Have you ever used brainstorming in your teaching? If you want groups of students to come up with a variety of ideas quickly, brainstorming is one tried-and-true way to get creative juices flowing.

Since the concept was introduced in Alex Osborn’s 1953 Applied Imagination, brainstorming has caught on in business, education, volunteer organizations and elsewhere to generate ideas and solve problems. Brainstorming, as set out by Osborn, is designed to produce a large quantity of ideas in a short space of time, in order to encourage creativity. He had four simple rules for brainstorming sessions:

  1. Don’t allow criticism
  2. Encourage wild ideas
  3. Go for quantity
  4. Combine and/or improve on others’ ideas

A few years ago, some writers recast “brainstorming” as “brainwriting”. This is a new name for a familiar best practice: brainstorming works best when it’s planned, not haphazard, and it starts with the individual, not the group.

As described by Patrick Allan (citing work of Leigh Thompson and Loran Nordgren) brainwriting avoids the brainstorming pitfall of anchoring: where an early idea streams all other suggestions in a particular direction. “Brainwriting” gives individual team members time to write down their own ideas free of others’ influences.

Osborn himself advocated this (although he didn’t use the term brainwriting), asserting that the best ideas come from a blend of individual and group work. Classroom brainstorming shouldn’t be unplanned: students should have prep and thinking time. As Robert Sutton notes in “Eight Tips for Better Brainstorming”: “Skilled organizers tell participants what the topic will be before a brainstorm.”

Barbara Gross Davis also encourages individual preparation in Tools for Teaching. She suggests posing an opening question and having students spend five minutes writing a response. This “gives students time to think and enriches subsequent discussion.”

Here are some other ideas to encourage better brainstorming in your classes:

  • Assign roles within the brainstorming group. Groups need a moderator (to guide discussion, keep the group on topic, and encourage wide participation), a scribe (or two) to capture the ideas (using either flip charts, Post-It notes, computers or consider audio recording), and members (to contribute and build ideas).
  • MindTools advises that the moderator can help keep the team on task and can help the team avoid narrowing its path too soon. “As the group facilitator, you should share ideas if you have them, but spend your time and energy supporting your team and guiding the discussion. Stick to one conversation at a time, and refocus the group if people become sidetracked.”
  • Remember, the students who are the moderators and scribes aren’t actively brainstorming while they’re attending to their key roles. Encourage teams to share these tasks throughout a term, so it’s not always the same couple of people who end up taking notes rather than contributing their ideas.

And, yes, even with Zoom: with all the above, you may think this is a post-pandemic teaching tool. With a bit of planning and creativity (and the right tools), you can use brainstorming even in our online (synchronous or asynchronus environments. You can use online tools such as PollEverywhere’s “Q&A” function – once students provide initial ideas, classmates can vote up or vote down a suggestion. You can also use Zoom’s built-in white board as a brainstorming wall. (This takes a bit of set-up to get right, but could be worth it for the right topic).

And, what to do with all those ideas the groups generate? Sutton points out that brainstorming should “combine and extend ideas, not just harvest them,” so have a plan for what you want students to do next.

The next steps are sorting and follow-up. In Small Group and Team Communication, Harris and Sherblom recommend an “ACB Idea Sorting Method”:

  • Assign an A to the best one-third of the ideas
  • Assign a C to the least usable one-third
  • The middle one-third automatically receive a B
  • Go back to the B’s and separate them into the A or C category
  • Store the C category ideas for later use
  • Prioritize the A list in terms of item importance, urgency, or applicability to the problem at hand.

The Education Team can help you with incorporating brainstorming and other techniques in your teaching. Contact me to arrange for one-on-one coaching or to facilitate a workshop for your team.


References

7 Tips on Better Brainstorming. (n.d.). OpenIDEO. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from https://openideo.com/blog/seven-tips-on-better-brainstorming

Allan, P. (n.d.). Use “Brainwriting” Instead of Brainstorming to Generate Ideas. Lifehacker. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from http://lifehacker.com/use-brainwriting-instead-of-brainstorming-to-generate-1615592703?rev=1407126541539&utm_campaign=socialflow_lifehacker_twitter&utm_source=lifehacker_twitter&utm_medium=socialflow

Brainstorming: Generating Many Radical, Creative Ideas. (n.d.). Brainstorming. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from http://www.mindtools.com/brainstm.html

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2. ed.). San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Harris, T. E., & Sherblom, J. (2011). Small group and team communication (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, F. P. (2009). Joining together: group theory and group skills (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson/Merril.

Sutton, R. (2006, July 25). Eight Tips for Better Brainstorming. Bloomberg Business Week. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2006-07-25/eight-tips-for-better-brainstorming

An earlier version of this post was shared in August 2014