I have always loved board games, but when I was a kid I developed a habit I could never quite shake; whenever I played a board game I used to wonder what it would be like to go off the board. For example, one game we played a lot as kids was Star Wars: Escape from Death Star (this was back in 1977, when Star Wars was just Star Wars, before all this “Episode” nonsense). The game was extremely simple: players began the game in that iconic trash compactor and had to make their way through the corridors of the Death Star to the Millennium Falcon (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then for cryin’ out loud, watch Star Wars already!). The game board looked like this:
My problem was that I kept wondering what it would be like to go off the board. I imagined going to higher or lower levels of the Death Star than were shown, and wanting to blast off into outer space in various directions. I imagined multiple boards, all chained together, each representing a new planet to explore. I enjoyed the game, but I wanted to go beyond the borders.
This, I think, is one way to describe creativity: It is the ability to picture scenarios outside of established parameters. To use board games as an analogy, you could say that a creative person is someone who finds it hard to play board games because he is always wondering what lies beyond the board. It isn’t just games like Star Wars that would get me thinking this way; I once played chess with my dad as a kid and I kept imagining an underworld just below the chess board, along with a strange alien craft called a “Skyhook” (at the time I thought I had invented the term and I was quite proud of it) which would pick up pawns and carry them directly to the end row to promotion. I imagined a paradise called “Utopia” in the sky and a desolate Waste Land to the west. On and on; I got so intrigued by this strange new world that after the game I sketched out a diagram that looked something like this:
Psychologists tend to differentiate divergent thinking (the ability to think of novel solutions to problems) from convergent thinking (the ability to find a single correct solution). Divergent thinking is usually associated with imagination and creativity, while convergent thinking is often linked to logic and precision. Here’s a simple, completely unscientific test of which type of thinking you are more comfortable with. If you look at my chess diagram above and you think, “Man, that’s pretty cool!” then you are probably a divergent thinker. By contrast, a convergent thinker would probably look at the sketch with horror or indignation and think, “How ridiculous! That isn’t how to play chess!” Of course, it isn’t a strict dichotomy; a person can be strong in both modes of thought and apply whatever form of thinking is appropriate to the situation. Teachers should obviously want students to be strong in both modes of thought; sometimes multiple perspectives are essential, and sometimes there really is only one right answer.
I have always thought that the board game scenario could be an intriguing exercise in divergent thinking, especially for students in elementary school. The teacher presents them with a board, from any board game, either abstract (chess or backgammon) or concrete (Monopoly, Clue, or even Escape from Death Star). Then the teacher asks the students, “What lies beyond the board?” and gives them time to describe and sketch out their ideas.
To be certain, there is no shortage of convergent thinking in our schools. Students are constantly bombarded with assignments in which they are required to find the correct answer. But divergent thought is a rarer species, yet a fundamental component of creativity and problem solving. Teachers need to do whatever they can to cultivate it, and students who leave the board often find themselves in some pretty incredible places.