Thinking and mind tools

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Brainstorming is a time-honoured method of generating ideas and coming up with creative ways to solve problems. It is used not only in a classroom, but for all types of professional and personal groups and situations. 

The idea is for a group to work together informally to come up with any thoughts and ideas that seem to be applicable to the issue under discussion, no matter how unusual or even crazy.

The group then sorts the ideas into useful classifications, looking at the original creative ideas as well as the more 'sensible' ideas. (Image to the right sourced from Shutterstock image library, under a UniSA subscription).

The brainstorming process can be adapted to suit different classroom situations, so long as the basic guidelines are followed: 

  • In the first phase, ask students to just record ideas, without trying to evaluate or comment on them.
  • If you are facilitating the process, stay neutral in your reactions to each idea.
  • Let students express whatever ideas they have, without holding back. Stress that in the first phase, no idea is too crazy.
  • Repetition is OK. It isn't worth the time or interruption to work out overlaps at this stage -- and you don't want anyone to feel their idea was rejected.
  • Students can use each other's ideas to build on, or even repeat each other's ideas with slightly different emphasis.

The aim is to push people into thinking outside of their normal patterns. 

However, note that it's very easy to overuse brainstorming, or to use it badly.

  • For brainstorming to be successful, students have to know how to evaluate their ideas for relevance and feasibility, and have to have the understanding to be able to classify them.
  • It can also be easy for the group to fixate on a dominant idea, and not pay sufficient attention to a range of ideas.
  • Finally, there can be some tension between good group work and effective brainstorming. If members take it in turn to produce ideas and contribute equally, this can lead to 'production blocking', so that members need to wait to contribute, and some of their ideas may not get included.    

Brainstorming is often more useful in conjunction with other mind tools, such as brainstorming from a six hats perspective. The six hats approach gives more structure and shape to the brainstorming process. 

Putting it into practice: Application in Health Sciences

In a brainstorming session, students express their ideas and listen to others. This helps them to adjust their previous knowledge or understanding, accommodate new information and increase their levels of awareness.

In your classroom, you can use brainstorming's to:

  • focus the students' attention on a particular topic
  • teach acceptance and respect for individual differences
  • encourage learners to take risks in sharing their ideas and opinions
  • demonstrate to students that their knowledge and their language abilities are valued and accepted
  • introduce the practice of idea-collection prior to beginning tasks such as writing or solving problems
  • provide an opportunity for students to share ideas and expand their existing knowledge by building on each other's contributions.

(Adapted from UNSW 'What is brainstorming?')

The brainstorming process can be adapted to suit different classroom situations, :

  • If the whole group works well together, and you just want a quick 'on-the-run' brainstorming session, then just open up the whole class for ideas and take them as they come. The ideas will need to be summarised and recorded, and then evaluated either by the class or by subgroups.
  • In many classes, it is better to divide into groups for brainstorming. Students may feel more confident in putting ideas forward, and will have more chance to participate. Each group will need to nominate a recorder.  
  • If your students need a more structured approach, or are at lower levels, it might be worth directing that they take it in turns to speak, with everybody getting an equal chance.
  • Using sticky notes or scraps of paper can give students anonymity, and may be useful if the discussion points are controversial, or could be embarrassing. 

Interesting resources

UNSW What is brainstorming?

Brainstorming: Generating many radical ideas