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The word "brainstorming" is commonly used to describe the process of coming up with ideas. However, the problem-solving literature means something very specific when it refers to brainstorming. This activity stimulates critical thinking by disconnecting idea creation from idea evaluation, thereby giving participants a feeling of imaginative freedom.

The activity

First proposed by Osborne (1953), the following four principles have come to be accepted as the foundation for effective brainstorming:

  1. generate as many solutions as possible,
  2. defer judgment on any solutions until a designated period of time has elapsed
  3. attempt to create original ideas, and
  4. build-upon and/or combine existing ideas that have been generated.

As ideas are generated, having a facilitator write them up on a board for all to see can stimulate further thought and more ideas.

Reference: Osborne, A.F. (1953). Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking. New York, NY: Scribner and Sons.


During the brainstorming phase of a discussion, the facilitator often must intervene to enforce rule number two, above. As energy builds, participants can be tempted to respond to each others’ ideas with "Yeah, but. . ." While these comments may come from a genuinely positive motivation to engage, the facilitator must carefully separate the evaluation phase of brainstorming from the idea generation phase.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.

Important: Wait Five Seconds!

Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.

Reference: Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57, 1: 69-95.