helping your students generate ideas

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Thomas Edison said, “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”

Easy for Tom to say. The average child today finds it very difficult to come up with a variety of ideas in response to a problem. He is most likely to grab the first idea that pops into his head. That idea will be a borrowed one – usually from television. Kids are told that when taking a test and they unsure of an answer, they should go with their first idea; it’s usually the right one. But in creativity, the first idea is almost always a cliché.

Kids need help coming up with
a range of ideas

That’s why many of my activities include brainstorming. (Parents, here's a brainstorming page for you!)

Brainstorming is a key part to the creative process. It’s the best way to think of a whole pile of potential answers to a problem. It also can be tons of fun. Here are some helpful tips:

Brainstorm in the classroom.
Creativity can thrive in a group if the environment is right. It doesn’t have to be a solitary child staring at a blank piece of paper. Brainstorming can be a team sport. As the teacher, you take the lead -- asking questions, fielding answers, showing enthusiasm, keeping the "what if" spirit thriving.

Accept all ideas. Make the tone positive. Even if an idea obviously won’t work, write it down or hear it out. Not only will the quietest of your kids feel included, that idea may be a stepping-stone to another, more useful answer. However, when I work with kids, there are times I limit them. I do tell them that we want to stay away from violent ideas or bathroom humor. If you have any restrictions like that, tell them up front rather than embarrassing someone right after they’ve shared their idea.

Have a visual focus. It really helps to have something visual to start from. Students can use it as a mental touchstone as they wander in their minds in search of new ideas. It may be a name of a character on the board, or ideas that are listed as they are suggested, or a quick drawing of a character, or a painting as a prompt.

Push beyond the obvious. As I’ve worked with children, I’ve found they need a gentle, encouraging push to get beyond that first line of over-used ideas. So if you’re all dreaming up names for a super-hero who’s a bear, know the first answer will be “Super Bear!” Gratefully accept it, then say something like, “Great idea! But what else could we name him?” You could even start by saying the obvious answer: "I bet many of us thought of 'Super Bear'. Okay. That's a good idea, but I know we can do better!" Once your students get past the initial shock that there might possibly be another answer, they’ll come up with more.

It's good to show them the progress they made. At the end of the brainstorming session, there should be a range of ideas. You may need to highlight a few that have real possibilities, or you may just want to let them individually choose which ones will work for them. In either case, point out how the later answers are so much more interesting than the obvious ones.

Most of all, remember to make brainstorming fun! There's an amazing energy that builds in a group as ideas begin to fly. I've seen in creative writing workshops I've done with kids. I've also seen it in ad agencies I've worked in with adults. Whereever brainstorming is done, coming up with ideas is a blast!

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2005 Bruce Van Patter