Writing alone

Brainstorming isn’t the key to creativity, writes Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker.  “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas,” says Keith Sawyer, a Washington University psychologist.

As a new teacher, Greg Graham would break students into small groups, telling them to “brainstorm” ideas, read each other’s writing and provide feedback. Writing in groups usually doesn’t work, he writes in Education Week’s Teacher.

. . . a more experienced teacher whom I respected remarked to me one day that she had given up on groups, opting to manage the culture of the classroom from the front rather than entrust it to the luck-of-the-draw approach of small groups.

With 36 teaching hours per semester, “I need to maximize the time to instill in them all the goods I’ve gathered for their benefit.” So he walks students through writing exercises, urges them to share their work with the class, tries to “connect the subject matter with their world” and acts as “a moderator orchestrating the interaction in my classroom.”

He provides class time for solitary writing, “providing writing prompts that provoke personal awareness, critical thinking, and intellectual curiosity.”

In my experience, students are lucky if they land in a small group whose culture facilitates this kind of in-depth thinking. Unfortunately, there is a very real chance they will land in a group rife with anti-intellectualism, “getting by,” and conformity. I can’t afford to take that chance; I’ve got a small window of opportunity to stir my students to great thinking and writing. So I’ll dictate the culture in my classroom, I’ll act as a coach and mentor, and I’ll force them to sit alone with their thoughts with nothing but a piece of paper in one hand and a pen in the other.

“Our students need to learn how to work out their thinking on their own,” Graham writes.

As an English and Creative Writing major, I did all my writing alone, though never in class. We read our work aloud and listened to feedback. We did not “brainstorm.”  Of course, this was the dark ages. We didn’t draw pictures or diagrams or little balloons either.

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Comments

  1. I had excellent HS English classes, a college major in French with minors in history and English, and have written a thesis and a dissertation. I have never written anything as part of a group (thank Heaven) or in class unless in a test format.

    Both in HS and in college, there were frequent 10″ quizzes (~1/2 page) that were usually in response to a quote (author, source, significance) or question on the board. There were also frequent out-of-class essays of the 2-3 page type and a major research paper each year (HS) and semester (college). I don’t even remember handing in drafts of anything below thesis level; just a thesis statement, outline and list of sources. By the time we were in HS, we were expected to be able to write on our own because our 1-8 teachers had prepared us to do so.

    The college prep HS English did more academic writing than the commercial or general, but they also wrote papers. I saw work done by my future-secretary classmates and it explained why those kids had their choice of jobs. Asked to compose a letter saying x,y and z, it was properly written, formatted and typed (with carbons), in 30″ or less. This was a 300 student 1-12 school in a small town, and only 1-2 kids a year went to a 4-year college.

  2. Solitude is the key to creativity, eh? Yea, students should stop listening to teachers. After all, students can come up with more ideas by themselves, right? Don’t stop there though. If we truly want students to be creative, they need to stop listening to their parents too. Why? Well, because students come up with more ideas when they are completely independent. Only once students work in complete solitude will they generate the most ideas.

    Just kidding. I don’t believe any of that. But, if you want to take that idea to the extreme, that’s where you could take it. Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Is it bad to always rely on someone else to think creatively? Yea because then you don’t display an ability to think independently. But, is it always good think independently? No. Different people have different ideas. To think completely independently is to cut oneself off from ideas. A balance between cooperative and independent thinking is what I think would be ideal. What exactly that balance is is another question.

  3. Is it bad to always rely on someone else to think creatively? Yea because then you don’t display an ability to think independently. But, is it always good think independently? No. Different people have different ideas. To think completely independently is to cut oneself off from ideas. A balance between cooperative and independent thinking is what I think would be ideal.

    There is no such thing as cooperative thinking. All thinking is individual. Even what you might think of as cooperative thinking is really individuals thinking about the same problem, often quite differently. From the Jonah Lehrer article:

    “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.

    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. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

    As stated later in the article, it’s also highly effective to foster a collaborative environment where the person trying to solve a problem is exposed to people trying to solve totally different problems. The part on Building 20 at MIT is particularly instructive.

    There’s yet again the example of artists who work in highly-internal intellectual worlds, but produce stunning feats of creativity. Look into the work of Charles Ives. He brought unique sensibilities to musical material that many others would have considered mundane, dissecting and reassembling it into stunningly creative forms.

    In all of this, there are a couple of consistent themes:

    – Creativity relies on a diversity of information
    – Creativity is always an individual act

    Now, in a collaborative environment, a bunch of creative leaps from individuals come together to form a solution, but it doesn’t change the fact that the micro-level creative acts were individual ones.

    Moreover, in a collaborative environment, independence of thought is a source of information diversity. The least creativity comes from a bunch of people thinking the same way about a subject.

    Now, let’s look at your first paragraph again:

    Solitude is the key to creativity, eh? Yea, students should stop listening to teachers. After all, students can come up with more ideas by themselves, right? Don’t stop there though. If we truly want students to be creative, they need to stop listening to their parents too. Why? Well, because students come up with more ideas when they are completely independent. Only once students work in complete solitude will they generate the most ideas.

    You’re actually on to something with this, but not what you think. You frame it as solitude, but your examples are all of students cutting themselves off from new information and trying to be creative based solely on what they already know. That’s a sure recipe for zero creativity, regardless of whether the student is alone, in a group, or working directly with the teacher.

    One last note to an already-long comment, I’m leaving aside the issue of whether creativity is really appropriate for most of what goes on in a classroom setting. That’s a whole ‘nuther discussion.

  4. There are several distinct questions here: (a) whether nonjudgmental brainstorming really leads to good ideas, (b) whether students learn more alone or in groups in the classroom; and (c) whether class is really the place for serious writing.

    I fully agree with the author that criticism and debate stimulate ideas instead of trampling them. I do my best work (alone or with others) when I have a good critical filter up. That applies to writing poetry as well as figuring out a curriculum. The “nonjudgmental” stage is supposed to help people who have an initial block, who have difficulty coming up with anything at the outset. I suppose it can be moderately helpful for them. But that does not mean that everyone must engage in nonjudgmental, noncritical spouting of ideas. That’s just a waste of time.

    As for group vs. individual work, much depends on the situation and the nature of the work–but an awful lot of work should be done alone. It is necessary to focus on the problem, eliminate distractions, and give it one’s best thought. After one has worked alone, one has more to bring to the group anyway. Some of the best collaboration has a strong solitary component. In these scenarios the collaboration does not diminish the work. But when students must work together without taking time to think alone, then the group work will often gravitate toward the lowest common denominator or rely on one student’s work.

    Teachers, too, are expected to spend an awful lot of time in teams. This can be wasteful if the teachers have no time to think things through on their own. I address this in a blog:(http://open.salon.com/blog/dianasenechal/2012/04/19/the_solitude_of_good_collaboration).

    As for whether class is the place for serious writing, I’d say no–it would be better if class time were reserved for instruction and discussion, and most of the practice and reading took place at home. That is awfully difficult to implement, though, as (a) many students lack strong home study habits and (b) many are conditioned to equate serious study with a tangible product. If you DON’T have students write in class, they will get the idea that class isn’t serious. It’s possible to change this, but it must be done deliberately, over time.

  5. My husband and I are both in STEM fields, which involve creativity of thinking but aren’t the traditional ‘creative’ field. There’s a good bit of group time, but that is when people present what they have done and then get feedback. It may be formal (lab meeting, conference) or informally talking to a colleague. The standard format is ‘Look at my data…this is my interpretation based on background X…what else could it be/what am I missing/I’m completely stumped’ and then the feedback starts ‘I think you’re right/you’re missing information about new idea Y, which might change things/there is a problem with your data collection, which might bias it towards Z’. when things are going well, the work is done individually (although it may be parceled out to several people with one person overseeing the process), and then the ideas are evaluated by a group and modifications are made as necessary.

  6. No matter what the subject matter, breaking up into small groups in the classroom is a waste of time. Lazy teachers do it to use up class time for which they have not adequately prepared. Thanks for the insights.