Why brainstorming doesn’t work: Encouraging creative thinking in Information Literacy

Sarah GrahamSarah Graham, Faculty Liaison Librarian, Veterinary Science

We’ve all had library sessions where we’ve asked students to come up with some synonyms for keywords and we’ve been met with silence. We’ve also had plenty of classes where students have been happy to suggest alternate terms, but they haven’t gone beyond ‘thesaurus terms’, suggesting a shallow engagement with the topic. We all know that the best information searches are reflective, and consider information need from a critical and engaged position.

Maybe the problem isn’t the students, but the way we’re teaching.

Librarians have used “brainstorming” (or free-associating) for a long-time to foster creativity, but there’s very established research from psychology that brainstorming is not the most effective way to get people to solve problems and come up with innovative solutions.

Nemeth (2004) found that brainstorming groups were not as effective as groups encouraged to criticize or debate their colleagues. She found that on average, the debate groups generated nearly 20% more ideas than the brainstorming group. She theorizes that it’s the ‘harmony’ of brainstorming that’s the problem. According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “Criticism allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable.” (Lehrer 2012)

The challenge, for librarians, seems to be how to add “debate” into our classrooms. We typically see students only once or twice a year. Often sessions last for an hour or two. We often have a lot of practical, procedural-type content to get through in classes. We simply have very little time for deep engagement in one-shot IL sessions. But another way to look at it might be that by encouraging our users to be creative in class we’re also engaging them in a deep, more reflective process. It might even be possible to introduce dissent and criticism in brief, but important ways.

Here are some ideas I have for bringing “debate” discussions into library classrooms:

  • Instead of brainstorming topics, pre-arrange a controversial stance on the topic, and get students to criticize the stance.
  • Organise students into groups and get them to solve a problem. Encourage them to debate and criticize each other’s ideas.
  • If librarians are involved with the setting and marking of assignments, choose activities that encourage debate and criticism (for example, a group-produced bibliography with annotations).

Does anyone else have particular activities that you feel have been successful in promoting creative thinking in class? What do you think might be some barriers to introducing debate and criticism into library classes?

More reading:

Nemeth, CJ, Personnaz, B, Personnaz, M & Goncalo, JA 2004, ‘The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries‘, European Journal of Social Psychology,  vol. 34,  no. 4, pp. 365-374.

Lehrer, J 2012, “GROUPTHINK: Annals of Ideas“, The New Yorker, vol. 87, no. 46, pp. 22

Sarah Graham works in the University of Sydney Library.

Originally published on the ALIA Sydney blog:






3 Comments - Leave a comment
  1. Owen Loney says:

    A good little article Sara. I studied this topic (Library information literacy teaching) at UTS (Information Science). Good to see you are exploring this important topic with new ideas. I agree, it is more the methods of teaching information literacy than the students themselves. Brainstorming, free-association, call it what you will…the structure and method of conveying the information needs to be explored more and indepth.
    Owen (CAT Team, Fisher Library)

  2. Paul O'Donhue says:

    thanks I think the expectation of the brainstorm is a bit high
    it should only be used as a precurser to a more structured group negotiation process
    i like the idea that solutions are best produced when some form of conflict is accepted and worked through and a position developed

    another point it that when I printed your article i got about six pages of tags is there anyway of preventing this at your end or mine

  3. Gaith (Library Web) says:

    Paul O’Donhue :

    another point it that when I printed your article i got about six pages of tags is there anyway of preventing this at your end or mine

    Hi Paul, there was an issue with the formatting of the print page. I’ve fixed it and the tags now should not show up if you print the article again.

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