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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Critical Thinking Toolbox: How to Brainstorm

Brainstorming is an essential part of critical thinking and a tool that people use to invent an idea, find a solution to a problem, or answer a question.

Like: naming a puppy, or . . .

Prehistoric Man: "I wonder why all the stars move around in the same way every night, except for just a few? Those few wander about from night to night."
Prehistoric Friend: "Why do we need to know that?"
Philosophical Man: "Maybe it's because they are gods and follow their own rules."
Philosophical Friend: "Maybe it's because they got knocked loose from the celestial ceiling and are kind of just rolling around up there."
Scientific Man: "Maybe the planets move around earth in funny little loops."
Skeptic: "It's probably all an optical illusion."
Galileo: "Maybe earth isn't the center of the universe like we thought. Maybe the center of the universe is the sun, and the earth and a bunch of other planets just move around it."

Credit: Hans & Nathaniel Bluedorn

Considering a lot of bad ideas before we get to a good one is how brainstorming works. We start by opening our minds and assuming that a lot of failures will be part of the process.

6 Elements of the Perfect Brainstorm

Brainstorming is simple and natural. However, when groups of people collaboratively brainstorm, we can have wildly different experiences -- from awesome idea-generating sessions to complete chaos. We have provided some tips to helps your students enhance their brainstorming skills.

1. Pick a question or problem to solve.

  • Make the prompts clear and simple:
    • "What should we name our classroom pet?"
    • "Where should we take our next field trip?"
    • "What is the purpose of life?"
  • Brainstorm about ethical issues:
    • "Why is stealing wrong?"
    • "Why should we take care of our planet?"
    • "If I traveled back in time and killed my grandparents, would I still exist?"
  • Brainstorm about other people's perspectives:
    • "Why do emigrants move to America?"
    • "Why did some people in the 1950s think racial desegregation was a bad idea?" (This question can be tough, because kids have to imagine themselves in the position of someone with whom they disagree.)

  • You see, brainstorming is a tool that you can use to develop critical thinking. Use it to open up students' minds to other perspectives.

    2. Pick a time and place.

    When brainstorming -- thinking creatively -- our brains function at maximum capacity. Pick a time when everybody is rested and in good spirits, because students will need all that energy to do advanced thinking.

    3. Encourage discussion and ideas.

    Somebody needs to be in charge of writing ideas down and keeping the group focused. Choose someone who writes quickly and legibly.

    Credit: Hans & Nathaniel Bluedorn

    Everyone should suggest ideas. There should be no pressure to make every idea a "brilliant" one. The objective of brainstorming is to produce as many ideas as possible. It is forbidden to criticize other people's ideas. Remember, just because somebody offers an idea, that doesn't mean you have to actually do it (thank goodness!).

    Rabbit trails are OK, but they should always lead back to the topic.

    4. Set a time limit.

    When people focus on creating ideas, it is a very exhilarating activity. But, as mentioned before, the process works our brains at maximum capacity. Never brainstorm for more than an hour.

    5. Write all the ideas down and organize.

    Make sure that everybody can see the ideas as they are written down. We prefer whiteboards. Put the ideas into different categories. For example, you could organize the answers to "why stealing is wrong" under the following headings:

    • Practical Reason: "It causes chaos in society."
    • Moral Reason: "Almost all religions say it is wrong."
    • Odd Reason: "If I traveled back in time, took my own stuff, and gave it to myself in the future, would that still be stealing?"

    6. Get rid of bad ideas.

    Cull the list until only a few of the best ideas remain. During brainstorming, most of your ideas are going to be useless. After the brainstorm session is over, spend time discussing which ideas might actually work the best.

    Bigger Ideas, Bigger Brains

    Brainstorming is not simply a means to an end. It's more than just coming up with ideas. The process puts us in a creative frame of mind and heightens our curiosity. Being curious opens us to see things from perspectives that are not our own. Finally, seeing things from other perspectives makes us more critical thinkers, which in turn makes our brains bigger.

    Credit: Hans & Nathaniel Bluedorn

    What kinds of brainstorming work do you facilitate in your classroom?

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