Brainstorming Doesn’t Work – Oh yes it does!

Sometimes “lots of evidence” is really a little bit of evidence reported (and misreported) lots of times. Since 2007 Google has been very excited about brainstorming, and report after report would have anyone who practises it tarred and feathered. Take a closer look and “report after report” seems to be a rehash of three sets of data (one of which is a copy of the other).
The sensationalist headlines cry “brainstorming does not work.” The basis for this, as far as I can tell, is two or three non-statistically valid samples which, when tested, achieved an unexpected result. In total across three experiments approximately 250 students were tested against control groups of similar size. The individuals did better than the groups. I’m still suspicious of this kind of unscientific research ever since the Cyril Burt fiasco.
Like most fair-minded and objective individuals, I love it when research tells me I’m doing things right. Then it becomes reliable science! So what I do find interesting about this research is that it perfectly vindicates virtual learning environments like BlackBoard and Moodle. It strengthens the argument for robust challenge from peers and tutors. It suggests that to reject unworkable ideas as they emerge is a far more productive stimulus to “doing better” than “feeling the love” and not criticising anything, as in classic brainstorming. Thus, giving individuals an intellectual or creative task and then immediately debriefing it in well run and timely forums and discussions is a virtuous thing to – but then we knew that already, didn’t we?
Perhaps I am arguing for intuition and belief over evidence-based reasoning. Still mu own empiricism tells me if you ask people who work with groups whether they find brainstorming to be a useful way of stimulating a flow of fresh ideas, they will answer yes, but I’ve not done that piece of research.
Why cannot the same pattern be followed in a classroom or meeting? If we feel squeamish about criticism face-to-face, then surely we need only get better at contracting and at giving and receiving feedback. I expect to be besieged now with earnest academics telling me I’ve missed unimpeachable peer-validated research, and consultants and facilitators telling me to “get real”; watch this space.

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