely understand the demand. We do not place the demand to self re-wire on the rest of the students.

Einstein knew well these struggles. He did not fit in the box. He failed at school. He failed at his ideas again and again. He persevered, much to our benefit, however not all divergent thinkers are so strong willed.

With my oldest son, striving for rewards proved pointless, mounting evidence to him that he simply was not capable of success. The hard line of consequences built resentment and he took defense in retreat. We continued to fight this battle, sanding his edges to fit this hexagon peg into a round hole. The casualty of this battle was his motivation. He simply gave up trying.

Out of desperation to see my oldest son thrive, I offered rewards, issued consequences and ultimately sought out the medical solution. I believed that if a child couldn’t focus his eyes, I would surely give him glasses and if there was a medical solution that would focus his brain, I owed him the same assistance. In fifth grade we put him on stimulant medication.

I thought at first that we had discovered magic. He was tolerable to the adults around him and the medication surly muted the firing of divergent thought. It toned him down to where he could sit through an assembly at school without bothering anyone and it made him easier to be around.

It also muted the very essence of him; of his creativity and his passion. He was able to methodically perform some rote tasks without the usual disturbance, but motivation did not recover. He did not thrive. He spent six years filling his body with a drug that disguised the wiring of his brain to others, but did not enhance his learning or change his design.

Halfway through his junior year of high school, he refused to take the medication. School for him became a place he had to show up, get by and get out. He immerses himself now in the places that he is brilliant; music and art and my prayer for him is that he finds a future path where those things can take him to success.

My youngest now faces the reality of her design. She, too, is a creative, divergent thinker. Unlike her brother, she is resilient and determined.

She is profoundly self aware.

She is aware of her strengths and weaknesses.

I now have clarity about my job as her mother.

My job is not to offer unattainable rewards or inevitable consequences, but to arm her with the knowledge that she is designed differently than most and to support her in the realization that she will have to work harder.

My job is to make her aware that only some people will get it and even fewer will accept it, but she must strive hard to achieve in spite of this adversity.

My job is to help her discover techniques that compensate for her weakness in the convergent structure of school and encourage her to hold fast to the gifts she has been given.

My job is to teach her that the wiring of her brain was designed by God with a purpose and perhaps that purpose will take some struggling to be realized.

Did Jesus have an older sister? I don’t know.

Is it possible? Certainly.

My faith teaches me that all things are possible with God and it seems He hard-wired that into some little brains. They believe in possibility and if we don’t convince them otherwise...

God only knows where they may lead us.

Thank you Bruce for you understanding and wisdom!


Jerri said...

This is simply brilliant. It explains a lot about my son, too.

How fortunate your children are, Nancy.

One thing, though. "My job is to help her discover techniques that compensate for her weakness in the convergent structure of school..." Is the issue her weakness or school's inability to address her strengths? Either way, you're wise to help her discover techniques that compensate.

Blessings to you all.

Lola said...

What a wise and though provoking post. Tis why I love the true Montessori method of 'teaching' or 'facilitating.' Not enough can be said about encouraging autonomy, responsibility, independent thought and analysis.....oh i could go on:)

She said...

This is awesome and so very true. I really aim to make my classroom one where all kinds of learning styles are encouraged! I try not to perpetuate the "do as I tell you" kind of thing, and you'll get the A. I think it breeds a generation of people who ONLY do what they are told.

I hope I offer a safe space for convergent and divergent thinkers alike!

Your kiddos are lucky to have a mom like you who is really aware of them and takes seriously your job to help them understand how they learn!

Angie Ledbetter said...

This should be published far and wide, and mandatory teacher reading material. From being a special ed elem. teacher for 3 years, I can tell you without a doubt, some of my little students were absolutely brilliant, even if they were non-verbal and/or used a devise to speak. It is only the adults, teachers, and others who fail to understand them, or lack the keys to unlock their store of knowledge. DT people can be the future's leaders, creators and inventors. If only they have a few like you who see past obvious methods and modes. Great job, Mom. I hope you look for somewhere to have this published! PS A child in my bigger family is a DT and diagnosed ADHD. His mother believed in and nurtured his brilliance. He's now attending a very (very) good college on full scholarship. Thank God for our Beethovens and Einsteins. :)

Deb Shucka said...

I agree with Angie. This is information that all schools should hang on their walls.

In defense of teachers, it's often difficult to focus on the needs of each child in a system that places 30 fourth graders in a portable and demands a level of learning that will be tested in the spring and for which consequences will be applied if a certain standard is not met.

This is a lovely reminder that it's the relationship that matters most - the child as an individual - and that love and acceptance and understanding is the only place to start.

Nancy said...

Thank you all for your valuable input.

Deb, just want you to know that I am not teacher-bashing but cannot help the mother bear syndrome. I, too, have an education degree and a bit of teaching in my resume as well as many dear friends who are teachers.

I realize the task for teachers is enormous and that they are human and I admit as the mother of 2 out of 3 of these kids, I find myself exasperated often, in spite of the 1/3 adult/child ratio!

I'm only hoping that we encounter many compassionate teachers like you along the way and that I can bolster my daughters inner strength for those we have and will continue to encounter who simply won't understand her.

Teachers are often heros and I am grateful for their honorable work.