What Teachers Need to Know about Brainstorming
Having students “brainstorm” is a very common activity in the ESL/EFL classroom and in training courses/workshops. However do you really know how to use brainstorming as an effective teaching and learning tool? This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hall Houston and Gerhard Erasmus about their e-book – Brainstorming.
Thank you for doing this interview. Let’s start with information about you. Where do you teach now? How long have you been teaching?
Hall Houston: I currently teach at Kainan University, located in Luzhu, Taiwan. I have been teaching EFL for over 15 years.
Gerhard Erasmus: I am the Director of Studies at a language school in Taipei, Taiwan and I do quite a bit of teacher training. My favorite has to be tutoring in Delta Module 2, mostly because of how clearly you can see teachers develop over the period of the course and afterward if you manage to stay in contact with them.
How did the idea for your e-book Brainstorming come about?
HH: I read a fascinating book of brainstorming and creative thinking exercises over 10 years ago. The book wasCracking Creativity by Michael Michalko. I began to read many other books, then wrote my first book, The Creative Classroom, which is a collection of short creative thinking exercises for ESL/EFL students. Last year, I was contacted by Lindsay Clandfield, a well-known ELT author and founder of a publishing company called The Round. He asked if I would like to write a short book of brainstorming activities as part of a new series of books, The Round Minis. I told him that I would definitely be interested, then invited Gerhard to co-author the book.
GE: That’s pretty much exactly what happened. Hall and I had started working on another book on speaking and writing activities and then this came along. We put the other project on hold and got this done first. A lot of what we had been doing for the speaking and writing activities and what we were discussing revolved around getting ideas down for students to use during those activities. This looked like a natural progression from what we had been doing.
What are some common mistakes that teachers make when using brainstorming activities with their students?
HH: One mistake teachers make is to choose a problem statement that is a poor match for the students. It’s imperative to select a problem that students will have a lot to say about, or the brainstorming session will die out rather quickly. A good problem statement should state the problem clearly, be relevant to the class (age, cultural background), and should get them interested in finding solutions.
Another common mistake is to expect too much creativity from their students. Teachers should encourage students to come up with creative ideas, but not get too disappointed if they can’t come up with the most brilliant ideas of all time.
GE: I think another problem is that teachers expect students to brainstorm ideas for which they do not have the language yet. We tried to incorporate some problem statements into the book and the activities to allow teachers a wider variety of ideas and to prevent problems with language influencing the effectiveness of brainstorming. We got feedback from a teacher who had used some of the activities for KET and PET (Cambridge English tests – Cambridge English: Preliminary and Cambridge English: Key) classes and the teacher was very happy with how the activities went in class. That is an indication that to me that the variety hopefully eliminates the problem of language ability in relation to the tasks.
You mention “social loafing” as a potential problem when students work in groups. Where did you get the concept of “social loafing”? How can teachers prevent “social loafing” in brainstorming activities?
HH: I first heard the term social loafing from an article titled Brainstorming Reloaded, which appeared on the PsyBlog website. Social loafing refers a behavior in a group, where some people don’t do anything, while others to most of the work. It’s very common in groups. Teachers should monitor what’s going on in brainstorming activities. Also, teachers can ask students to write down a fixed number of ideas individually, before they begin the group discussion. By following these two steps, teachers can minimize the amount of social loafing that occurs.
GE: I first heard the term from Hall and obviously quite liked it. His contributions in our discussions to eliminating that in class and in the activities allowed me to test his ideas in my own classes before putting pen to paper.
How can teachers help students brainstorm more effectively in class?
HH: I can think of a few things teachers can do to make brainstorming activities more successful. First, teachers should present their problem statement clearly and concisely, so that students understand the problem right from the start. Teachers should encourage students to come up with a large number of solutions, instead of stopping at the first one. Teachers need to support the students by encouraging them to write down or say all the ideas that come to mind, not just the most practical ones.
GE: It is also something that takes a bit of practice. We hope that the activities in the book will be an instant hit with teachers and students, but teachers need to give themselves some time to get used to the activities or how to do brainstorming effectively. Reflecting on the lesson and the activity is a good way of getting better at it.
Do you have any final comments?
HH: If you like doing brainstorming activities with your class, I would like to suggest that you read more about creativity and brainstorming. British Council has a free e-book on creativity in ELT that is excellent. The book is titled Creativity in the English Language Classroom http://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/continuing-professional-development/cpd-teacher-trainers/creativity-english-language-classroom, edited by Alan Maley and Nik Peachey. Also recommended is the Michael Michalko book mentioned earlier, Cracking Creativity.
GE: Like with anything, practice and reflection will make you better. Brainstorming is one of the areas that could potentially have a large impact on students’ speaking and writing in the classroom and outside of it. I think it is a skill well worth developing.