Thursday, 7 June 2012

Why brainstorming doesn't work

Why brainstorming doesn’t work: Encouraging creative thinking in IL
We’ve all had library sessions where we’ve asked students to come up with some synonyms for keywords and we’ve been met with silence. We’ve also had plenty of classes where students have been happy to suggest alternate terms, but they haven’t gone beyond ‘thesaurus terms’, suggesting a shallow engagement with the topic. We all know that the best information searches are reflective, and consider information need from a critical and engaged position.
Maybe the problem isn’t the students, but the way we’re teaching.
Librarians have used “brainstorming” (or free-associating) for a long-time to foster creativity, but there’s very established research from psychology that brainstorming is not the most effective way to get people to solve problems and come up with innovative solutions.
Nemeth (2004) found that brainstorming groups were not as effective as groups encouraged to criticize or debate their colleagues. She found that on average, the debate groups generated nearly 20% more ideas than the brainstorming group. She theorizes that it’s the ‘harmony’ of brainstorming that’s the problem. According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.  “Criticism allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable.” (Lehrer 2012)
The challenge, for librarians, seems to be how to add “debate” into our classrooms. We typically see students only once or twice a year. Often sessions last for an hour or two. We often have a lot of practical, procedural-type content to get through in classes. We simply have very little time for deep engagement in one-shot IL sessions. But another way to look at it might be that by encouraging our users to be creative in class we’re also engaging them in a deep, more reflective process. It might even be possible to introduce dissent and criticism in brief, but important ways.
Here are some ideas I have for bringing “debate” discussions into library classrooms:
·         Instead of brainstorming topics, pre-arrange a controversial stance on the topic, and get   students to criticize the stance.
·         Organise students into groups and get them to solve a problem. Encourage them to debate and criticize each other’s ideas
·         If librarians are involved with the setting and marking of assignments, chose activities that encourage debate and criticism (for example, a group-produced bibliography with annotations).
Does anyone else have particular activities that you feel have been successful in promoting creative thinking in class? What do you think might be some barriers to introducing debate and criticism into library classes?
More reading:
Nemeth, CJ, Personnaz, B, Personnaz, M & Goncalo, JA 2004, 'The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries', European Journal of Social Psychology,  vol. 34,  no. 4, pp. 365-374.
Lehrer, J 2012, "GROUPTHINK: Annals of Ideas", The New Yorker, vol. 87, no. 46, pp. 22

Sarah Graham works in the University of Sydney Library


  1. Great post Sarah- thanks for sharing! You’ve given me some good ideas to think about to build in more creative and critical thinking in my library classes.

    What I find is the biggest challenge is time- sometimes I only have a 15-20 minute teaching slot, which isn’t ample time for building these deep learning exercises. What I’ve been trying to do is to prune back what I teach to the critical elements, but maybe there’s room for me to prune back some more, so I can build more debate into my classes? I’ll definitely have a think about this when I’m next planning my classes! The other problem I have is that I'm often in a lecture theatre, as opposed to a computer lab, so it's quite didactic. I'm always trying to find new ways to build more interactiviy into these sessions.

    What has worked for me, is to show my first year classes Eli Pariser’s 'Net Filter Bubble' TED talk. It talks about how Google’s search results are different depending on where you are, what computer you’re using, your IP etc. I have students have a chat to their neighbour about their thoughts or reactions after the video, and then open the discussion up. It’s sparked some really interesting discussion about privacy, search filters, search algorithms, the difference between Google, Google Scholar and other databases, and much more, which has been really fascinating.

  2. Great idea, Crystal! I think a lot of people just accept whatever Google spits out, and the more we can encourage a reflective process, the better.

  3. hey guys, this does sound like a great idea, but do be mindful that not all students will respond positively to the kind of environment concerned here - not unless some additional effort is made. there are many students who are not so comfortable speaking up in a group, especially when encouraged to criticise or be criticised - and especially if in first year, and not very used to group discussion.
    i should hate to see library classes turn into terrible experiences for some students. for those extrovert or confident students who are not uncomfortable in social situations, and who do not take criticism badly, this sounds wonderful. but to make the learning experience great for everyone, please do not forget about those students who may not be as comfortable putting forth words/ideas for criticism.
    certainly it should be possible to acheive an environment in which everyone is comfortable participating. i just want to remind you that it may take more effort and planning than might at first be expected - and perhaps it would not be very apparent that many students leave the classroom disenchanted. just my thoughts.