Sunday, October 9, 2011

Five Benefits of Brainstorming in the Math Classroom

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.

Brainstorming before a lesson:
  • 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. 
There are also other benefits for brainstorming during and after a lesson.  We'll explore these reasons for brainstorming in Parts 2 and 3 of this series.  In part 4 of the series, I'll share some ideas and resources for brainstorming in the math classroom.

Do you incorporate brainstorming?  If so, how?  How has brainstorming benefited your students?


debvano said...

I have just recently started brainstorming with my math classes. It is usually in the form of "tell me what you know about..." We haven't written anything down, we just have a group discussion with students raising their hands and commenting. I am wondering how you have students brainstorm. Do they just make a list? Do you use graphic organizers? If so, which ones do you use?

I do think it is important to make connections to prior knowledge when introducing a new topic. And, I like hearing about what they already know. My students often know so much more than they think they know. Sometimes they just don't know the vocabulary (integers, as opposed to positive and negative numbers, for example).

I will be looking for parts 2,3, and 4 in this series!

Kristi Grande said...

Thanks for sharing how you're brainstorming with students! Have you noticed a difference in student perceptions about their mathematical knowledge/ability since you've started brainstorming before a lesson?

There are a lot of strategies that you can use for brainstorming. Many are just variations of each other. You described a quick brainstorm where students just comment on what they know about a topic. That is a great start and is an excellent strategy for a review lesson or for times when you're really low on time. It would be helpful to consider writing this down as a class list, so you can go back and refer to it or add to it at different points in the lesson. Having the list also gives students a visual to show what they knew compared to what they're learning. Start the list in one color during the initial brainstorming session and use a different color later to add new learning. A 3rd color could be used to correct any misconceptions that come up in the brainstorming.

You could also brainstorm in a Think-Pair-Share format. Have students think about what they know for 30 sec to a minute, then share with a partner for 30 sec to a minute and finally share with the class. This doesn't have to take much time and allows students to reflect and collaborate before sharing with the entire group. Here's a link for a graphic organizer to use with the Think-Pair-Share:

If you want to incorporate movement into the brainstorming, you could put up butcher paper around the room with various topics, vocabulary words, or questions, etc. Have students spread out to the different posters. With their group, they can brainstorm the topic/question on the poster for a given time, then have each group move to a different poster and add their ideas/prior knowledge to the list that was started by the previous group. Keep this up until each group has been to every poster. Then you can discuss what students have written or save the discussion for a later time. This type of brainstorming activity is good to use before starting a new unit of study. For example: if you're starting a measurement unit, you could have Perimeter, Area, Circumference,Volume, etc. written on the posters. Have students do this brainstorm at the end of the period the day before you start the unit (or even a few days prior to starting the unit). You don't even have to address it until the day you begin the unit. Doing the brainstorm before the unit begins, activates prior knowledge about vocabulary/concepts and gives students time to reflect on what they already know about the topic. By giving students this time to reflect on the topics before you start the unit, they may be ready to add to the brainstorm before you even begin the first lesson.

These are just a few ideas/suggestions. I'll share more ideas, strategies, and graphic organizers in Part 4 of the series. Don't want to give it all away here!

Thanks again for sharing what you're doing with your students. Please keep us posted as you continue to use new strategies for brainstorming.

Unknown said...

The article about the benefits was useful to me I am a student at university of Namibia studying to be a math teacher and i am failing to answer the question that says how can mathematics teachers use brainstorming when they introduce new concept

Evan said...

Mind maps are a tool used to visualize and organize information. Capturing your free flow of ideas using a mind map during brainstorming will help you quickly make sense of the relationships between the information you come up with. They are also a great way to break down an idea and analyze it. You can draw mind maps with Creately mind mapping software