Group Brainstorming: An Educational Nutshell

by Guest Blogger
July 16th, 2010

by Diana Senechal

Recently I came upon a lesson plan on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website. Titled “Brainstorming in Groups” and designed for grades 7-12, it pithily encapsulates our educational and cultural principles. I quote the lesson below and then give it the close textual analysis it deserves.

Divide the class into small groups of equal size (3 or 4 students per group). Each group selects one person to be the recorder. The recorder will need three pieces of paper. Explain the prewriting strategy of brainstorming, emphasizing that the point is not quality, but rather quantity of ideas at this stage of the writing process. Give the class one topic to brainstorm in their group, allowing about four minutes. Then give the next topic, allowing another four minutes, then give the last topic, and again allow about four minutes. Ask each group to count the number of ideas that were generated for each topic. Select one topic and write all ideas on the board or overhead projector. Conclude with a discussion of the value of this group activity as a prewriting strategy. If time permits, create an outline for a formal essay working with the topics generated in the groups. Suggested Topics: Poverty in America, Contemporary Music, Technology in Education, Fads, Violence and Television, College Life, Effective Parenting.

Now let us look at this beauty, sentence by sentence.

Divide the class into small groups of equal size (3 or 4 students per group). Taken figuratively, this is essentially a credo. It is wonderful to affirm one’s faith, especially faith in a group process. Group processes have no power to disappoint. If they don’t work, it’s because you are doing them wrong. The proper action at that point is to bring in a consultant who can show you what group work is really supposed to be.

Each group selects one person to be the recorder. Some students don’t work well in groups; they tend to question the premises of the activity itself, disrupting the process for the others. But if they are assigned the role of recorder, they will be too busy taking notes to make trouble. Make sure the designated recorder is held accountable.

Explain the prewriting strategy of brainstorming, emphasizing that the point is not quality, but rather quantity of ideas at this stage of the writing process. The quantity strategy applies to everything. Read a wide variety of texts, make lots and lots of friends online, fill your day with activities from morning to night, send text messages from everywhere. If students master the quantity principle, they will be shielded from meaning.

Give the class one topic to brainstorm in their group, allowing about four minutes. Never allow more than four minutes, as that would lead students to sort through their ideas and eliminate the ones they thought were bad. Nothing is bad here, and nothing is good. Nor should the topic become a matter of concern or interest. It is counterproductive to know, care, or think about the topic. The point is to be engaged.

Then give the next topic, allowing another four minutes, then give the last topic, and again allow about four minutes. This is a great opportunity for the teacher to identify students who have trouble jumping from topic to topic. Those students may need a psychiatric evaluation.

Ask each group to count the number of ideas that were generated for each topic. A counting activity is a great way to integrate math into the lesson. The teacher should be circulating to assist those students who have difficulty with it.

Select one topic and write all ideas on the board or overhead projector. Teachers should develop the practice of writing out students’ off-the-cuff ideas, good, bad, and indifferent. It is empowering for the students and appropriately humbling for the teachers. Granted, some teachers would much rather write out a Blake poem or grammatical principle instead, but whose interests are we serving here? Is this lesson for the adults or for the children?

Conclude with a discussion of the value of this group activity as a prewriting strategy. We know that the value of this activity is indisputable, so this discussion will be uneventful—just a summing up and self-celebration. Make sure that every student utters the word “strategy.” In some districts, students join hands and say in unison, “Thank you, strategy, for helping me today.” Other districts have various pep cheers. The point is to make everyone feel good about having learned nothing.

If time permits, create an outline for a formal essay working with the topics generated in the groups. Time won’t permit—but if it does, students may learn to transfer the quantity principle into their essay writing.

Suggested Topics: Poverty in America, Contemporary Music, Technology in Education, Fads, Violence and Television, College Life, Effective Parenting. Ultimately it is hoped that students will be able to talk about any of these topics without the crutch of knowledge. They will be glib and gird themselves with the gadgets of catch-phrasery. They will have the social interaction skills needed for life and the workplace. Who needs to know about poverty when you have a newsflash every few seconds? The information flow will make them senseless to passion and pain.

Now, we know that line-by-line textual analysis is a dated technique; the new method is to read holistically. So, if we go back and reread the lesson from start to finish, we see that the point was not to learn anything at all or nothing at all, but rather to learn how to learn nothing at all. “How do we go about learning nothing at all?” That is our essential question. And I will leave you, readers, to take that higher-order question to your brainstorming groups.

Diana Senechal has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale; her translations of the poetry of Tomas Venclova have appeared in two books. A former (and possibly future) NYC public school teacher, she is currently writing a book on the loss of solitude in schools and culture.

22 Comments »

  1. Delicious satire! Alas, this not only captures the dominant philosophy of “best practice” in American classrooms but also practically every teacher inservice I’ve ever been to.

    Comment by James — July 16, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

  2. Thanks for the laugh :-)

    Though in #3 I’m curious what you find wrong with having students read a variety of texts. Isn’t reading widely going to help them build up background knowledge? Most kids will need encouragement from teachers & parents to broaden their reading interests beyond just the next installment of Captain Underpants or Rainbow Magic or whatever their preferred junky series may be.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — July 16, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

  3. You make an interesting point, Crimson Wife. I loved to read the same books over and over as a child–and they tended to be works like The Importance of Being Earnest and Jane Eyre. I don’t think I read particularly widely, nor do I think that was bad. There were few things as enjoyable as returning to favorite passages and discovering new things in a book I loved. The same is true for me now. Of course it is important to read new things here and there–or else there would be nothing to reread–but I believe “reading widely” may be overrated.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 16, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

  4. Mahalo Diana,

    I now understand why I’ve always despised brainstorming . . . and being the recorder.

    Comment by Cindy — July 16, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

  5. As a veteran reading specialist whose district now sees my role as “supporting the classroom teacher” in these kinds of activities (rather than helping students become readers, I spend my day helping them follow the protocol of group activities!), I fluctuate between despair and rage at this new “paradigm.” As usual with poorly conceived programs, the brightest and most privileged students will survive it; those in the middle range are harmed in that they are not truly growing in knowledge; but the saddest victims are those students in the lower range, who are deprived of the meaningful instruction they so desperately need. Those who question this are judged as “not a team player.” Newer teachers are evaluated based on program delivery, rather than on whether instruction meets the needs of the students. When district leaders and principals need only three years of classroom experience, who will speak up for sound practice?

    Comment by LynDee — July 17, 2010 @ 11:35 am

  6. OK, this *was* hilarious–an incisive satire on the elevation of process in pedagogy. And, as a National Board coach, I’ve seen my share of content-free, process-heavy videotaped lessons. National Board candidates are dismayed when they’re asked two questions, after viewing a video like this: #1) What, precisely, did you want the kids to learn? #2) How will you know they’ve learned it? If they can’t articulate good answers, it’s back to the drawing board.

    But. It would be equally easy to satirize a traditional, direct-instruction model. Ben Stein springs to mind here (“Anyone? Bueller?”)–droned content delivery to passive, disengaged learners.

    As a pre-writing strategy, the exercise might have some value. Looks like it takes about 15 minutes of student time. A good teacher could use the generated topics to do some very content-rich teaching (even making the point that re-reading texts can be illuminating and satisfying). It certainly could be used as discussion springboard for how to select viable topics.

    What bothers me is the implication that using a process template like this is what’s wrong with education.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — July 17, 2010 @ 11:53 am

  7. I’ve used the brainstorming technique lots; it doesn’t take this level of complication. In fact, most of the times when I felt it was most successful, it was done on the fly, when a class discussion pointed me in that direction. But what really strikes me is that many of the suggested topics don’t lend themselves to this technique for middle and high school students! especially “College Life” and “Effective Parenting,” which the students have NO experience of.

    Comment by JB — July 17, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

  8. Ms. Flanagan:

    What’s wrong with the implication? I would argue that the insistent fetish for group process and hive thinking is indeed one of the leading problems in education today. I think that was Dr. Senechal’s point.

    Cooperative learning and direct instruction are both matters of philosophical preference. I would never fault any teacher who believed in this model and found it useful in their classroom, but let’s face it: which ideology has the upper hand these days? Chances are, if an administrator observes a teacher using this model ineffectively, he or she will probably offer encouragement and advice as to how to tweak it to make it more effective. On the other hand, a teacher observed using traditional instruction will, more often than not, be accused of shoddy teaching and be urged to abandon that model altogether, in favor of the kinds of parlor games we see depicted above.

    That is the real problem: ideological bias. To my knowledge there is still no definitive proof that group learning is somehow intrinsically better than direct instruction, yet the Groupthink Gang continues to enjoy a stunning ideological monopoly in education circles. That’s why they and their ideology deserve to be objects of satire.

    Comment by James — July 17, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

  9. Diana,

    I’d be interested in a preview of the loss of solitude in schools and culture.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 17, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  10. I have a bit of an unscientific, probably biased take on this.

    This kind of activity seems to be geared toward the “social learner” where you just feed them social control and conformity, and after 12 years they know enough not to accidentally kill their own children by some mechanism I have not yet entirely grasped.

    I’d make a “group brainstorming” activity something like this.

    1. Read the material assigned.
    1a. Identify areas in the material that seem to have been glossed over, over simplified or otherwise didn’t tell you much.

    2. Identify other sources that expand in these areas and address what has already been covered.
    2a. compare these sources, identifying how they differ in tone, content, organization and the major points and types of arguments.

    3. Write a short paper summarizing what you have found.
    4. Anonymously edit and critique (the number of which is determined by reasonable time available for the task) several of your classmates papers.
    4a. Have yours critiqued.

    Using this information where you have analyzed source material, and had your own comments analyzed – write another paper indicating your findings, and the results of your own writing and areas of improvement.

    5. Break into groups of 3-4 people, and present your findings on the subject.

    6. Spend approximately an hour discussing the topic in general, the varied research and commentary you have found and the reasoning errors each person had identified in their previous paper.

    7. Generate a list of concerns about the topic, the sources, the errors in reasoning that you’ve run into (and your partners) and keep this list with you as:

    8. You all go back to writing on your own.

    9. At the end, compile a source list for the entire class from what each student found.

    10. Write reviews of the sources…

    11. Now that everyone has done this… start thinking about writing an original work on the subject…

    The above brainstorming nonsense is one of those “Good readers do” things where we teach kids to confuse the result of what someone is as the cause of how they got to a certain place.

    No one learns to “brainstorm” by just sitting around and picking out inspiration from the random signal noise in their neurons. They learn by doing other processes for a long time (generally in terms of gathering and criticizing information) so that at some point, some day… the background chatter in their head is useful…

    Comment by John Lamb — July 18, 2010 @ 12:24 am

  11. Thanks to everyone for the comments so far! Nancy, I’m glad you found it funny albeit slightly offensive! Paul, I will let you know when a preview is posted or published. I have finished the first draft of the book and am starting the revisions now.

    JB, your point reminds me of what Dan Willingham has said about reading strategies–that they have their place, but it isn’t the grand stature they have been accorded. They can be taught briefly, in passing. The same goes for brainstorming. It may have a place, but it need not be an elaborate activity.

    Group brainstorming may be good for certain things (like coming up with advertising slogans). It is not necessarily good for things that demand thoughtfulness, deep knowledge, or careful sifting of ideas. I am not sure that the initial “storm” is of much value–many poets begin with a rhythm in their mind or a line that won’t leave. They don’t go through the process of jotting down everything, good or bad, and they don’t suffer for it. And they certainly don’t need a group to help them get going.

    And if any historians engage in “group brainstorming” before writing an article or book, my guess is that that many more do not. People in every field probably get “storms” of ideas here and there, but they do not take place in groups.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 18, 2010 @ 8:24 am

  12. Did everyone see the story about Harvard eliminating final exams?

    Does that enable this type of “group barnstorming” at the college level but with an even higher price?

    Is the elimination of finals which are about as individual a measure as you can get in academia the end result of all the K-12 emphasis on collaboration and group work?

    Comment by Student of History — July 18, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

  13. As part of a problem solving process (where the group is responsible for actually solving a real problem), group discussion and brainstorming can be used effectively. But as a goal, in and of itself, brainstorming is rather useless (as most content-free process skills are).

    What problem will be solved in topics like Poverty in America or Fads? Or as Nancy pointed out: what is the student supposed to learn in these discussions?

    Coming up with genuine solvable problems that can be addressed by a group of students in a limited time is very difficult. And so consequently, schools have dumbed down the problem solving part and just stated that any group activity qualifies. This is the same problem that focusing on the process of writing (draft, editing, revisions, publishing…) to the exclusion of the content of the writing has on our schools. Yes, the process is important, but the content of the writing is infinitely more important.

    Being able to solve a problem in a group setting would be a skill that would be beneficial for students to have. But to do so, the curricula would have to be set up to 1) give the students enough background knowledge to solve a real problem, 2)a real problem has to be stated and 3) the teachers would have to skilled in being able to teach group dynamics. Not something present in most schools.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — July 18, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

  14. My impression of the scholarly literature is that individual brainstorming or at least a hybrid of individual/group brainstorming is superior to group brainstorming. See, e.g., http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/papers/download/051210_Terwiesch_Ulrich_Creativity.pdf (“The research has unequivocally found that the number of ideas generated (i.e., productivity) is significantly higher when individuals work by themselves and the average quality of ideas is no different between individual and team processes. . . . Thus, team processes have been found to be significantly inferior to individual processes.”).

    It’s not hard to see why this would be: in a group, some people will be more shy to speak up or to venture an out-of-the-box idea, some will be lazy and let others do the work, groupthink can take over and steer the discussion in a direction that prevents certain ideas from coming to mind, etc.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — July 18, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

  15. [...] at The Core Knowledge Blog, Diana Senechal deconstructs a lesson plan on the Pennsylvania Department of Education web site, “Brainstorming in Groups,” designed for [...]

    Pingback by Brainless group storming « Joanne Jacobs — July 19, 2010 @ 6:32 am

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  17. On second thought, the real problem with the exercise, as described above, is that it’s not clear what kind of ideas, exactly, the students are supposed to be thinking up. The topics themselves do not imply any particular questions to be answered or problems to be solved. So I’m guessing that the students would just free-associate any thoughts they may have that bear somehow on the topics. This exercise was designed by someone with not much classroom teaching experience.

    Comment by JB — July 19, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

  18. To Crimson Wife: I think that in #3 she meant “texts” as in “text messages” not books.

    Comment by Dawn — July 19, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

  19. Good points of views regarding group brainstorming. I believe that brainstorming is a great tool for education. It is also a democratic way of collecting various ideas and many ideas are generated in a short span of time.

    Comment by cornerstone university lakeshore — July 20, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

  20. Dawn: ha ha ha! That is indeed what I should have meant to mean.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 20, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

  21. The only part they didn’t include in this assignment was how the kids who are working at 2 or 3 grade levels behind will magically learn from the ones who are 2 or 3 grade levels ahead. All children will suddenly be inspired to participate, whereas before they felt downtrodden and not appreciated by their more expressive, outgoing, high lever peers. Everyone will win and the children will do the work of the teacher – ie. teaching lower performing students how to (pick your verb: read, write, think, support ideas)…

    Comment by Kate — August 12, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

  22. Second comment from me, after re-reading some of the other comments:
    I think group brainstorming has some place – since, let’s face it, a lot of jobs involve this activity. Perhaps the best method is like some that have been posited here – brainstorm alone first, then share your personal brainstorms and put it into a group pool. Then the kids get to learn a little about expressing themselves and standing up for their ideas – and as a former shy kid (no one would guess my job would involve standing in front of a 130 different people and teaching them all day), I think this type of learning is important for social development.

    On the other hand, the lesson, as is, is definitely trending towards useless. Process, but no content or (big buzz word here) that important 21st century skill of being able to find, process and determine the value of information before trying to use it. This activity reminds of the 100s of “engineering” lessons I’ve seen lately that are supposed to improve my science teaching. Somehow, build a shelter from rain using two straws and a leaf is “engineering” – when in reality it skips some of the most important parts of real world engineering – research and math modeling before any building occurs. And of course, those more dry (maybe even, *gasp*, boring) steps are the ones that really make a lot of engineering students drop out of the field in the end – because they thought it would be like all the cutesy, meaningless “engineering” projects from their primary school days.

    Comment by Kate — August 12, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

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