This summer I spent a week at IDEO in San Francisco learning about design thinking and their process for tackling challenges. While I was there, I observed a team brainstorm and was shocked by their results.

Like most teachers, I want students to brainstorm and generate ideas to fuel their inquiries and drive projects. However, this seemingly simple task of generating ideas is really challenging for students for a few reasons. During a brainstorm, students:

  • Self-censor limiting the flow of ideas.
  • Fear “bad ideas” or “dumb ideas.”
  • Jump to a solution instead of investigating possibilities and living in the space of ambiguity.

All of these tendencies limit a student’s creativity and their ability to generate a large number of ideas. After watching a team at IDEO brainstorm, my teacher team decided to create a clear protocol around brainstorming. We even modeled this process for students so they could see it in practice. They selected the challenge, and we walked through the 5 steps below.

Step 1: Heads Down Silent 3 Minute Brainstorm Using Post-its

Students have 3 minutes to silently generate as many ideas as possible writing each idea on a separate post-it note. We emphasize that there are NO bad ideas because even off the wall ideas can spark ideas worth considering.

Step 2: Take Turns Sharing Your Ideas

Students take turns sharing the idea on each post-it and adding it to a whiteboard or surface. At this point, they know their job is to listen without judgment. Questions and comments are shelved for the next step.

Step 3: Categorize and Discuss

Once every student has had a chance to share his/her post-its and add them to the board, then they must try to group post-its that share commonalities. This step is important. It helps students to identify complementary ideas or similar thoughts. At this point, students are invited to ask questions about ideas to understand them better. They can also add ideas or add to each other’s ideas during this step.

Step 4: Identify Most Interesting Ideas

Once all of the post-its are up on the board and categorized, each member of the group puts 5 dots on their favorite ideas. This creates a heat map of the most interesting ideas generated during the brainstorm.

Step 5: Document the Brainstorm

Students take photos of the brainstorm to capture the ideas generated and add themto their digital notebooks under the “Project” page.  This way they are easy to reference as the project progresses.

IDEO’s 7 Little Rules for Brainstorming Sessions

Once students understand the process of a formal brainstorm, we cover the norms for their engagement. We use IDEO’s “seven little rules that unlock the creative power of a brainstorming session.” These rules create powerful norms around the brainstorming process. In short, those 7 rules are:

  1. Defer judgment.
  2. Encourage wild ideas.
  3. Build on the ideas of others.
  4. Stay focused on the topic.
  5. One conversation at a time.
  6. Be visual.
  7. Go for quantity.

For a more detailed explanation, check out “Brainstorm Rules” in the IDEO Design Kit.

9 Responses

  1. […] In these meetings, we have had spirited debate and discussion regarding not only Common Core State Standards and its implementation, but also the strategic instruction required and the research to support that instruction. While discussing the need for students to actively participate in close reading of texts, I noticed that one of the excerpts of research that we were reading referenced a new book by Kylene Beers and Robert A. Borrowing a Powerful Brainstorm Protocol from IDEO. […]

  2. Hi Catlin,

    We have been using IDEO’s “old school” video on the shopping cart revamp for many years here at #Mashpee Middle High School. One of the points I drive home is “Fail often in order to succeed sooner.” Giving my students “permission to fail,” coupled with the Engineering Design Process, results in some amazing student efforts to succeed!! @mashpeetech @MMHS_Principal

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