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Brainstorming is a waste of time. Try this instead

We’ve been a part of it. We’ve all used it. And we’ve probably all noticed that it really doesn’t work very well.

Brainstorming sounds like a good strategy. Generate new ideas. Encourage creativity. Engage lots of people all at once. In theory, it makes all sorts of sense.

But in practice, it usually falls flat.

Brainstorming was first introduced by Alex Osborn, an ad man in the 1950s. And it’s been used by millions of people, including educators. The problem?

There’s a ton of evidence that suggests that brainstorming actually harms creativity. A recent article by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker highlights study after study that found individuals generate more ideas on their own than in groups.

A meta-analytic review says that we’re more likely to develop better ideas when we don’t interact with others. Brainstorming is particularly more likely to limit creativity in larger groups, when teams are too closely supervised, and when performance is oral rather than written.


  • Introverts often get left out because the loudest extroverts tend to dominate the conversation
  • Ideas often focus on the easiest and most obvious answers
  • Just one person talks at a time, limiting the number of possible ideas
  • Groups can get easily sidetracked
  • Simple math says that the more people involved, we hear less from each person
  • The tendency for people to make less of an effort because group settings discourage individual effort and active involvement
  • Every idea is a “good” one even when it’s obvious that’s not true

As sexy as brainstorming is, with people popping like champagne with ideas, what actually happens is when one person is talking you’re not thinking of your own ideas. (Thompson, 2014)

But we often want our students to develop new ideas and find solutions to problems. The C3 Inquiry Arc and historical thinking literally demands that students ask questions and solve problems. So what to do if you want students to do this as part of a PBL, large project, or hook activity?

Tony McCaffrey, chief technology officer of Innovation Accelerator, and others are suggesting that we try an updated version that he calls brainswarming.

How is brainswarming different? It attempts to intentionally address the problems of traditional brainstorming. So what can it look like?

Create the right team 
Group dynamics make a difference. If the bulk of the group working to develop new ideas has “a connection and a fluency with each other, the probability of success” shoots up. But evidence also suggests that too much of a connection can also stifle creativity over time.

So start with groups comfortable with each other and then jigsaw them to review ideas and generate new thoughts. An easy way to do this is to use something I call “Rover.” Create groups that you think will work well together or let them self-select. Walk through the process outlined below. Then have one or more members of each group rotate from one group to the next, “roving” and sharing their ideas while asking for input. The rovers return to their original group with input from every other group in the class.

Start a pre-think process before the group conversation
Don’t simply grab the entire class and start a session.

Write first, talk second. Share the problem ahead of time and give participants time to think it over. It’s a better use of time and this step brings the most ideas to the table. Ask kids to generate ideas privately the day before the session and before they learn the opinions of other students.

Have students write their ideas on Post-It notes without identifying names and stick them on the bulletin board. Once all 0f the notes have been posted, let your swarm read them all. If you’ve split the class into multiple groups, have students rotate through the room to read all of the notes. Have them identify the best ideas with sticky dots or do a this or that vote with their feet activity.

Modify the best ideas
Provide some structure with time limits or a starting point. And unlike brainstorming where every idea is a good one, brainswarming encourages constructive concerns or criticisms. Bad ideas can lead to good conversations that then lead to great ideas.

Encourage students to use analogies and comparisons during the conversation.

Be sure to capture all of the goodness
The best thinking can get lost in the swarm. Make sure each group has someone keeping track of capturing and sharing the best stuff. This might be a big PostIt Note Poster or cell phone photos of what has been written on the walls. Add the images to a Google Doc or Evernote. If possible, leave the drawings and scribbles up and encourage groups to come back to them the next day to edit and make new connections.

Create the right space
Encourage a space where ideas can flow. Rows of desks just aren’t going to work. And I know that it’s not always possible but work to create an open space. Find cheap couches or easy chairs to create “thinking areas.” At the very least, group your student desks / tables together to support conversation. Make writing and drawing tools easily available.

Don’t stop
One of the best ways to increase the power of this type of activity is to make sure that it is ongoing. Kids need to see that problems and solutions continue and change over time. So collect and discuss ideas but be sure to come back for a review on how things are going a day or even a week later.

Use technology
Google Docs should always be a go-to tool for collaboration and sharing. Google Keep is another great way to post notes.  Or Microsoft OneNote. Or Evernote. The problem with this sort of tech is that ideas and comments get identified and in the beginning, ideas need to stand on their own merits.

So you might want to try the iPad version of Post-It Notes. You can take pictures of student Post-It notes, edit them, and then share them digitally. Maybe the best of both worlds.

And I just found Candor, another tool that helps generate and organize ideas.

But don’t forget the basic idea. Brainswarming means write first, critical thinking second, deciding on the final solution third.

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