Revisiting Brainstorming

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

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Imagining the Post-Pandemic University: What COVID-19 is telling us about young people and higher education.

Like any species that migrates annually in search of a more nurturing habitat, young people around the world have, for centuries, left their homes in the late summer to attend university or college. For the vast majority, this has meant moving to another city and, for the first time, separating from family, friends and familiar surroundings.

The presumed primary reason for this migration has been to seek advanced education in order to pursue interests and prepare for chosen careers. A second purpose, less overtly expressed, is to further personal independence. Over the years, those two purposes have been intimately interwoven. Moving away, for the vast majority, was an indisputable requirement of advanced education. For some it has been seen as difficult and a major personal hurdle. For others, it is welcome and long overdue. For virtually all, it has been seen as necessary, beyond personal choice or preference.

COVID-19 has changed all that. Because of the massive shift to alternative forms of curricular delivery required by the pandemic, most (all but those in programs where personal attendance is considered essential) have been provided a choice. They are, for the first time, able to continue their studies whether or not they move to the community in which their learning institution is located. By making personal attendance optional, COVID-19 has provided a fascinating natural experiment. What have we observed?

Here at Queen’s, about 1,900 students have returned to university residences, despite the fact that only a small minority of them need to be on campus to engage any part of their curriculum. In addition, the Office of the University Registrar estimates that a further 8,600 students have moved to local Kingston accommodations. Although exact figures aren’t available, a reasonable guess would be that about 1,000 of these are required to do so to engage required in-person curriculum. It’s therefore reasonable to estimate that over 9,000 young people have chosen to move to Kingston to take up their education even though it has been deemed pedagogically unnecessary for them to do so by those overseeing their programs.

We also know that there is historical experience to support the desire of students to move away from home to pursue their education even if it isn’t essential to do so. Young people who happen to live in communities that house excellent institutions of higher learning will very often choose to move away for the “university experience”. Even those who remain in the same city will often choose to “move out”, seeking separate accommodations away from home.

All this should, of course, come as no surprise. It’s all part of the process of normal human development. Erik Erikson, as far back at the early 1950s, postulated that late adolescence and early adulthood were critical times in the development of personal and social identity.  He theorized that such identity develops most effectively when people at that stage of life are provided what he called a “psychosocial moratorium”, by which he meant a time and situation during which they could feel free to “sample” and experiment with various social roles for themselves before taking on a more fixed and permanent role, i.e., before they “committed” to a profession, personal philosophy, or relationship.  Colleges and universities are critical to providing this environment for most young people, certainly in North America. For that environment to fully meet the needs of students, it must allow them to interact, both passively and actively, with other young people and with teachers with differing life experiences and perspective who can challenge assumptions and promote new thought during this critical developmental phase. Much of those encounters are passive and unanticipated, occurring in various social contexts, small and large.  

And so, the “education” that young people seek by leaving home and moving to universities isn’t simply limited to the acquisition of new knowledge or qualifications. They’re also seeking, and very much need, an environment where their personal development can continue to grow and expand. The “social” components of university life, the “partying” so troubling to many, are not simply troublesome indulgences. They are very much part of the overall growth/educational experience.

The 9,000 or so young people moving back to Kingston this month are basically “voting with their feet” in stating what’s important to them, and what they’re seeking at this point in their lives. As they return, their integration into the community given the threats of COVID has never been more difficult or potentially divisive. Their presence brings an understandable degree of fear. Although their return has been rather muted compared to previous years, many social behaviours previously easily tolerated are now considered unacceptable and, on occasion, infringements of new public health requirements.

Given all this, what are the implications for universities and colleges once the stresses and problems of the pandemic are finally resolved and we are able to resume “normal” operations? If they wish to remain relevant and attractive to young people, what lessons are they to take forward in considering their post-COVID world? I offer a few (very personal) perspectives.

  • The concept of university education being defined by rigid schedules and classrooms of defined capacity should now be considered antiquated and obsolete. The educational adaptations to COVID have shown rather conclusively that the transmission and learning of information and fundamental knowledge can be accomplished quite well without these time-honoured constructs, vestiges of early childhood education.
  • We are also learning that higher level teaching about integrative or complex concepts, knowledge application and simple exchanges of thought between learner and teacher are clearly not fully accomplished through computer interfaces. The absence of personal interaction lessens the educational experience, for both learner and teacher. To be truly a community of higher learning, universities must find effective ways for students and teachers to interact, at the right times, and for the right reasons.
  • Behaviour has to be interpreted realistically. Expecting young people to not socialize is like expecting a fish not to swim. It’s in their nature. It’s how they navigate the world. Expecting that they won’t be overly boisterous from time to time is like expecting a puppy to be placid and stationary. Socializing is not inherently evil but rather a necessary part of development. In young adults who may be somewhat lacking in both experience and judgement, borderline behaviour is an inevitable consequence. This is not to say that anti-social or criminal behaviour should be condoned. Far from it. It should be condemned in the strongest terms. But our condemnation should consider whether there was intent to do harm, be directed at the behaviour and not the individual, and should reflect support, understanding and efforts to educate.

The campus of the future should reflect these lessons learned. The ability to deliver foundational information and basic knowledge more efficiently and flexibly through various remote interfaces shouldn’t be seen as a temporary bridge back to “normal” but rather the beginning of new and promising innovations. Technologies for remote delivery should be embraced and enhanced. At the same time, the critical importance of personal interactions between teachers and learners for higher level teaching of core concepts, knowledge application and exchange of ideas merits preservation and emphasis. The development of creative and effective ways to enhance such exchanges, using both traditional and innovative formats warrants encouragement and support. Finally, the university environment should recognize the critical requirement of young people to socialize and allow them to do so in a safe and responsible manner. Campuses that evolve from being collections of buildings and rooms accessed according to rigid schedules, to more open communities where learning is a more natural lived experience will better meet the needs of students and find themselves in high demand.

The pandemic is, along with many troubling challenges, also providing valuable insights and opportunities. We should learn from this natural experiment playing out around us. We should aspire to more than to simply return to “normal”.

 

I’m very grateful to Stuart Pinchin, University Registrar, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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5 Tips: Coping with learning in COVID Times

I’m writing this from what I dubbed my “basement bunker” back on March 23 when we started our remote teaching and learning. At the time, it was a way of injecting some humor into a stressful, face-paced pivot to working from home and supporting teaching and learning online. Six months later, I’m still here, but conscious that a few quips won’t get us through the potential tedium and distractions of working and learning from home.

Picture is of a narrow basement window, looking out at a thin strip of "outdoors" beyond a metal window well. This is to illustrate the author's limited view of the outdoors from her desk.
The lone window in my basement bunker…

As we all settle in for a semester unlike any other (are you tired of “unprecedented times” yet?), the Education Team offers these 5 additional learning strategies to help during COVID-Times:

1. Carve out spaces: Staying home for most of the semester’s classes (except for your short “Red Zones” with small-cohorted face-to-face instruction) could make it difficult to focus and concentrate. One strategy to break up the day is to carve out more than one “school” space where you’re living: one for “class” and one for “homework”. Simply moving to the other side of the room can signal your brain that you’re switching activities. If you have a roommate and limited spaces (say, one desk and the kitchen table), maybe trade off your class and study spaces.

2. Get up and move: There’s a reason FitBit buzzes every hour when you wear one, and it’s not just marketing. Too much sitting is bad for everybody. At least once an hour, turn off your camera and walk around a bit, do some standing yoga stretches, or a few jumping jacks – you can still listen! Pro-tip: make sure this isn’t when you might need to turn on your mic. I was on the far side of my (admittedly small) basement bunker on a walking break during a meeting, when the chair said: “Theresa, what do you think?”

3. Pack your lunch: This one may seem silly, but I’m serious. You don’t have to go to the extreme of putting everything in a lunch bag, but think about prepping your lunch either the evening before, or while you’re making breakfast – just like you would if you had to take it to campus. Chances are, you’ll eat healthier that way. After a morning of zooming, and facing an afternoon of more, if you have nothing prepped, you may be tempted to gobble that leftover pizza, or half-finished bag of chips instead of the great lunch you (would have) packed.

Picture shows a streetscape with trees, grass, and sidewalk. Purpose is to illustrate that getting outside is a good idea.
Walking around my neighbourhood at lunchtime helps shake off the feel of the basement bunker.

4. Get outside: Whether it’s after class or during, make sure you get outside at least once a day. While the weather is still nice, if you have access to an outdoor space and your Wi-Fi extends that far, consider setting up outdoors for your afternoon classes. (I saw a few of our students on a couple of Zoom classes last week doing this). Keep social-distancing rules in mind, but get some fresh air to wake up your brain.

5. Do something social: Don’t get bogged down in “just” doing schoolwork – schedule something social. It’s good to connect with people outside your program. Again, keep social-distancing rules in mind, but book time for something fun. Schedule a Zoom story time with nieces and nephews, set up a walking phone visit with a pal, or sign up for a non-academic class or activity. Lots of organizations are getting creative about programming. My sister (a high school teacher in Toronto) and I signed up for the Kingston-based Cantabile Choirs “Virtual Voices” season of weekly online voice lessons.  Not only do we each now have a scheduled “fun” activity, we’re doing it together while apart. Think outside the box for planned not-school-work! (If you like singing, there’s still time to check out Virtual Voices, which begins Wednesday evening: https://cantabilechoirs.ca/virtual-voices/)


Do you have a learning from home tip? Share your advice in the comments!


~ With thanks to my teammates Rachel Bauder and Eleni Katsoulas for their contributions to this post.

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A Quirky, Unique and Heartfelt Welcome to Meds 2024

Everything is different during a pandemic. Last week’s orientation events for our first-year students proved to be no exception. In fact, I on the first day I found myself standing alone in large hall speaking to a medical school class and their families, none of whom I could see.

To explain, the Orientation Week usually starts off with a gathering of the entire class in the main lecture hall of the School of Medicine Building with a series of welcomes and presentations. I’ve always found it a particular pleasure to meet the newly gathered class for the first time and share in their enthusiasm and excitement. Because of pandemic restrictions, we had decided some time ago to hold the first session in Grant Hall, with the hope that we’d be able to bring the entire group together in a large venue that could provide appropriate social distancing. Since the hall was updated over the summer with appropriate audiovisual capacity for large class use during the semester, that seemed like a reasonable idea. Alas, the escalating requirements necessitated by the changing characteristics of the pandemic made that impossible. Nonetheless, we felt we could still use that space as a base for the presentations and livestreaming to family members (a pandemic bonus!). When we arrived Monday morning for what would prove to be the first such session from that site, we found that the set up was such that the speaker could only be seen by viewers by standing not on the stage, which would provide scale and an academically appropriate backdrop, but from the floor.

And so, I found myself a small figure in a large space speaking to people I couldn’t see. Fortunately, I wasn’t completely alone. I was followed by Dr. Renee Fitzpatrick, Assistant Dean Student Affairs, Mr. Anthony Li, Aesculapian Society President and finally Dr. Jane Philpott, our new Dean who delivered an inspiring address about the privilege and responsibilities of a medical career. Many thanks to our MedsVC team, and Bill Deadman in particular, for very capable assistance and guidance through all this.

This year’s group consists of 107 students, drawn from an applicant pool of over 5500. They come all regions of our country and backgrounds. One hundred and seven individual paths leading to a common goal that they will now share for the next four years. Sixty-two of them have completed undergraduate degrees, 27 have Masters degrees, and three have received PhDs

They hail from no fewer than 47 communities spanning the breadth and width of Canada:

They have attended a variety of universities and undertaken an impressive diversity of educational programs prior to medical school:

An academically diverse and very qualified group, to be sure.  Last week, they undertook a variety of orientation activities organized by both faculty and their upper year colleagues.  They were called upon to demonstrate commitment to their studies, their profession and their future patients.  They were assured that they will have a voice within our school and be treated with the same respect they are expected to provide each other, their faculty and all patients and volunteers they encounter through their medical school careers. 

Over the course of the week, they met a number of curricular leaders, including Drs. Lindsey Patterson and Laura Milne.  They were also introduced by Dr. Fitzpatrick to our excellent learner support team, including Drs. Martin Ten Hove, Jason Franklin, Mike McMullen, Josh Lakoff, Erin Beattie, Lauren Badalato and Susan MacDonald who oriented them to the Learner Wellness, Career Counseling and Academic Support services that will be provided throughout their years with us.  They met members of our superb administrative and educational support teams led by Jacqueline Findlay

They attended an excellent session on inclusion and challenges within the learning environment, organized by third year student Chalani Ranasinghe supported by Drs. Mala Joneja and Renee Fitzpatrick. Stephanie Simpson, University Advisor on Equity and Human Rights, provided a thought-provoking and challenging presentation intended to raise self-awareness regarding diversity and inclusion issues. This was followed by a very informative dialogue from a panel of upper year students (Nabil Hawaa, Sabreena Lawal, Andrew Lee and Ayla Raabis) who provided candid and very useful insights to their first-year colleagues.

On Thursday, the practical aspects of curriculum, expectations of conduct and promotions were explained by Drs. Renee Fitzpatrick, Cherie Jones and Lindsey Patterson.

Dr. Susan Moffatt organized and coordinated the very popular and much appreciated “Pearls of Wisdom” session, where fourth year students nominate and introduce faculty members who have been particularly impactful in their education and invited them to pass on a few words of advice to the new students.  This year, Drs. Peter Bryson, Casi Cabrera, Bob Connelly, Jay Engel, Chris Frank, Debra Hamer, Nazik Hammad, Mala Joneja, Michelle Gibson, and Narendra Singh were selected for this honour.

Their Meds 2021 upper year colleagues, led by Miriam Maes, welcomed them with a number of (generally virtual) events.  A highlight included the always popular distribution of backpacks, this year in brilliant school-bus-yellow (the group is already becoming knows as “the Hive”). Thanks to Molly Cowls (Meds 2024) for sharing this collage.

For all these arrangements, skillfully coordinated, I’m very grateful to Erin Meyer and Hayley Morgenstern of our Student Affairs team.

I’m also grateful to Erin for not allowing the first years to be deprived of the traditional Orientation Week group picture which, this year, required some creativity and extra effort:

I invite you to join me in welcoming these new members of our school and medical community. Their first week be long remembered for the most unique in the history of our school, and hopefully also for the commitment, persistence and adaptability of all involved.

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