Emphasizing Divergent and Convergent Thinking: Structured Freedom in Elementary Social Studies


William D. Edgington


Traditionally, social studies instruction has been heavily teacher-guided; the teacher has acted as the dispenser of information while students passively occupied the receiving role. While the New Social Studies movement of the 1960s and 1970s emphasized student participation, with children acting as social scientists and engaging in reflection and critical thinking,1 its passing relegated the teacher-student relationship to again being that of giver-receiver.

In an effort to actively involve children again in the learning process of social studies, many educators have used instructional strategies such as KWL (Know, Want to Know, Learned); Webbing; Semantic Mapping; and Jigsaw I, II, and III. These and other strategies attempt to involve children by building on experiential readiness and curiosity, and allowing children to contribute to the gathering of information. As a result, a climate that encourages the development of thinking skills is again being fostered, and this is imperative in social studies instruction.

Maxim suggests that critical thinking may be “the ultimate objective of social studies instruction.”2 National Council for Social Studies, in Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies,3 also stresses the importance of stimulating and challenging children’s thinking, and most social studies methods textbooks include a chapter or special section concerning the teaching of thinking skills.

If teachers are committed to incorporating thinking skills into social studies instruction, “Structured Freedom” should be considered. As defined by Fuchs, Thomas, and Shields, Structured Freedom is a model of instruction based on “techniques for gathering, sorting, storing, retrieving, and expressing information.”4 In Structured Freedom, children engage in convergent thinking (lower-order critical thinking dealing with the known) as well as divergent thinking (higher-order creative thinking dealing with the unknown). Not only do children act as the receivers of information, they are also givers, conductors, decoders, learning facilitators, mediators, and judges of information.

What separates Structured Freedom from other cooperative learning strategies is the emphasis on student control over each aspect of the learning process, from common selection of a task and grouping around a theme to the expression of gathered information. Some cooperative learning strategies emphasize the student selection of topics or prior knowledge demonstrations, while others center on class input into the gathering of information. Structured Freedom focuses on the development of convergent and divergent thinking skills by involving the children in all phases of instruction, from planning to authentic assessment.

This article illustrates the applicability and practicality of Structured Freedom in social studies instruction by applying it to a unit focusing on historical comparison in a fifth grade classroom. Students follow the four stages of the Structured Freedom Model (see Figure 1) as they explore the topic of The Pueblo Indians of the Past and Present.


Application of Structured Freedom

Stage One. The first stage begins with the teacher asking an open-ended question to introduce the task or assignment to be completed. The open-ended question serves as the catalyst to stimulate divergent, or creative, thinking. At the beginning of the unit on The Pueblo Indians of the Past and Present, the teacher might ask, “What do we want to learn about the Pueblo Indians?” When the children offer suggestions, consideration needs to be given to such factors and requirements as time, length, budget, and content. These factors are all discussed, as should be additional considerations such as accountability and evaluation. All suggestions are listed, with none being discounted as frivolous or silly, and children are encouraged to work at offering a variety of ideas.

Some suggestions for task categories concerning The Pueblo Indians of the Past and Present might be History, Location, Daily Life, and Population. When the suggestions for ideas are exhausted, convergent (or critical) thinking activities begin. The children decide whether each suggestion matches the predetermined set of requirements and eliminate those that do not. The remaining suggestions are placed on a Paired Comparison Chart (see Figure 2) and children vote on each intersection (History or Location, etc.). The winning topic at each intersection is determined and the total number of responses for each topic is recorded. The topic with the most responses becomes the task for the entire class. Suppose that Daily Life has the highest number of responses among suggested ideas; Daily Life of the Pueblo Indians of the Past and Present will be the class task or assignment.

Stage Two. The children break into groups and each group chooses a theme related to the task to serve as the basis of its investigation. Similarly to the first stage, an open-ended question that stimulates divergent thinking is introduced. The teacher might ask each group to contemplate the question, “What themes within our task of Daily Life of the Pueblo Indians of the Past and Present do we want to explore?” Each group then repeats the processes of the first stage, offering suggestions as to themes, engaging in convergent thinking by constructing a Paired Comparison Chart, and ultimately choosing a group theme. With Daily Life as the task, one group might offer Schooling, Jobs/Chores, Government, Clothes, Food, Traditions, and Homes as possible themes, and choose Jobs/Chores as the theme to explore. The selection of a theme is performed individually by each group without teacher participation, though it may be decided ahead of time whether more than one group may explore the same theme.

Stage Three. The third stage centers on each group member’s perception of the group theme and the choice of a personal focus. Individuals think divergently by asking the question, “What do I want to know more about in examining Jobs/Chores?” Each person considers different components/ topics and creates a web for the theme. When the members share their webs, the group makes convergent connections and considers whether each topic fits the theme, the criteria for the task, and the original requirements. The group assigns ratings for the topics, rating them from 0 (little value or relevance) to 5 (a perfect fit).

Each member then chooses one high-scoring topic on which to focus. Some high-scoring topics from a group that chose Jobs/Chores as its theme might be Jobs/Chores of Boys, Jobs/Chores of Girls, Jobs/Chores of Fathers, Jobs/Chores of Mothers, Jobs/Chores of Grandparents, Jobs/Chores Specifically Done by Children, and Jobs/Chores Specifically Done by Adults. Each group member would then focus on one of the topics. The group can decide if more than one member, or all members, may focus on the same topic.

Stage Four. In the fourth stage, the children choose forms of expression for the task chosen in the first stage. Techniques and skills necessary for research and investigation (such as reference book and software research, interviews, or Internet searches) may be modeled by the teacher, if they have not already been addressed. After gathering data, each child reflects convergently on his/her acquired information to determine whether it fits his/her individual focus (e.g., Jobs/Chores of Boys), group theme (Jobs/Chores), task criteria (Daily Life), and original requirements for the unit on The Pueblo Indians of the Past and Present. The children must answer the question “How can I express what I have learned?”

The teacher may want to model or explain various forms of expression that could meet the task criteria and class requirements, or the children may divergently construct their own forms of expression. Some possible forms of expression are posters, games, music, dramatizations, reports, books, or videos—all based on the individual focus chosen from the group’s theme. A child who has chosen Jobs/Chores of Boys as a focus, for example, may decide to make a poster and pamphlet that attempts to convey what a Pueblo boy’s daily chores may have been many years ago and what they might be today. The expression may then be presented to the group for editing or comment. The original class requirements may determine whether each child’s expression will be presented to the group only, or to both the group and the class. Evaluations of the expression may follow guidelines set in the original requirements, as could class accountability for information presented in the expression.

Just as Structured Freedom bestows a certain amount of freedom on children, it also allows for considerable flexibility on the part of the teacher. Many other techniques or strategies can be used within this model. For example, KWL and various Jigsaw activities might be incorporated into this Pueblo Indians of the Past and Present lesson as well as other topics for the primary grade classroom.



It is imperative that children be allowed to exercise and explore their thinking skills in social studies instruction. Today, more than ever, we realize the importance of fostering critical and creative thinking in all children, regardless of age. While we generally associate thinking skills with upper elementary grades, we know that younger children are engaged in the same basic thinking process as their older counterparts and adults.5 Children in primary grades have every bit as much need to exercise their thinking skills as do older children.

By studying such topics as Pueblo Indians of the Past and Present, the American Revolution, the Reformation, the Role of Women in America, Families, or Neighborhoods using the Structured Freedom Model of instruction, children can exercise convergent and divergent thinking skills by taking part in each of the four stages. The children become part of the total learning process, helping to decide what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will demonstrate their knowledge. In essence, in addition to fostering thinking skills, Structured Freedom helps children to become active participants in their education and to assume responsibility for their learning—two important goals in social studies as we prepare children to assume, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “the office of citizen.”



1. D. T. Naylor and R. Diem, Elementary and Middle School Social Studies (New York: Random House, 1987); B. G. Massialas, “The ‘New Social Studies’: Retrospective and Prospect,” The Social Studies 83, no. 3 (1992): 120-24.

2. G. W. Maxim, Social Studies and the Elementary School Child, 5th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995).

3. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994).

4. C. E. Fuchs, C. K. Thomas, and K. S. Shields, “Structured Freedom,” Think 7, no. 1 (1996): 38-41.

5. C. Seefeldt, Social Studies for the Preschool-Primary Child (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997).

About the Author

William D. Edgington is an assistant professor of Social Studies Education at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.