At the origins of the method
The term indicates one of the main methods used for problem solving. Conceived in the 1950s by Alex Osborn (1953), it found an ideal application especially in the world of advertising, although it was then used and spread in many other environments: from the world of companies to schools. The method, in its basic form, consists of a group discussion led by an animator, whose purpose is to find and bring out the highest possible number of ideas on a previously defined topic; only at the end of this phase it is possible to select, criticize and evaluate in the high number of ideas produced. In the first stage the most important thing is to produce as many ideas as possible.
Used for the generation of creative ideas, in recent years brainstorming has become a powerful research tool for evaluators, social researchers and all those who intend to use the strength of a group to find ideas and solutions, explore concepts, detect information otherwise difficult to observe, similarly – and sometimes with more effective results – of the focus group.
Brainstorming is mainly related to the three main factors of divergent thinking: the ability to produce many different and unusual ideas […], the interaction between people and the multiplication of each one’s effort with that of another person” (Antonietti 1994, p. 23).
The brainstorming sessions concern only the last two phases of a wider process that includes:
- the definition and breakdown of the problem, and therefore the identification and distinction of the parts of it that require creative intervention compared to those that require decision-making;
- the collection of information relating to the problem;
- the production of new ideas, or the illuminating part of the process;
- the decision and evaluation of ideas.
These last two phases take place in groups that count “from 6 to 10 people working in the same place where the problem is to be solved” (Larocca 1983, p. 206).
The rules of brainstorming
In the process of problem solving, brainstorming refers to the set of communication processes, appropriately stimulated and directed to bring forth the maximum number of usable ideas in the shortest possible time. To achieve this, some basic rules must be respected in the first phase of the session (Seelig, 2012):
- do not criticize others and do not criticize yourself;
- praise and exploit anything unusual that emerges;
- prefer the quantity rather than the quality of ideas;
- build on the ideas of others.
The important thing is to think that there are no wrong ideas and that, at this stage, there is no need to evaluate whether the idea is feasible or not. Sometimes, unusual and seemingly impractical ideas can lead to major innovations. One way to allow participants to overcome the obvious ideas or their ‘pre-concepts’ is to ask them to produce stupid ideas or the “worst ideas” that allow them to solve a problem. Only in this way can we free ourselves from hiring and truly think out of the box.
The session must not be too short, in order to allow you to go beyond the first ideas, but not too long: it is impossible to maintain the productive energy necessary for a brainstorming session for more than an hour. Sometimes it can be useful to break a long session into many segments, in which different stimuli and techniques are used.
The environment has also its own importance: the place where the brainstorming takes place must be specially prepared, so as to allow, if possible, people to move and walk. According to a study by two Stanford professors (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014), walking helps divergent thinking and the production of creative ideas. These can be posted along the walls, setting up special spaces, blackboards, flipcharts, posters, etc.
In the second phase, often carried out in a subsequent session, the ideas produced are critically evaluated, selecting those that can actually be adopted.
It may be useful to form groups composed of both experts on the subject and subjects unrelated to the problem in question. People invited to a brainstorming session should have different points of view and expertise on the subject. Furthermore, it would be good to have different groups: that is, to invite different people to the stage of producing the ideas than those who will then evaluate them and make the final decision. The ideal group size is defined by the so-called two-pizza rule, which is attributed to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, according to which the ideal team is made up of a number of people who can be ‘fed’ with two pizzas: or between 6 and 8 people.
Eduard De Bono, a scholar of creativity techniques, criticized brainstorming, complaining that, despite the validity of some of its basic principles, the tool can, in some cases, block creativity: “Unfortunately, the term brainstorming has become synonymous intentional creative engagement, thereby blocking the development of serious creative thinking skills; those who want to use creativity intentionally believe that the weak methods of brainstorming are sufficient. Others, who may be motivated to develop creative thinking skills, are put off by brainstorming blind firing. That from a ferment of observations a useful idea can emerge in the world of advertising (where brainstorming originated) is a valid notion, but it is much less valid where the novelty is not, in itself, a sufficient value “( De Bono 1996, p. XXXIX).
Scholar and essayist Jonah Lehrer says that “brainstorming doesn’t really work.” In the volume Imagine: How creativity works (2012) he critically addressed the presumed effectiveness of this system, also reviewing studies and ideas of the past that refute its merits. According to Lehrer, the classic problem with this method is that the process basically rejects criticism of bad ideas and relies too much on a cookie-cutter mechanism.
Why doesn’t it always work?
Practical experience shows that, if not well structured, Brainstorming can ‘degenerate’ especially if there are conflicts between the participants or if few of them monopolize the discussion. According to some studies, in a typical group of six people, two of them often manage to grab more than 60% of the debate, effectively inhibiting the possible participation of other members of the group. This is an effect that, as the group gets bigger, it amplifies.
Writer Susan Cain addresses the problem in her book (2012). According to the author, being in a group does not encourage creativity due to social pressure:
People in groups tend to sit down and let others work, instinctively mimic the opinions of others and lose sight of their own, and often succumb to peer pressure. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University found that when we take a position other than that of the group, the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection, is activated. Professor Berns calls it the suffering of independence. (Cain, 2012).
In contrast, the aforementioned Lehrer believes that it is human friction that causes the spark: although discussions are occasionally unpleasant, they cannot be avoided. “In the long run, criticism is constructive, it pushes people to engage on a deeper level.” The problem, for the scholar, arises from an innatist vision of creativity, which suddenly sprouts. In real life, things are more complicated but also more interesting and start with the detection of a problem, certainly not with its elimination.
Lehrer also reviews numerous studies from the past decade to support his thesis. They range from the research of Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at the University of Washington, who demonstrated how brainstorming produces fewer ideas than that of people who work alone and then share them, to those of Charlan Nemeth, an academic by Berkeley. In 2003 Nemeth, professor of psychology, separated two groups of students by ordering to solve the same problem in a different way. The brainstorming group was more productive than the one who was not given instructions. However, the second grouping, starting from criticism and discussion of ideas, was more creative. Also interesting is the vision of Northwestern sociologist Brian Uzzi who analyzed the effects of the interaction on work between the staff of Broadway musicals and realized that the best shows, such as West Side Story, were produced by networks that had a level intimacy intermediate: neither too low nor too high.
“Why do we need to talk in the first place?” McCaffrey wonders. To start brainswarming you need to write the goal to be achieved or the problem to be solved on a large sheet of paper, ask the group to sit in silence and write different ways to deal with the situation with the resources available. Once the right resources are found, the solution has come to mind.
The brainswarming technique was developed using the observation of ants: when they are looking for food, the ants leave traces of pheromones for other ants to follow – an effective way to bring the colony of resources without wasting time or creating confusion.
Online brainstorming In an online context, a range of digital tools can be utilised for brainstorming, from straightforward sync and share applications to collect ideas in the form of a list (e.g. google docs), to more sophisticated tools designed for collaborative work (e.g. ‘conversations’ in Slack) or even tools specifically designed for brainstorming/mind-mapping (e.g. bubbl.us, described on their site as a ‘visual thinking tool’).
Some of these tools (for example Padlet) give the possibility to create an online board that you can share with students, just giving them the link.
Brainstorming in a F2F context does not necessarily require any tools beyond standard classroom provision for recording and presenting information: pens, post it notes, whiteboard. However, the same digital tools which are used in an online context can be advantageously utilised in a F2F classroom too: ideas collected digitally are easy to share and work on collaboratively, both during and beyond a F2F (or synchronous online) teaching session.
How it was implemented during the eLene4Life project
During the eLene4Life project we used Brainstorming activities in different ways, in order to foster students’ production of ideas (divergent thinking), collection of ideas and/or evaluation of them (convergent thinking).
In the course of Teaching and Communication Methodologies at Campus Bio-Medico University, students used Padlet for different purposes: to post ideas about the topics of some presentations, to brainstorm ideas about the possible rules of this presentation. we prepared the board and gave them the link. Padlet allows you to insert ideas anonymously or with your name. It’s easy to use and very handy.
Whoever has the board open on its computer, tablet or smartphone, can see what’s on it and what everyone is writing. Students can use when collaborating on a teamwork and the teacher can use it to do some live brainstorming on a topic in class.
Furthermore we used Padlet to collect ideas: when we found something interesting on the internet that they might use in their presentations. They simply saved it to a Padlet board and shared it with their colleagues.
In the end, they produced a Pecha Kucha presentation, i.e. a storytelling format where a presenter shows 20 slides for 20 seconds of commentary each (6 minutes and 40 seconds total).
The Pecha Kucha presentation (with voice recordings) where uploaded in Moodle and were submitted for peer evaluation.
All the activities were designed to provide fun but also to help them learn how to solve problems in a future work environment.
After each activity we planned a specific time for debriefing in order to help students “learn” from what they have experienced and have the possibility to “transfer” what they have learned, i.e. the competence they have acquired, in another field or in another situation.
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Crown Publishing Group.
Lehrer, J. (2012). Imagine: How creativity works. Houghton Mifflin.
Osborn, A.F. (1953). Applied immagination, Scribner’s. [Is this is correct spelling?]
Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2104). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition.
Seelig, T. (2012). InGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity. HarperOne.
VanGundy, A.B. (1988). Techniques of Structured Problem Solving. VanNostrand Reinhold.