Having written about brainstorming and group work in three of the more recent posts here, you can imagine I was alarmed to see the blurb, “Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work,” promoting Jonah Lehrer’s article Group Think: The Brainstorming Myth. After reading the article, I see there’s a lot to learn in thinking through setting up effective collaborations.
The blurb in question focuses on a very specific type of brainstorming that has been proven empirically to provide less creative ideas. When groups are told to throw out ideas without criticism, they tend to come up with a lot of ideas, but those ideas are more predictable, less varied, and ultimately less successful than groups that are free to criticize each other’s ideas. The criticism leads to a reconsideration of ideas, which ultimately makes them better.
Lehrer’s asssertion that this type brainstorming doesn’t work does not mean that groups cannot be creative. In fact, he introduces several studies that show that they can be more creative than individuals under the right conditions. The most compelling parts of the article are those that consider what those right conditions look like. Essentially, there are two conditions necessary for teams to produce creative ideas. First, the best ideas tend to come from collaborators who are located in close enough proximity where they have to bump into each other, which creates opportunities to discover new ideas. (Lehrer talks about MIT’s Building 20, which also comes up in the Steven Johnson book I recently reviewed, Where Good Ideas Come From.) Second, the best collaborations are those that are composed of team members who are familiar enough with each other to feel comfortable sharing ideas and giving and receiving constructive criticism, but not so familiar with each other that they all tend to think in the same way.
The difficulty in coming up with a good collaborative mix leads me to consider group work in class workshops, discussions, and assignments. I’m a firm believer that group work does yield positive results when done right, but the refutations of the traditional brainstorming approach is one that we ought to take seriously, especially since it’s probably the most common approach. Lehrer suggests that while forbidding criticism may protect feelings, it’s not really doing the members of the group much service if they aren’t really being challenged to think creatively. That doesn’t mean we ought to toss it completely, but it should be part of a larger process. At the same time, students are not Broadway producers, ad execs, or other types of groups talked about in the article, and they may need to develop the tools that can help them respond effectively to criticism. Those conditions raise an important question: how do we create an environment that encourages participation from all without forbidding the friction that drives creativity?
Creating that environment starts well in advance of starting group work. In my own classes, I stress that we need to create a friendly environment of mutual respect otherwise we’ll hold everyone’s growth back. The classes where I’ve been able to create a comfortable and open environment were the best at group work. The converse is also true. Working in other instructors’ classes, I can tell when a class is used to mostly hearing lecture. In these classes, if I try to get students to generate ideas within small groups, I tend to see a less active sharing of ideas and to receive less creative comments.
I imagine that it might also help to train students in giving the types of criticism that will inspire more creative ideas. I like to run paper brainstorming conferences by having students look for patterns or breaks within the patterns and then talk about what they mean. In this process, I emphasize how the breaks in the patterns often give us more to write about. The process works best when it is iterative, when a student can think and rethink their own idea several times, expanding and elaborating each time.
Of course, just as the prescription to not criticize can lead to less effective brainstorming, an over prescribed approach to criticism might do the same. That’s why I think the most important things we can do to create a good collaborative environment is to foster what Carol Dweck calls the “growth mindset.” In Dweck’s terms, a mindset refers to the view that one has of their own abilities, whether they are fixed, i.e. something internal and limited, or capable of growth, i.e. improvable through practice. Students who have a fixed mindset will often see criticism as a judgment of their own abilities and will tend to be less motivated to put in the effort to improve. Students who have the growth mindset will understand that criticism points out new challenges for them to overcome through hard work. More than anything else, I try to foster this growth mindset within all students so that they are better able to feel that criticism is pointing out opportunities and not failures.