Brainstorming can breathe new life into your classes

In education, brainstorming has been regarded mostly as a classroom engagement tool, but it can be so much more than that, says Mattia Miani

Mattia Miani's avatar
1 Sep 2023
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Brainstorming in the university classroom

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Nottingham Ningbo

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In an HE context in which students are increasingly seen as partners in the design of their learning and change has become a recurrent imperative, there remains an old tool that can unleash new energy in higher education: brainstorming.

Brainstorming as an ideational technique was first promoted by Madison Avenue legend Alex Osborn in his books How to Think Up and Applied Imagination. His partnership with professor Sidney Parnes at Buffalo College gave scientific grounding to its use in education but, ever since, experimental studies contesting its effectiveness have multiplied. According to this literature, for example, which is based on experimental design, people ideating individually produce more and better ideas. Periodically, an article in the popular press will be written to dismiss brainstorming as a myth. But what these studies and commentaries miss is that brainstorming can also promote group cohesion and a culture of change, which are dynamics that can benefit a classroom or an institution in times of change. In education, brainstorming has been regarded mostly as a classroom engagement tool, but it can be more than that if used within an authentic framework for change.


What is brainstorming?

While still popular, brainstorming remains a misunderstood concept. It is, at its core, a conference technique in which a group of people generate ideas to tackle a problem, usually in the form of a question. A facilitator should ensure that participants (generally 5-8 people) follow four rules:

1. Defer judgement (no criticism of the ideas produced is allowed).

2. Seek quantity (aim for the largest number of ideas possible).

3. Build on each other’s ideas.

4. Do not be afraid to propose wild and outrageous ideas.

To better visualise what brainstorming looks like, I often show my students a short video from IDEO, a leading design firm that routinely uses brainstorming in its design process, to give a better idea of what brainstorming looks like in practice. IDEO also has its own version of the rules.

Remember, though, that brainstorming is only one stage in a change process. A brainstorming session is an example of divergent thinking, where participants go into an exploratory mode and play with ideas. After a large pool of ideas is generated, participants will need to switch to convergent thinking and begin selecting the best ideas for action. This requires a different type of thinking, based on evaluation and refinement. Creative problem solving and design thinking offer full templates within which brainstorming can be employed, but even a simple session alternating divergent and convergent thinking can lead to powerful results.

Using brainstorming to work with students

Studies and practitioners’ experience suggest that brainstorming can be an effective change tool in the hands of students and educators if keeping in mind the following advice:

1. Be aware of the cultural origin of brainstorming

Remember that this is, after all, a technique developed in a precise historical context by an advertising man. Critical reviews written by me, or Claudia Mareis or Tudor Rickards can be a good starting point, but the cultural assumptions around brainstorming should be shared and discussed with students to foster a more inclusive experience.

2. Find a real problem and a client

To make change happen, it is critical to find a problem/opportunity and its owner – whether that is a head of school, community leader, business owner or any decision-maker who can initiate change. By producing ideas for the owner, the change process is more likely to happen. Even better if the owner is represented by the students and educators in an institution.

3. Formulate an open question

Brainstorming will work better if the central question is formulated along the lines of “What are all the ways to xxxx” or “How we might xxxx” or even a simple “How to xxxx”. These open stems will encourage participants to explore more ideas.

4. Everyone should be trained

The facilitator/s and participants should be trained before undertaking a brainstorm. One simple way to achieve this goal is to offer a mock session with a playful question before the main session.

5. Allow enough time and offer breaks

There is no typical duration for a brainstorming session, but it should not be rushed. Usually, participants get tired after one or two rounds of ideation. However, the best ideas tend to arrive later in a brainstorming session, after the more obvious ones have been expressed, so keeping it going and avoiding premature closure is advisable.

6. Consider variations

There are many variations of brainstorming. It has also been shown to work well online. A popular variation that can be embedded into a live session is brainwriting, where participants are given time to think alone and write down their ideas on a piece of paper. The sheet is then passed to other participants, who can add more ideas until all spaces are filled. Online brainstorming with platforms such as Padlet or Mural or a simple discussion board on an institution’s virtual learning environment can work well with blended or online classes.


By reflecting on these recommendations, educators can find ways to use brainstorming to foster real change and promote a richer experience for students in the classroom and beyond. This will move brainstorming from being a simple engagement “booster” to the centrepiece of a change process with, potentially, lasting impact.

Mattia Miani is a director of education and student experience (content) at the Centre for English Language Education of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

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