Why brainstorming is ineffective and how to fix it


Photo credit: khoraxis

Psychblog has posted a controversial article entitled  Brainstorming reloaded which claims that brainstorming doesn’t work after all. Brainstorming, as a method of pooling the group’s ideas, has been around for a long time. I know that Australian teacher librarians, at least, still promote it as a starting point for research, and subject teachers are also using it as a springboard to discussion within a topic.

Brainstorming certainly looks like a great way of dealing with some of the problems associated with decision-making and creativity in groups, such as groupthink and people’s failure to share information effectively. By suspending evaluation, encouraging a relaxed atmosphere and quantity over quality, the brainstorming session is supposed to foster creativity.

But the article goes on to undermine the effectiveness of brainstorming:

But now we know that brainstorming doesn’t actually work that well. Experiment after experiment has shown that people in brainstorming sessions produce fewer and lower quality ideas than those working alone (Furnham, 2000). Here’s why:

  1. Social loafing: people slack off to a frightening degree in certain types of group situations like brainstorming.
  2. Evaluation apprehension: although evaluation isn’t allowed in a traditional brainstorming session, everyone knows others are scrutinising their input.
  3. Production blocking: while one person is talking the others have to wait. They then forget or dismiss their ideas, which consequently never see the light of day.

The article suggests that brainstorming be conducted online in order to achieve higher quality results:

In this research brainstormers typed in their ideas to a computer which also displayed other people’s ideas at the same time. This rather neatly gets around the social loafing and production blocking problems.

The conclusion of the psychological literature, therefore, is that people should be encouraged to generate ideas on their own and meetings should be used to evaluate these ideas.

I’m not sure what you might think about this, but something doesn’t sit right with me. It sounds like a good idea to simultaneously generate ideas online – I like the idea of all the contributions being visible real-time – but I think the classroom has its own group dynamics. Perhaps this research is more relevant to business. I think that there is a group dynamics and sense of trust which has hopefully been created by the classroom teacher. I’m not sure if secondary students are too critical of their peers’ suggestions in the brainstorming process.

Even if you set up the individual and simultaneous online brainstorming, wouldn’t students be threatened by the competitiveness of generating as many ideas as their peers? This may not be obvious online, but they could easily tell if others are typing in suggestions or just sitting there. You would also have the problem of those who think quickly getting in first with ideas that others may have come to later. Altogether, I think you’d have the same problems. At least with the teacher mediating an oral brainstorming session, he/she would be aware of those needing encouragement to contribute.

However, I do like the idea of an online brainstorming tool which allows every student’s contribution to be seen. Online brainstorming tools like bubbl.us are good, but are not a collaborative tool. Collaborative online brainstorming sounds like a solution to the isolation of a regular online tool. The article points out the importance of the group in the activity:

Why not just send people off individually to generate ideas if this is more efficient? The answer is because of its ability to build consensus by giving participants the feeling of involvement in the process. People who have participated in the creative stage are likely to be more motivated to carry out the group’s decision.

What do you think? What are your experiences with brainstorming? Your thoughts about the effectiveness of brainstorming, either as part of classroom discussion with the teacher writing down the group’s ideas on the board, or students using applications like Inspiration or bubbl.us

Am I missing something or is there a collaborative online brainstorming tool which I should be using?

 And what is your reaction to the last line of the article?

Groups aren’t where ideas are born, but where they come to sink or swim.


7 thoughts on “Why brainstorming is ineffective and how to fix it”

  1. I have to say I have found brainstorming very effective with groups of teachers and students. While you can always generate ideas alone, the whole purpose of brainstorming, is to build on each other. I love hearing peoples’ ideas and getting new ones based on theirs. Lively conversations, back and forths, building up.. and brainstorming happens!

  2. Interesting post.
    I think there is real value in using mind-mapping software for brainstorming. I’ve been using Prezi with my students to mind-map and brainstorm.
    The fact that students can visually organize all their data and resources – including multimedia – gives meaning to the thought organizing process.
    I think you might be right – in a business scenario I can see this becoming ineffective due to deadlines and profit goals. Schools don’t suffer from the same constraints…and schools are where the brainstorming process can be modelled, taught, developed and perfected…as much as possible.

    Will share this with my PLN.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Why do we collect information? How will we use it? How many brainstorms have I conducted in the classroom, and not utilised the information – quite a few I realise. My students need to know that I value what they have to say in the brainstorm, and I need to make a big effort to interweave what they have said through the learning journeys we are taking.
    I like building a brainstorm with my class over a few days, printing each contribution on coloured card, with a different colour each day – so that we can see our ideas building over time. Hopefully, anyone who enters our room asking ‘whose learning is going on here’ will see students’ thinking made apparent. It’s good to keep sending the message that our students are not blank slates at the beginning of an inquiry.
    What else have we done to add value to the brainstorm? I have added all the contributions to an ‘Inspiration’ file for the students to then arrange, group and colour to show any relationships.
    My favourite is using the iPod and passing around our ‘Thinking Circle. One of our class mottos is ‘good thinkers are not always class thinkers’, so you don’t always have to say something. The iPod may travel three or four times around the circle, giving everyone a chance to say something when they are ready. What do we do with the recording? – upload it onto our ‘Thinkquest’ or ‘Voicethread’ pages, to be shared again.
    At the heart of my brainstorming activites, I will continue to ask, ‘how does this brainstorm give every student a voice?’ and how can we treat it as valued information?
    Thanks for the chance to comment on the topic Tania.

  4. Picking on one method of brainstorming does not mean the process in general needs to be thrown out. There are hurdles to make brainstorming more effective. That is what brought me to spend more than 2 years writing a book to help business people use and make brainstorming much more effective. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Learn to do it better. My web site has lots of ideas. The book Power Brainstorming™ tells it as a story.

  5. Quite often, activities labeled brainstorming don’t follow the recommended procedures and/or the leader sends signals of approval/disapproval. I’ve gathered data on brainstorming sessions using the eCOVE Observation Software and it’s frequently quite surprising to the participants to see the gender bias, the number of evaluative comments made during a brainstorming session, and the rate of acceptance of comments from one individual over others.

    In the hands of a skilled leader, brainstorming is very effective, and both leaders and participants can improve their practice with objective feedback. It’s not that brainstorming is faulty – it’s the fidelity of implementation that is most often the fault.

  6. I’ve become rather interested in the art of brainstorming recently. I have also started running some sessions to get more experience at how it works (http://brainstorming.mintranet.com.au). My experience has been that if you unstructure the session then you have the shortcomings described. Once you get a good structure however you can build an energy that leads to very good idea generating.

    I am also experimenting with on-line brainstorming by way of forums (again in a structured way) on the website and would encourage you to get involved to help explore these further.

  7. I think the problem is that most “brainstorming software” which says it is collaborative are really not the case, especially when you have more than 5 people in the same session.

    We have been using, and with absolutely great success and feedback, a tool called GroupMap (http://www.groupmap.us)

    It addresses the issue of social loafing, groupthink and helps you get the best out of both the nominal method and group brainstorming.

    Each individual creates their own “Map” (currently they have mind maps and 2D chart Maps) by putting down their answers and ideas on their own map. These ideas are then shared with others in the session who can then add it to their map, reject it, merge or move ideas. Information overload is managed by only showing 5-7 ideas at a time and groupthink is mitigated by randomising the ideas. The individual maps are then merged together in real time to show the overall group’s perspective which can then be used to facilitate conversation, spark more ideas or act as an artefact of the conversation.

    The main benefits we have found have been the feedback from participants. They all get a chance to add their ideas, including the introverts and people can retain their own views for comparison, but still feel like they are working collaboratively to brainstorm solutions.

    I think there is still a need for people to come together as a group to brainstorm, but that we can use technology to help make the manual process of having to manage these things in groups much less complex and cumbersome.

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