Coined in the 1950s and popularized by his 1960s publication, Applied Imagination, advertising executive + businessman Alex Osborn’s brainstorming concept has since made its way through the boardroom and into the high school classroom as a standard means for essay preparation.
Prior to drafting the various elements of their essay, we typically encourage students to generate a few ideas and consider strategic order before committing these thoughts to the page or screen.
And we facilitate this process in any number of ways. Lots of times, our writers are asked to draft essays individually and/or on-demand, meaning a time limit is in place.
So we share idea-generating strategies in the form of steps, pneumonic associations, or triggers such as the Hand Approach method. These give writers a framework to access ideas quickly and efficiently within that limited time frame.
Asking our students to brainstorm in groups is also a timeless classic. This is where Osborn’s legacy is usually most apparent: offer up lots of ideas, don’t worry how silly they sound, build on the contributions of others, and avoid criticisms early on.
We might therefore rely on group strategies like the Question-Formulation-Technique (QFT), for instance, to slingshot students into the process; or we might engage them in an interactive, carousel brainstorm like this one from my Remix Archives (i.e. a 2015 throwback to my days at the Global Pen, y’all!).
And these are all fine frameworks for getting students to be curious and creative when peering into issues.
But most of the time, we speak of brainstorming specifically in the context of generating ideas for essays exclusively.
It’s important, however, that we translate just. how. valuable. this skill is beyond that.
In other words, we need to peel back the classroom curtain to reveal the bigger picture of how brainstorming can lend itself to real-world application.
Whether they’re part of a group/team/company, or they’re drumming up ideas of their own for a school project or a pro product, our learners-slash-future-professionals need effective brainstorming capabilities at the ready.
According to Seth Godin,
What we want, what we need, what we must have are indispensable human beings. We need original thinkers, provocateurs, and people who care.Seth Godin, Linchpin
Being indispensable, therefore, means that because you have great ideas and because you’re curious, well, your skill set will always be en vogue. You will always be (intellectually or professionally) attractive to others.
Which is what we should want for our students as we work on the brainstorming process during the year. *This* (real-world application) should be our genuine reason for teaching this process.
Of course, the ability to come up with creative ideas has always been a timelessly desirable trait. Nothing new there, right?
But in an era where traditional systems are being TKO’d by out-of-the-box thinking (think: taxi services vs. Uber, Blockbuster vs. Netflix…heck, think Uber vs. self-driving cars!), our students need to be able to open up their creative channels more so than ever before. And they’ll also need to elevate the input of others in order to get to higher ground.
If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.African Proverb
Sounds simple enough, right? But here’s the catch…
Plenty of students poo-poo the process, deeming it either unnecessary or a waste of (limited) time (or both). So they skip the brainstorm, replacing it with a doodle or two on an otherwise blank planning sheet.
This has a lot to do with being left to engage in the process alone. It can be intimidating, or at worst, downright defeating.
Meanwhile, during a collective brainstorm, you’ll have just as many students who are amped about the process as you do kids who are marginalized by it.
Curious + creative thinking is a crucial (and indispensable) skill, so how do we leave no child behind in building up this capability?
First of all, we need to look the beast in the eyes. As promising as it sounds, brainstorming sessions are not always filled with singing trolls and unicorns.
Unfortunately, and as you’ve likely experienced in your own classrooms, the traditional means for brainstorming we tend to rely on don’t always work in the way Mr. Osborn intended it.
There are several, potential roadblocks that sometimes rear their ugly heads when we attempt collaborative brainstorm, so let’s dig in to what those are. Mindfulness is everything in this regard.
#1 | Anchoring
Let’s invoke the standard scenario: you kick off a brainstorming session with your students: how can we solve problem X? Whether that’s world hunger, or how to train your dragon, whichever.
One of your more vocal students throws an idea out there. It also happens to be one of the more obvious (hackneyed) ideas.
But because he (or she) has offered it up, the rest of the class bites. They run with this idea, and even though it isn’t all that realistic or workable, they tail after it with zest. Half the class period goes by, and no other ideas are offered.
This is the evil doing of one of our many cognitive biases, called Anchoring. In other words, an anchor is set (the first idea), which is followed by a bias toward that anchor (everyone jumping on it).
This makes things easier for everyone involved: first, the person who intially offered the idea can back off for the rest of the session because they’ve ‘contributed.’ And second, everyone else is off the hook because they’ve got someone else’s idea to hammer on instead of drumming up their own.
In the reverse, a potentially good idea might be offered, but another student notes a flaw in that concept. It might not be a deal-breaking flaw, but once exposed, everyone is drawn to that flaw, *anchored* to that negative. They can’t get past it, so the idea dies.
Anchoring can be a consequence of collaborative brainstorming.
#2 | Groupthink
I can’t let this one go by without a shout-out to Orwell…so there it is.
But groupthink has a lot to do with social norms. As a general rule, we–good people of the world–try to avoid picking arguments with others. Most of us aim for ‘agreeable,’ thereby thinking like the group.
It also has to do with some of the blueprint Osborn laid so many years ago: ‘avoid criticisms early on.’
What ends up happening is that, again, those more vocal students who share ideas early on tend to set the tone of thinking for the rest of the group.
Although other individuals might have ideas, they are more likely to hold back on these to avoid breaking up the present conversation with a different thought or direction.
And while I recognize the ‘yes, and…’ method to avoid this, groupthink can generally be a consequence of collaborative brainstorming.
#3 | Pressure
For obvious reasons, brainstorming sessions usually have limits. Class periods and/or work days are only so long, right? Not to mention, plenty of folks place value in setting a timer on the ideation process because in plenty of cases, urgency can get the sparks flying.
And I agree with all that to an extent. But I also think it fair to address the potential problems time limits can have on the brainstorming process, one of which that it spawns the ‘low-hanging fruit’ syndrome.
When the clock on a brainstorming sesh starts ticking, think of how quickly your students (or any group) shift toward the product (an answer or solution), as opposed to homing in on the process of generating and building ideas.
According to Teresa Amabile, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, ‘pressure is almost always terrible for creative thinking.’
All of a sudden, students are clawing at the most accessible fruit on the Creativity Tree–or the easiest ideas–and polishing these up like new, bruises and all. This often leads to the production of mediocre results because they’re being bullied by time.
So pressure can be a consequence of collaborative brainstorming.
Well, as if I haven’t said it enough by now, there are a few, potential drawbacks to sharing out ideas in the collective form. But if you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you go together. So it looks like we need to brush up on our best practices for brainstorming in the classroom.
I have 6 brainstorming strategies for you to try, each of which attempts to:
- sidestep the traditional roadblocks brainstorming brings with it, and
- position brainstorming as the valuable skill it truly is (not a blank sheet of paper for students to doodle on!).
#1 | The 6-3-5 Method with a Twist…or a dot
Instructors at Stanford University are known for pushing the envelope when it comes to creative thinking, with some professors requiring their students to come up with as many as 100 ideas as the baseline for their brainstorms.
Can you imagine asking your students to come up with 10 ideas, let alone 100?!
Believe it or not, this isn’t such a tall order after all, with a structure like 6-3-5.
And to deepen this brainstorming experience, we’re going to add to this simple system in just a moment. But first, what does the 6, 3, and 5 stand for?
6 group members.
3 ideas each.
Every 5 minutes.
This generates 108 ideas in 30 minutes, whoa!
Now you can adjust this any way you want, of course. Plenty of students will generate more than 3 ideas in 5 minutes. So you might switch this up to be 3 ideas in 2 minutes, or 5 ideas in 5 minutes.
My best advice is to try the baseline first (6-3-5), then build out from there.
Below is the standard 6-3-5 matrix for running this activity. And there’s also a PDF version of it in my Free Resource Library.
For this activity, you would give your students a focus question, something to generate ideas for. Each group of 6 students would then generate 3 ideas to add to their group’s brainstorm matrix, giving them 5 minutes on the clock to do so.
Tip | Students can write ideas directly onto the matrix or they can make these ideas more manipulatable by placing them on post-it notes.
You can give each group a different focus question, or it might be interesting to see how the various matrices turn out when each group is working on the same concept.
Either way, once the group has completed the matrix, give them time to share out and build upon their ideas. They might replace sticky notes that are irrelevant, or they might add information to existing ones to clarify/deepen.
Then it’s time to layer in the ‘twist,’ which is where you would ask students to use Dot Voting to rank the ideas in relationship to their novelty and potential.
Let’s imagine all groups tackled the same focus question. Hang the many matrices on the white board at the front of the room in preparation. Now give each student a limited set of dots (these could be in the form of stickers, but if the Honesty Policy is good enough, you could use Bingo stampers, too, I suppose!).
Students should walk the board and place their ‘dots’ on their ‘vote’ for which ideas are the most compelling in light of the question.
A quantifiable (and visual!) way to go with the majority, yeah?!
Watch the video below, which overviews the 6-3-5 method, its benefits, and its drawbacks. I’ll warn you, it’s a bit dry in tempo, but it’s got ALL the good insights you need to move forward with this activity!
Reasons I think 6-3-5 is a worthy cause for the classroom. First of all, tons of businesses are picking up on the fact that ‘brainwriting‘ is way more effective than brainstorming.
In essence, this just means that giving participants an opportunity to get into their own brains first before sharing out, has major potential to ward off things like anchoring and groupthink.
Increasingly, brainstorming is becoming a central topic in news outlets targeting professional audience, such as Forbes and Entrepreneur magazine
Business people need brainstorming, too, right?
Being transparent with them, simulating real-world contexts where brainstorming svelte comes in handy beyond essay writing might bring them closer to the step they often skip…
But that pesky ‘5’ in 6-3-5 does add that element of pressure we talked about, which *could* be a problem. So I recommend running this activity first with the time constraint, then let it continue beyond the classroom at its own pace.
To do this, you could have groups add further to their matrix throughout the week via Google Sheets or Excel.
That way, they can take time to think about, research, and test their ideas on others, adding these to the matrix over time.
#2 | The visual vision
Sometimes ideas, like dreams, can be hard to put into words. You might notice this, for instance, when a student tries to add an idea to a 6-3-5 matrix but it doesn’t really translate.
That’s likely because ‘it’s hard to explain, Miss.’
Sometimes, even in an ELA class, starting with words and writing isn’t necessarily the best way to reach our writers. Multiple intelligences aside, sometimes ideas are better expressed visually in this infant state.
So when it comes to brainstorming, I guess we can’t knock the doodle after all!
Typically, Vision Boards are used for daydreams and goal-setting (in the best ways, of course…they’re super powerful!). But now we’re going to weave this real life tool right into our academic curriculum!
Organize students into groups and brief them on what topic they’ll be generating ideas for. Then ask them to create a Vision Board that communicates their thoughts, attitudes, preconceptions, on the matter.
Your writers can use images in powerful ways to create tone, communicate biases, establish evidence, and more.
But hold up. Some Mischief I need to Manage…
You may be thinking…is there a rubric for this? And while I could just as easily whip up a document that says:
- includes at least 16 images
- uses a color palette which is consistent with the writer’s intended thesis and tone
- can defend at least 3 images as ‘evidentiary’
- etc., etc.
I am going to hereby advise you otherwise…
Instead, let students run with it. Without guidelines (gasp!).
As in, give students very few instructions other than:
‘think about your views on Issue X. Then create a collage of images that cleverly reflects that. The only way to fail is to creep outside the bounds of empathy…’ (and whatever else might set the norms-n-boundaries for your students, accordingly).
Put the Vision Boards on display. Then have each group select one they want to study further (other than their own, obvi). Ask them to prepare their analysis and/or interpretation of the artist’s views by deconstructing the images of the Vision Board. Wrap it up by having the original artist-group speak on their own behalf.
Adds a whole, new flavor to ‘Gallery’ Walk, yeah?
#3 | No Slacking here
One of the great things about the Excel spreadsheet I mentioned earlier in the 6-3-5 Method (with a twist, yo), is that it extended the brainstorming session beyond it’s original time frame.
Contrary to popular belief, great ideas don’t just appear like lightning (or as an apple to the head, for that matter). Instead, most mind-blowing ideas grow from the roots of, well, rather mediocre ones.
And our students deserve to know this!
Ideas take time to develop. A single brainstorm sesh isn’t therefore always going to cut it, so giving our students the tools which serve as an extension of the initial activity itself are tools well shared!
One such tool, and one that I consider to be the modern-day Instant Messenger (did I just date myself…again?!), is called Slack.
#Slack: ‘a collaboration hub for work, no matter what work you do…a place where conversations happen, decisions are made, and information is always at your fingertips. With Slack, your team is better connected.’
So if teams are using this in the ‘real world,’ why can’t teams in our classrooms, too?
What’s the harm in aligning classroom activities with what professionals actually do once they leave it?
It’s not like it costs money (i.e. it has a free plan!), and it’s the kind of communication tool that offers more ‘pro’ than bro in terms of online communication.
What I love about Slack is that student teams can continue to share ideas as they surface over time.
So here’s the quick scoop: inside the platform, users create ‘channels’, so these channels can be geared toward the topics and/or projects they’re working on.
If students are working on a group essay, they might divide their slack channels into the various elements of an essay, or they might organize them via lenses, or by perspectives.
Here’s an example of a Slack channel I have, called #writing-process. And you guessed it, I link relevant articles regarding the writing process into here!
Expert Tip | Try it out with a colleague. Create a legit project you might have your students research, for instance. Then use Slack to communicate with them on it for 1 week. That way you get used to the platform and all its idiosyncrasies.
And more importantly, you don’t look like a total boob in front of your kids, lol.
#4 | Get your thinking hat on
Author of that timeless American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee once told us (through the mouth of Atticus Finch, of course) that in order to understand someone, you have to ‘climb into his skin and walk around in it.’
Not only will this make us a more tolerant, empathetic society, it’s a great brainstorming tool, too 😉
According to the creator of the ‘6 Thinking Hats’ method for brainstorming and collaboration, Edward de Bono,
by assuming different roles during the conversation–or wearing different ‘hats’, so to speak–participants can easily focus or redirect the thoughts and the energy of the conversation.
Typically, we arrive at the brainstorming table with a bias for our own ideas. But the whole concept of hat-wearing forces us outside of our own heads (or skin), and requires us to see things from different angles.
And the best part about it is that it’s just a ‘hat’, which is why I love this idea for teenagers especially.
Those participating are more likely to speak up because they’re not fundamentally tied to the thoughts coming out of their mouths while wearing the hat! So this can make for a much more open, creative exchange of ideas and points for consideration.
So what are the *hats*, you ask?
Blue Hat | when students are wearing this hat (and no, you do not need to make them wear a graduation cap, lol), their role is to be the organizer. They set targets, outline objectives, define the issue, maintain flow throughout, and bring everyone together at the end for synthesis and reflection.
White Hat | the person(s) wearing this hat will focus their contributions on sharing relevant facts and objective information about the issue being discussed, and to base opinions or ideas on these alone.
Red Hat | the role of this hat is to offer the emotional standpoint, so gut reactions or intuitions.
Black Hat | your resident ‘devil’s advocate’, these guys are a dominant-but-vital component to any conversation; they offer a critical analysis and put ideas ‘in check’ in order to keep ideas realistic and feasible.
Yellow Hat | for every devil’s advocate, you need a little counter-balance to the counter, right? This hat offers the ‘bright side’ of things; it’s an optimistic perspective, one that sees (or finds) potential and possibility in all things.
Green Hat | this hat should be in the shape of a lightbulb, because this is the one with fresh ideas and a creative mindset; when wearing this hat, students should embrace out-of-the-box thinking by combining and blending existing ideas into novel, new ones. (i.e. greens. get. weird.)
I recommend two, basic ways to play around with this brainstorm. You could:
- have students all wear the same hat at the same time and rotate through together.
- or, have each student in the group select a hat to wear and allow those roles to interact throughout.
So if all students in a group are wearing the same hat at the same time, they might all start off the meeting wearing the blue hat and framing the intentions of the session together before moving on to the white hat, (‘what do we know?’ or ‘what can we find out?’) in terms of just the facts, and what ideas can we generate in light of that? etc.)
OR, if students are each wearing different hats during the activity, then you’ll likely want to have multiple ‘shifts’, where students can either rotate roles to the right, or you can allow them to pick up a hat at their own discretion and try it on for size 😉
#5 | You can’t skimp on SCAMPER
As I mentioned earlier, ideas don’t just fall out of the sky and clock us on the head.
But meanwhile, this myth of the ‘aha’ moment intimidates most of us into feeling like we aren’t ‘smart’ enough or ‘creative’ enough to ever come up with an idea like *that*, am-I-right?!
If you think about it, this is probably why students shy away from brainstorming to begin with…!
So the SCAMPER method adds a whole new dimension to creative problem-solving because it doesn’t assume good ideas magically form on their own.
Instead, it equips participants with a concrete system for conjuring those good ideas through the process of active cultivation.
The Interaction Design Foundation offers one of the most classic examples of SCAMPER in action by referencing the birth of the Golden Arches.
Yep, McDonald’s was forged through the P, the E, and the R, my friends:
- How can we put the traditional restaurant to other use? (selling restaurants + real estate instead of just burgers!)
- How can we eliminate some of the traditional costs that come with running a restaurant? (Customers serve themselves!)
- How can we rearrange the experience for customers to make it more time-efficient? (Pay before you eat, instead of waiting on the check!).
Check out LiteMind’s post here, which offers a ton of helper questions and trigger words to get SCAMPER going in your classrooms!
In terms of implementing SCAMPER, you could certainly have groups of students work their way down the checklist in a linear-ish fashion, recording ideas in a matrix as they go.
You could also jigsaw the letters to different groups in the classroom and rotate these roles, or complete a carousel walk to maximize results.
OR, even better yet, you could game-ify the concept by cutting up the various ‘helper’ questions and/or ‘trigger words’ associated with each letter (again, see LiteMind’s post for these!), and have students draw upon these at random, seeing who can come up with an answer faster (either in teams or via individual-stand-off).
#6 | Get moving
You can give yourself wings by drinking a Redbull, but seriously, you can give your ideas some legs by taking a walk…
Current research suggests that light physical activity such as walking can boost creative thinking by 60%.
Researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz at Stanford University conducted four experiments in which their findings reveal how walking can open up the free flow of activity in real time (as in, while walking) and it can also have an impact on creativity thereafter.
You can watch Oppezzo’s TEDx Talk below, where she gives a brief and entertaining talk on these findings.
Some of the world’s greatest thinkers are known to walk-n-talk to generate ideas, including Steve Jobs himself. It was actually his preferred method of solution-seeking, and he became well known for his ‘walking meetings’, which have gained popularity in plenty of companies since.
Taking a walk is great for health, and based on the research, it’s great for divergent thinking, but it’s also nice to get out of the usual learning space, too.
And besides, when it comes to field trips, you can cash in here by saying, ‘don’t say I never took ya’ nowhere!’ 😉
While it might make sense to go for a lap around the courtyard or the track, consider this gentle caution:
Research also suggests that ‘free walkers’, those who select their own walking path, are typically more productive than those confined to a pre-determined path (ex. walking repeatedly in a rectangle or around a circle.)
Now the teacher in us is screaming inside: but how does one hold students accountable for actually brainstorming during such meanderings?!
Well first of all, the drawback of walking while brainstorming is that you can’t really write down your ideas. But that’s actually okay because according to Oppezzo at least, writing filters our good ideas anyway because we get all self-conscious about what we write and whether or not it’s ‘good enough’ to put to paper!
So the alternative method for recording ideas would be via audio. Plenty of voice recording apps on our smart phones these days, so I would recommend taking advantage of something like EverNote, for instance, where students can record the conversations they have without disrupting the flow of ideas, and use this record to distill ideas onto the page thereafter.
Expert Tip | As a tip, you might want to class-create a set of expectations for the walk and determine consequences if conversations go ‘accidentally’ unrecorded, etc. Having students brainstorm ways they might take ‘advantage’ of the situation and what the drawbacks of that are, can help them put the value of the activity into perspective on their own terms and will likely lead to a more productive session as a result.
To wrap it all up…
There’s no exclusive ‘right way’ to brainstorm and one style certainly doesn’t fit all.
Your students might call on different brainstorming methods to meet the needs of different situations. As the teacher, you might re-mix one of these ideas to better serve the needs of your unique population of students.
And some of these activities can even be blended together. Notice, for example, the 6 Thinking Hats and the 6-3-5 Method. You might have 6 students in a group where they select a ‘hat’, generate 3 ideas from that perspective in 5 minutes-time, before moving on to the next hat for 5 minutes, and the next.
Endless opportunities to be creative!
But the highest aim in ‘Writing Process Step 1’ is helping students see just how far the ability to contribute to a collaborative brainstorm can carry them, and it may well be from the classroom to the boardroom and beyond.