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How To Brainstorm So Lightning Will Strike

How To Brainstorm So Lightning Will Strike

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Illustration of lightning coming from brain

Brainstorming can be exciting and challenging for your students. It’s exciting for students to see their ideas, creativity and efforts come to fruition right in front of their eyes. It can also be a point in time where you and some of your budding new leaders can lead everyone to consensus on one specific idea or concept.

However, the challenge is that not all students are equipped to engage in a brainstorming session without varying levels and types of support or coaching. To see the truth in this all we have to do is think about the myriad personalities in our classrooms and intuit that we will need very concrete protocols before we engage in a full-fledged brainstorming session. If we don’t put these protocols in place, we are liable to have casualties strewn across the floor as egos, feelings and self-esteem get tossed and trampled around the room.

As leaders in the classroom, it is up to us to create the atmospheric conditions within our students as individuals, and collectively as a group that will ensure every brainstorming session will lead to lightning. To achieve this outcome, we need to follow five basic steps (or variations thereof):

Set Up Brainstorming Protocols

The protocols should be simple, but strictly adhered to. I recommend reviewing them before every session and having a spot for them on the wall:

  • Every participant gets the opportunity to speak. Each person must speak at least once—even if it is just to agree with another’s comment. Over time, this provides the fertile ground for some students to find their voice. After all, everyone’s voice counts.
  • No one student can monopolize the conversation/discussion. (I would put two limits on students: max time and max number of comments). Interestingly, this has the effect of having the students think more about what they want to say. Because their time is limited, they need to be more effective when they do decide to speak.
  • No guffawing, eye rolling or sniggering at a peer’s comments, ideas or suggestions. That is a form of bullying and has the effect of chilling the speaker’s engagement in the session. A discussion should be had in preparation for the brainstorming session about this and why body language, sounds and oral/written language are powerful instruments that can blunt even the most creative and willing participant—regardless of how strong their confidence and self-esteem appears to be.
  • Brainstorming sessions are intense, and they are short—20 to 30 minutes max. Once you set a time limit, stick to it. The students will begin to understand that they need to engage and think quickly in blitzkrieg fashion if they are going to help lightning strike.

There Are No “Bad Ideas”

Students—scratch that, humans in general love to judge an idea before it has had time to develop. We just love, love, love to shoot ideas down, and we are good at it! I have observed many classrooms where the floors were littered with the creative debris of a thousand ideas that never made it past one sentence before they were shot down with an indifferent comment or snort-like pig sound from a neighboring student.

The Golden Rule, if there is one for brainstorming, is that there are “no bad ideas.” Every idea has the possibility of becoming the next great invention, song, company or book. But, ideas have a habit of—in the end—looking nothing like they did in the beginning. You see, ideas have the propensity to change over time. This, too, is part of the conversation you can have with your students when you are first introducing them to brainstorming.

Record the Brainstorming Session

This should also be kept simple, and the students can manage this function completely in their class’s Brainstorming Journal (or something similar), which belongs to the classroom—not to any one individual.

A scribe will jot down notes as the conversation flows. Everything is written down—including who said what. The scribe can rotate in some fashion. It is critical that the leader, whether it is you or a delegated student, keep track of this function. Sometimes, in the stormy back and forth of the brainstorming cacophony, the note taking falls to the wayside.

Allow the Ideas to Germinate

Our minds, beautifully complex and wired to succeed, don’t simply work when we ask them to. They work while we sleep, when we shower, when we are walking the dog, and…well, you get the idea. In short, they never stop working. Take complete advantage of this phenomenon.

Always allow students a “second round” of brainstorming on the same topic. A note of caution: students can get very excited about the second round sessions because they have been holding onto their newly evolving ideas for 24 hours or more. It can be a veritable storm once they get going! The ideas from the previous session will have morphed into so much more than you might have imagined and more importantly, more than they could have imagined as well. The second round ideas are always more genuine, more creative and more dynamic as the time lapse results of all those young minds working overtime are sure to generate more than enough static electricity to generate the lightning strike we’re looking for.

Narrow the Ideas Down to 2 or 3 at Most

Have the students devise (on their own so they own the results) some form of a democratic process where they will select two or three ideas or concepts from all the ideas that have been brought forward. Once the votes have been tallied, everyone works together to put into writing what the final ideas are that they will be working with.

Frequently, the fervor and uplift for one particular idea will have taken hold and will be the clear winner—no votes required. However, it is important to have a runner-up, a “Plan B” of sorts because, as mentioned earlier, sometimes ideas evolve and what seemed like a great idea at first can simply be, well, destined for the idea graveyard. Hey that’s okay! Lightning is fickle and fleeting like that.


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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Chris, you provide a nice outline for the brainstorming process. Tim, I like the video for a simple visual and concrete way of explaining the process. Dan, I agree that introverts can struggle with the process. I ran a creative marketing team in my previous career and we would often begin with some sort of writing prompt, activity, online exploration, or video to get our brains in sync with the topic. Then sometimes we would have a soft start to the group brainstorming session and people joined as they felt ready and comfortable. We just had to make sure the ground rules were established and shared before the entire process started so there was a natural flow from the pre-activity and the group brainstorm.

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