Brainstorming – Part Two by Hall Houston

In the last article, I described the steps of a brainstorming session:

  1. Teacher presents the problem statement
  2. Students discuss the problem statement and generate solutions
  3. Students decide on the  best solution or solutions
  4. Groups read their best solutions to the class


Now, I’d like to delve into a few difficulties that come up in brainstorming sessions and suggest some solutions.


“Some students do more work than others.”


This is a common problem with any type of group work. Conscientious students do the most work, and the others just sit back and relax. This phenomenon is known as social loafing. One way to prevent it is to require all students to write down 5 solutions individually before they begin the brainstorming session. Teachers can monitor and see that everyone has written something.


“Some groups don’t really think of anything except the most obvious solutions.”


Encourage your students to come up with the craziest, wackiest, wildest ideas. This can often help participants to generate more ideas and better ideas.


“The students don’t say anything at all, they just sit there.”


One possibility is that the problem statement isn’t relevant enough for them to generate much talk. Consider the students’ ages, cultural background, and interests. Find a problem statement they can relate to.


Alternatively, it could be that the students are not fluent enough in English. Brainstorming is best suited for intermediate or advanced level English learners.


Or they’re not comfortable doing a group discussion. You might try doing a brainstorming activity through writing, where all participants jot down their ideas.


“The students don’t seem to get the idea of deferring evaluation. One student comes up with an idea, and immediately another one wants to offer criticism. That’s NOT the way to brainstorm.”


In Jonah Lehrer’s intriguing book Imagine, he mentions a research study done by Charlan Nemeth in 2003 which tested the effects of criticism on brainstorming. Two groups were given the same problem statement, but one group was given the traditional rules of brainstorming (don’t criticize), while the other group was encouraged to criticize and debate the ideas as they came up. In the end, the second group produced many more ideas than the first group. The results indicated that criticism and debate didn’t stop the flow of ideas, but actually encouraged them.  So, if your students have a tendency to criticize each other’s solutions, you might want to monitor and see if this helps or hinders the creative process.


In the third installment of this series, I will share with you a few different types of brainstorming.



Hall Houston teaches at Kainan University in Taoyuan County, Taiwan. His articles have been published in periodicals such as It's for Teachers, Modern English Teacher and English Teaching Professional. He has written 3 books: The Creative Classroom: Teaching Languages Outside the Box, Provoking Thought: Memory and Thinking in ELT, and The ELT Daily Journal: Learning to Teach ESL/EFL

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