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.