Brainless group storming

Guest-blogging at The Core Knowledge Blog, Diana Senechal deconstructs a lesson plan on the Pennsylvania Department of Education web site, “Brainstorming in Groups,” designed for grades 7-12.

Divide the class into small groups of equal size (3 or 4 students per group). Each group selects one person to be the recorder. The recorder will need three pieces of paper. Explain the prewriting strategy of brainstorming, emphasizing that the point is not quality, but rather quantity of ideas at this stage of the writing process. Give the class one topic to brainstorm in their group, allowing about four minutes. Then give the next topic, allowing another four minutes, then give the last topic, and again allow about four minutes. Ask each group to count the number of ideas that were generated for each topic. Select one topic and write all ideas on the board or overhead projector. Conclude with a discussion of the value of this group activity as a prewriting strategy. If time permits, create an outline for a formal essay working with the topics generated in the groups. Suggested Topics: Poverty in America, Contemporary Music, Technology in Education, Fads, Violence and Television, College Life, Effective Parenting.

I can’t do justice to Senechal’s line-by-line critique. You’ll have to read the original. In summary:

Quantity over quality is stressed. Keeping discussion to four minutes ensures students won’t have time to “sort through their ideas and eliminate the ones they thought were bad. Nothing is bad here, and nothing is good.”

With time for a discussion on why this was such a great activity — but no room for disagreement with that premise — time will not permit outlining an essay using all the good, bad and indifferent ideas, Senechal writes.

The suggested topics are chosen on the belief that students will be able to talk without “the crutch of knowledge.”

They will be glib and gird themselves with the gadgets of catch-phrasery. They will have the social interaction skills needed for life and the workplace.

Reading holistically — it’s all the rage — she concludes “the point was not to learn anything at all or nothing at all, but rather to learn how to learn nothing at all.

I’ve done this sort of activity at conferences.  A lot of time is spent writing things on butcher paper.  Nothing ever seems to come of it.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Yeah, nothing does come of it. Including no papers to take home and correct.

  2. I’ve done this sort of activity at conferences. A lot of time is spent writing things on butcher paper. Nothing ever seems to come of it.

    Game, set and match. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is force-fed down teachers’ throats at far too many mandatory inservices. Certainly far from best practices–but it’s something that for whatever reason, upper-level administrators seem to love.

  3. The skills produced here are precisely those NOT needed in the workplace. The ability to come up with lousy ideas doesn’t need to be exercised. Learning to differentiate between good and bad ideas is a skill worth learning. New Coke, anyone?

  4. While I don’t disagree with the comments, I’m surprised Senechal isn’t aware that this lesson is in line with Complex Instruction, which is the foundational basis for heterogeneous classrooms.

    Three tenets of CI:

    1) Multiple ability curricula–that is, nothing too hard, allows students to contribute by drawing pictures, writing down everyone’s thoughts, getting paper, whatever.

    2) Instructional strategies–group work with the specific roles (reporter, facilitator, resource manager).

    3) Create multiple ways to “be smart” so that “status problems” are avoided–that is, if you know how to work the problem but don’t show others properly, you fail. If you have no idea how to do the work, but contribute by asking questions, you pass. And so on.

    This is one of the bedrocks of modern progressive education. It’s the basis for how teachers are supposed to teach heterogeneous classrooms and show that “everyone is smart”.

  5. Mark Roulo says:

    And yet in a technical work environment with competent professionals, this sometimes (maybe often?) leads to interesting approaches. The stupid/crazy approaches often lead to slightly less insane approaches that actually work.

    Maybe because we (a) care about the result, and (b) bring a fair amount of domain knowledge to the task?

    -Mark Roulo

  6. I agree with Mark…

    Brainstorming can, when done well, be a great strategy very early on in the process… I use it all the time, individually and with my research group, with much success. But it is useless if: (1) you or the group don’t have the content-knowledge to back it up, (2) you don’t have the critical thinking skills, or the time, to sift through and critically evaluate the ideas.

    I was first introduced to brainstorming way back in middle school back in the early 1980’s. For group projects, it was a great way for everyone to contribute ideas and participate… and sometimes the off-the-wall ideas turned out to be the best/most-interesting. But again, the method does not work with also learning how to sift, evaluate, and rank the ideas.

  7. Maybe because we (a) care about the result, and (b) bring a fair amount of domain knowledge to the task?

    You can’t ask modern Ed school folks to care about knowledge.  Their heads would explode.

  8. I’ve always found brainstorming to be very productive as a professional writer and out in the “real world” of corporate America. A whiteboard, some coffee or chocolate covered expresso beans — that was often on the agenda. Yes, the sifting part at the end is crucial. Teaching kids the process of brainstorming is fine — you just have to take it through to the final product. All class discussion is really brainstorming for the final product –an exam or paper. I usually have to revise those assessments every year based on what came up in class, but never substantially. Usually just whatever theme or motif ended up getting emphasized. Anything worth doing can be done really badly. The teacher’s job is to figure out how to do it well with her students.

  9. My heart sinks when I walk into the library at school for a staff meeting or an in-service and I see butcher paper taped up around the walls. It’s bad enough knowing that my time will be wasted, what’s worse is knowing I’ll never get those hours of my life back.

  10. richard says:

    I agree with lightly seasoned. If you understand the process it is a good way to problem solve. First you brainstorm, deferring judgement. Notice that you defer judgement, not eliminate it. Step two is to eliminate, combine, rearrange, piggyback, solutions.

    Brainstorming is the start of a very effective problem solving tool. Check out Treffinger and his creative problem solving.


  11. “You can’t ask modern Ed school folks to care about knowledge. Their heads would explode.”

    Well said, Cynical. But only if you could get them to stop talking and listen first.

  12. To quantitate the relative difficulty of brainstorming and subsequent analysis: Our school board a few years ago brainstormed 22 ways to reconfigure the schools in the district (necessary due to more students) in about an hour. It took community groups and the board about a year to analyze these possibilities.
    Both are vital to problem solving, but the ratio of time teaching brainstorming to teaching analysis should be about one hour to one year.


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