A recent New Yorker article entitled “Groupthink” takes a fascinating look at the concept of brainstorming. According to author Jonah Lehrer, brainstorming was introduced in the late 1940s as a creativity-inducing practice by advertising guru Alex Osborn in his book Your Creative Power. The book was a surprise bestseller, and Osborn’s ideas about brainstorming, according to Lehrer, became “the most widely used creativity technique in the world.” Whether in business, politics, entertainment, or education, group-thinking was and still is regarded as the ultimate path to ingenuity and productivity.
One small problem: Numerous studies over the years have demonstrated that brainstorming doesn’t work, at least not as Osborn defined it. Lehrer quotes Washington University psychologist Keith Sawyer: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”
Sawyer’s statement supports the assertion that brainstorming is not all it’s cracked up to be, but I am more intrigued by the second half of the quote from Sawyer—the part about how working alone and then coming together to pool ideas gets the best results.
I’ve contemplated the use of groups quite a bit, particularly as it relates to writing in the classroom. You see, “group work” is very common in my field—many writing teachers swear by it, as I did originally. The idea is to break students up into small peer groups and have them help each other along each stage of the writing process. In the beginning of the process, they bounce ideas off each other, and as their work progresses, they read one another’s writing and give feedback.
When asked to articulate my philosophy for teaching writing near the end of my time in graduate school, I wrote this:
Though I was initially resistant to the idea, you can sign me up as one who is going to be applying collaborative learning in the classroom, using groups to create what [Mary] Belenky calls a 'connected class.' It is my hope that through their connecting and sharing with one another, the students will be more engaged in the classroom, more engaged in the writing process, and more engaged with the world in which they live.
Ah, the idealism of a new teacher. Belenky, an advocate of collaborative learning, means many things when she speaks of the connected classroom. She means teachers serving as midwives drawing out their students’ thinking rather than bankers depositing knowledge into them. She also means students “constructing truth through consensus,” i.e., brainstorming. While I still embrace the ideal of the teacher as midwife, I no longer believe brainstorming peer groups are an effective way to develop students’ thinking. On the contrary, peer groups often have the opposite effect.
My Change of Heart
My first couple of semesters as a teacher, I used groups weekly, breaking the students up into groups of four to six to respond to one another’s writing at each stage of the writing process. But I quickly grew weary of the mixed results, and a more experienced teacher whom I respected remarked to me one day that she had given up on groups, opting to manage the culture of the classroom from the front rather than entrust it to the luck-of-the-draw approach of small groups. Like so often happens in life, my colleague told me the thing I already believed and gave me permission to follow my instincts.
What are those instincts? Well, I believe group work is fraught with peril, above all the threat of a lousy dynamic due to the negative influence of one or more members. Here’s the thing: I’ve only got those freshmen in my classroom for about 36 hours per semester, and I need to maximize the time to instill in them all the goods I’ve gathered for their benefit.
I’m not talking about lecturing; I’m a workshop guy all the way. I constantly walk my students through writing exercises, then urge them to share their writing with the rest of the class, creating a community of writers in the process. I engage them in conversation as I seek to connect the subject matter with their world. By acting as a moderator orchestrating the interaction in my classroom, I am avoiding the pitfalls in brainstorming pointed to by Lehrer.
There is an art to this kind of classroom. The teacher has to intuit just what it takes to get the maximum participation from each student. Some students will lead the way, under my direction, and then most of the others will follow. Others require special care, but as long as they believe my classroom is a safe place, almost all of them eventually become participants.
This kind of participatory classroom needs strong leadership from the teacher, including the kind sensitivity to each student that cannot be replicated in peer groups. In my opinion, those who push for peer groups as an expression of hierarchy-rejecting collaboration are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As they run from the misguided “banker” approach to teaching, they fall into the ditch on the other side, missing the middle road where teachers act as diligent guides leading their students on a learning expedition.
Teaching Students to Talk ‘Reflectively’
But my main point here, looking back at my quote from Sawyer, is that the best thinking comes from working alone and then sharing ideas. This is not to say that the writer who writes alone is only thinking his own thoughts—not at all. Every person is a collection of all the things that he has seen and heard and read since he entered the world. Reading and writing are social acts, even when done in solitude.
It’s not that our students need to block out the thinking of others; it’s that our students need to learn how to work out their thinking on their own. As writing theorist Peter Elbow says, they need to learn to “talk reflectively to themselves.” We can encourage this by dedicating large chunks of class time to solitary writing, providing writing prompts that provoke personal awareness, critical thinking, and intellectual curiosity. I do this, and for some of my students, these times of quiet in my classroom are the most reflective, meaningful times of their week. They’ve told me so.
In my experience, students are lucky if they land in a small group whose culture facilitates this kind of in-depth thinking. Unfortunately, there is a very real chance they will land in a group rife with anti-intellectualism, “getting by,” and conformity. I can’t afford to take that chance; I’ve got a small window of opportunity to stir my students to great thinking and writing. So I’ll dictate the culture in my classroom, I’ll act as a coach and mentor, and I’ll force them to sit alone with their thoughts with nothing but a piece of paper in one hand and a pen in the other.