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There’s a scene on the TV show Mad Men in which one of the ad executives attempts to help out the creative staff, and suggests using the method of “brain storming,” saying it as if he had just coined the term. Brainstorming was not new in the 60s, but it wasn’t that old either.
Mad Men asks why ‘creativity’ turned from a personality trait into an activity, and moreover, something you could be paid to do. The invention of brainstorming in the 1930s is part of this social change. As firms needed increasingly to create ideas as part of the creation of products, people couldn’t simply just ‘be’ creative. They had to ‘do’ creativity on demand, and it better be good. Students probably also feel like they are asked to be creative and intellectual on cue. Hey, at least you’re studying something you love, right? Yet, fair or unfair, you can learn to do this. You can become creative.
Much research in many areas of psychology has shown that the brain is a muscle, and can become stronger with exercise. It can also become strained with overuse or incorrect use, and can atrophy with neglect. Doing sudoku prevents Alzheimer's disease. Exposing toddlers to books and music makes them smarter in school, and for the rest of their lives. People who suffer brain injuries can experience personality and intellectual changes. Through rehabilitative therapy, they can also rewire their brains, and change the way they see and think. Even things we consider being very cultivated and sophisticated, like university education, are grounded at some level in our neurological muscles. Thus, there are techniques and tricks we can use to wake up and warm up our brains. When we are warmed up, our minds are more open to new things. We notice new things, and we have new ideas. Doesn’t that sound like something you want to learn to do, just for its own sake?
Physical activity turns the brain on. I don’t mean sports. I mean moving. Walking, for instance, sends blood to the brain. We think of thinking as being in the ether, disembodied. But indeed, without blood to the brain, you couldn’t think at all. So too do endorphins from exercise make thinking clearer. At an even more basic level, though, moving engages the brain. Talking, even more, forces your brain to wake up and think of what to say next. When you are talking, your brain is working to anticipate the next move in the conversation. So if you need new ideas, just start talking.
Naturally, this talking is ideally uncensored. You literally say the first thing that comes into your head, and the next, and the next. There’s another scene in Mad Men in which the creative, Stan, starts babbling a million tag lines to go with a car ad. Then someone interrupts him and he shouts, “Oooh! You just flushed the toilet in my head.” In other words, Stan was on a roll, and the interruption killed it. Creativity happens when people feel like they can literally say anything.
In past units, I have based whole tuts on brainstorming topics for an upcoming essay. When I say, “Go!” students often pause uncomfortably and slouch in their chairs. The few brave souls who put forward one idea only hear crickets in response. Then, slowly, another idea, tentatively stated…. Silence. I can only conclude that students dislike this approach. One student once asked me in class, “Well, what do you do to brainstorm, Ryan?” In other words, “You’re assuming this is easy, but it isn’t. So how do you start, if you love it so much?” Fair enough! I start with post-it notes and put them on a wall. I love marker boards. I use Google Keep on my phone. But if brainstorming doesn’t work and seems hard, that’s OK. You don’t have to like it. The question I think we should ask is why students might dislike it.
From Grade 1 to uni, Western children are placed in highly disciplinary social situations as a means to learning. Even in spite of theories of education that show us how to cultivate the child’s mind, schools are more or less jails for children. The teacher is the prison guard who busts you when you get something wrong. In school we learn to play a variety of social roles associated with the status of ‘student’. We carry these into adulthood, starting with uni, and then on to careers.
I would like to say that we all - everyone - have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in primary and high school. This has rewired our brains. Now brainstorming in class seems difficult, and may even bring up negative feelings. If this applies to you, then you should take the opportunity of university study to heal thyself. It starts with practice. You have to tell yourself often, “It doesn’t matter what it sounds like. It matters that I just went for it.”
You also have to convince yourself that what you learned in early education about thinking is probably wrong. Conversations in classrooms often take a very odd form (Mehan 1979: 285):
Teacher: What time is it?
Denise (student): It’s three o’clock.
Teacher: Very good, Denise.
Next time you need to ask someone for the time, do it that way and see what happens. There are some unstated, but very firm rules which Denise has learned to follow in school.
All of this teaches Denise to follow this principle: Know what you want to say before you say it. Think first, then you are permitted to talk. Anything else is against the rules.
And yet, we know that the brain does not work this way. Talking engages the brain and helps you discover the ideas you have. Brainstorming is based on this. Could this be why students find classroom brainstorming awkward?
Thinking and writing is not linear. It does not start with an idea, and then lead to a well stated presentation or well written essay. Don’t wait for the lightbulb to go off. Get started, get active, talk about it, and then the brain will warm up and the ideas will come. You can then work on making it better.
Mehan, Hugh. 1979. “‘What Time Is It, Denise?’: Asking Known Information Questions in Classroom Discourse.” Theory into Practice 18 (4): 285–94.