Brainstorming – Book Review

8 Feb

The process of brainstorming in the classroom is often a rather haphazard and stilted affair.  Learners are coming into a topic area they know little about and feel uncomfortable in, they might feel that they don’t have the language to express their ideas as fluently as they would like, and when ideas do get produced – they immediately get shot down as impractical or unrealistic.  The confident and extrovert students dominate and the weaker or more introvert students sit there quietly not really saying much, so that the teacher ends up getting feedback from only a couple of the members of the group.  Fortunately, however, there is another way….

In their new mini ebook, “Brainstorming”, from The Round, Gerhard Erasmus and Hall Houston take us back to basic principles and the origins of brainstorming in the world of 1950’s advertising.  The focus here is non-judgmental idea generation – it’s not about quality, but about quantity and where all ideas have equal value and where one idea from one person sparks a thought elsewhere in the group and where participants feed off each other’s energy and creativity to generate the largest possible set of ideas in the time given.

Which you can totally see working at half past four on a Friday afternoon with a group of tired teenagers, right?

This is where the book comes into it’s own.  Erasmus and Houston run through a series of clear procedures for working with idea generation that attempt to mitigate some of the issues that might arise:  setting the stage, focusing the activity, avoiding negative feedback, guiding the discussion and remembering the objective.  It occurs to me that there are some groups where this might take some initial learner training, possibly particularly with teenagers, before they understand how the ground rules work here and what the constraints are, but where perseverance would yield huge benefits in terms of the directed creativity that the learners could then bring to the class.

I found the section on “problem statements” to be a useful way of looking at generating ideas for specific issues and the re-formulation of the “problem” into a “how can I…” question seems like it would be a great way of looking at things for students in an EAP context as well as students preparing for writing tasks in ELT exams.  Re-focusing the problem statement is essentially the same thing as refining your research question into something that you can actually answer, or it represents a useful “way in” to some of the exam writing tasks – getting students to move away from simply producing writing for you the teacher and into thinking about the purpose of their exam writing by asking questions like “How can I get the editor to publish my review?” or “How can I get the principal of the college to upgrade the sports facilities?”.  This would almost certainly lead to an improvement in their written work!

brainstorming cover

Three other activities that I particularly liked in the book – and I’m limiting myself here because otherwise I would basically be copying out the whole thing – are:

The problem skeleton:  I think this would be another one that is great for writing tasks and analysing questions, especailly in the way that it breaks larger tasks down into smaller more manageable chunks.  Writing an essay on “the environment” is quite a daunting task, but using the problem skeleton to identify sub-topics and then sub-sub-topics would be a great way of making the tasks more accessible.

Rolestorming:  a brilliant way of extending out of the typical role play scenario.  Even in the most engaging of role plays or mingle activities, there is always an element of the learners essentially reading the information off the little piece of paper in front of them and basically comparing notes as opposed to taking on the role of the person they are meant to play.  Rolestorming is a great way of getting the students to think about the background, motivations and emotions of their characters and to really give them the chance to step outside of themselves for the task.

PMI:  A great follow-up activity for working with the ideas that you have generated in an initial brainstorming task, the PMI process lets you grade and select the ideas that you want to take forwards.  In essence it is a format for critical reflection and evaluation.  Again, I can see this being excellent for writing tasks where the learners need to decide what is relevant to the question and what ideas slot together most effectively.

 

***

Who should buy this book?  I don’t see this book as having a limited audience in that way.  I think there as much in there for teachers who have been teaching longer than they care to remember as there is for teachers who are just starting out.  It is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, it gives you the tools you need to achieve a goal and in its own way, it is the spark that will lead you to you own lesson-based light bulb moment.

Brainstorming” by Gerhard Erasmus and Hall Houston is available for £0.79 / €0.99 / $1.00 via The Round.

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2 Responses to “Brainstorming – Book Review”

  1. hughdellar Tuesday 9 February 2016 at 17:25 #

    Nice review of what sounds like an interesting work.

    My problem with most brainstorming I see teachers engaging in in the classroom is that it too rarely leads to language work.

    For example, if students are asked to brainstorm ideas about what to include in a hotel advert, they may just say ‘centre’ or ‘near the the airport’. If you’re focused on a skills view of teaching, you may see this as sufficient, but I’d rather see teachers working from these raw ideas and layering them, feeding in examples like ‘it’s in the heart of the city’, ‘it’s a ten-minute drive from the airport’, etc.

    Brainstorming can also be made more language focused:
    e.g. students can try to come up with synonyms or collocates of words that are key to the genre.

    All of this kind of thing helps move brainstorming from simply being about idea-generation and moves it towards language which will then (hopefully) be of use in tasks that follow or that will crop up in texts that follow.

    My tuppence worth, anyhows.

    • Clare Wednesday 17 February 2016 at 06:39 #

      I’m glad to have come across this review! The ideas you have summarised sound good, so I might be inspired to read the rest (in the holidays…!!)

      Thanks Hugh, too, for adding this point. I often see trainee-teachers using “brainstorming” as a kind of warm-up or ‘way in’ to a topic or text, but in 50-minute classes I’ve often thought this used up a bit too much time that then, as you say, wasn’t really doing much to further the students’ language skills. But with you ideas, maybe I’ll be able to help them make more of the potential of brainstorming tasks. And I’m sure there will be more tips in the book as well!

      What a nice bit of inspiration to start the day with! 🙂

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