Beyond “One Right Answer”: How to Promote Children’s Thinking Skills

How many things have changed since you arrived on the planet?

I don’t even want to think about the number of changes I’ve witnessed over the course of my lifetime. But, here’s one example: I first listened to music on vinyl records known as 33s and 45s. Then came 8-tracks, followed by cassettes, and then CDs. Although CDs are still produced, many people – especially young people — today are streaming their music. (A friend recently told me he was appalled to discover his new car has no CD player in it! How was he to enjoy all the wonderful music he owns?) And now, these many years later, vinyl has also come back into vogue.

The world is changing so quickly it seems that if we blink an eye, there’s some new piece of technology to learn or some new problem in the world that needs fixing. And the more complex the world becomes, the more complex the problems.

The point is that, given the rate at which change is accelerating, we have no idea what the world will look like when today’s four-year-olds are young professionals. The fact that we’re still educating them in a school system that functions like it did 150 years ago is preposterous! Children no longer need to memorize state capitals when Google exists. For the most part, unless a child grows up to become a contestant on television game shows, rote learning in general is a waste of time and energy. Memorizing facts will have little use in life once a child has passed all the many tests schools require.

But the ability to meet challenges and solve problems? That will serve them no matter what the future looks like! Despite this, we’ve still got them filling in bubbles. We’re still training them to believe there’s always going to be just one right answer to every question. It’s ridiculous.

When children become convinced of the value of one right answer, what becomes of their critical- and creative-thinking skills? We may believe creativity is something necessary for artists only, but that’s simply not the case. We need creativity in medicine if we’re to find new healing methods. We need creativity in science if we’re to discover more answers to the world’s mysteries. We need creativity in business if we’re to meet the challenges of a shrinking world. We need creativity in life if we’re to find solutions to the trials we encounter!

If children become convinced of the value of one right answer, how will they ever trust in their ability to solve problems? Business leaders, in fact, are already finding themselves among such young people. One of their chief complaints about today’s employees is their inability to think creatively.

So, how do we help children learn how to meet challenges? Well, active learning, of course, is the opposite of rote memorization. It’s why I’m such a fierce proponent of it. The children are using their minds and bodies to explore and discover…and to think and create.

But there’s one aspect of active learning that’s essential if we’re going to promote children’s thinking skills – and that’s divergent problem solving: presenting children with challenges to which there is more than one response.

Here’s an example: If you’re working on geometry, and you ask the children to show you a triangle with their body or body parts, some might use the whole body to demonstrate it, while others use just their arms, their legs, or their fingers!

If you’re exploring the science concept of balance and you’ve asked the children to balance on just two body parts, one child, who doesn’t feel especially confident, might simply stand on his two feet. Another might balance on two knees, and still another – who may be enrolled in a gymnastics program – might perform a handstand. But there are also many other possibilities for balancing on two body parts: a knee and an elbow, a hand and a foot, a knee and the top of the head, or two cheeks!

If you’ve asked the children to show you a crooked shape with their body or body parts, there can be as many different responses as there are children!

Not only does divergent problem solving allow all the children to respond at whatever level they’re capable, offering plenty of opportunity for success; also, it helps children think outside the bubble – and to realize there isn’t always going to be just “one right answer” to every question or problem. This inspires them to continue to take greater creative risks.

Certainly, convergent thinking has its place in the world: two plus two will always equal four, and the right combination of hydrogen and oxygen will always produce water. But we do real harm to our children – and the future of our world – if we convince them that convergent thinking is the only kind of thinking there is.


  • Sade Odufalu says:

    I couldn’t agree more! This is especially prevalent in my home country where passing a test is usually taken as the only proof of a child’s intelligence. The way we educate our children needs to change!

    • Rae says:

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Sade! I’m sorry to hear that that’s the way it is in your country. The fact is, standardized tests do NOT measure intelligence at all! They measure only one’s ability to take tests. When will policymakers realize this??

  • Camille says:

    Loved this article! I am going to use those examples (making a triangle using body parts and balancing on two body parts) to introduce and implement divergent problem solving in my classroom. This will be a fun and engaging way to promote creativity amongst students.

  • Marina says:


    I coach early childhood professional and this is my message to them all the time! Thank you, you have helped me expand my language and have actual terminology that can help me further explain myself.

    The ECE professionals I work with primarily work with infants toddlers and preschoolers in a mixed age setting. In Family Child Care. Many come from diverse previous professional backgrounds such as insurance agents, restaurant, etc. and the only knowledgeable of how children learn is based on their own. I go into their programs and mindfully model other ways to expose children to the same ideas they do w rote memorization.

    Wow, thank you for sharing this piece!

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