Brainstorming is an excellent teaching strategy that many math teachers neglect to incorporate into their regular classroom practices. Some teachers don't think they have time, some teachers don't recognize the value of it, and some teachers have never even thought about having students brainstorm.
Brainstorming can be done at various times throughout a unit of study or lesson. It serves a slightly different purpose and has different benefits depending on when you use it in the course of a lesson or unit. In this post we'll examine some benefits of brainstorming before a lesson or unit of study.
- Activates schema --- Our brains love to make associations. We learn and recall information best when we're able to connect it other things we already know. Having students brainstorm before you begin a lesson or unit allows their brains to activate things they already know about the topic. So when students begin to acquire new learning on the topic, they are able to associate it with their prior knowledge. By creating these associations, the connections in the brain will be stronger making it easier to recall the information later.
- Helps set a baseline for learning --- Brainstorming prior to a lesson or unit of study allows both teachers (and students) to get an idea of how much a student knows about the topic. As you move through the unit of study, have students revisit their brainstorming tools (where they recorded their ideas) and either add new ideas to the list or correct misconceptions. Doing this gives students a sense of what they know. It's also a motivator because it allows students to see progress in their understanding.
- Helps identify misconceptions that students already have about a topic --- Students bring misconceptions to the classroom everyday. Misconceptions are a part of learning. Brainstorming before a lesson shines a light on any misconceptions that students bring to the discussion. Identifying misconceptions before you begin the lesson allows you to address ideas that will get in the way of new learning. For example, if students begin a unit on integers believing that you can only subtract a smaller number from a larger number, they will have trouble grasping the concept of subtracting integers. If you know that students have this belief, you can make sure you approach subtracting integers in a way that will correct this misconception. When we don't know about these types of misconceptions before teaching a new topic, we often add to student's confusion rather than helping them learn what we intend.
- Helps guide teaching and differentiation --- Brainstorming lets you see who has no prior knowledge or understanding, who has a little prior knowledge, and who already knows a lot about the topic. For example, if you have students brainstorm the topic Volume, you can see exactly what ideas students already have about volume. Do they know that volume relates to capacity? Do they know that volume relates to 3-dimensional shapes? Do they know that we can use a formula to calculate volume? This type of information helps you decide where to start the lesson, how to group students, which students need remediation, which students are already beyond the lesson you had planned, etc.
- Improve student's perception about their level of mathematical understanding --- Many students have a very low perception of their math abilities because they associate math with computation. Most students don't realize that they know much more about math than they think. If you ask 6th grade students what they know about adding fractions, many would tell you they don't know how to add fractions. This is usually because they have trouble remembering and applying the algorithm for adding fractions. But if you delve deeper, students might discover that they actually know a lot about adding fractions. They might know situations where you would need to add fractions, how to estimate an answer, that the steps for adding and subtracting fractions are similar, how to represent adding fractions visually, that you need to find a common denominator when adding fractions, etc. Once you see what students do know about a topic, you can point out exactly what and how much they already know. Recognizing what they know about math helps students build confidence and changes perceptions about their abilities.
Do you incorporate brainstorming? If so, how? How has brainstorming benefited your students?