Ask any author and they will tell you this: ideas are the most important part of creation and they take a long time. How do you get ideas? How much time do you spend coming up with ideas before you start writing?
First try this test. Say just one word to students in your class: Writing.
Immediately ask them what picture comes into their mind. Chances are it will be of a person at a keyboard or writing at a desk with a pen, or a visual of a pen on paper. Not many students will visualise the first and most vital step in creating a piece of writing – brainstorming and creating ideas.
The importance of brainstorming
There is a misconception that ‘creativity’ is reserved for the special few, the gifted, the ones who invoke the muse by wearing a special hat and retreating to the silence of a special place. As a result, brainstorming – the generation of original ideas – is often not taught explicitly in classrooms.
According to Jackie French, ‘anyone who can daydream can create a story’. Furthermore, creativity can in fact be practiced just like any other skill; ask any author, the more you write, the more easily the ideas flow. However, the generation of ideas needs one important element – time.
‘Ideas are like small plants sprouting in the compost of experience; it takes time and patience to find out if they turn into trees.’ (Shaun Tan)
Compare that to the pressure students are put under in a NAPLAN writing task. Students are asked to write a narrative or persuasive piece in 45 minutes with just fve minutes of planning time. This model has led to the narrowing of planning time in normal classrooms, despite the fact that it is definitely not best practice.
The gifted and strong writers, who intuitively or have been explicitly taught to brainstorm and plan, are heavily penalised in this scenario. Authors are too. Take a look at author Jen McVeity’s response to this year’s NAPLAN writing tasks, the marks she received and her insights into the process of completing these tasks.
Ways of generating ideas
Fortunately, generating original and thought provoking ideas can vastly improve with training and practise. Research shows there are three common ways students, adults and authors generate ideas:
Brainstorming refers to the process of quickly recording thoughts, imagery and ideas. It is important not to sensor ideas, nor be concerned with spelling, neat handwriting or grammar. Ideas can be recorded all over the page, in bullet lists or even in the margins.
Mind mapping or clustering
Like brainstorming, techniques such as clustering and mind mapping allow ideas to be recorded without censor and this enhances creativity. Both techniques focus on a central word (usually something that embodies a theme, topic, motif, etc.), which you then work out from by associating other words, thoughts and ideas to that central word. These are very useful techniques for visual learners. There are very elaborate and decorative examples of graphic organisers online such as the array of templates in the ‘Resources gallery’ on the Global Education website.
The ‘what if…?’ approach. What if the main character lost a ring? What if the best friend lied? Why did the brother want to hide? Script writers use this approach a lot to generate new ideas. Aristotle did too.
Training in any of these strategies will enhance students’ creativity and originality, although students may find they have a preference for a particular approach. The more visual learners will prefer mind maps, the more linear would go with bullet point ideas.
It is important to note that there is no ‘right’ way to generate original ideas; authors use multiple strategies:
‘The best place to start is with the characters…my best characters are part real world crossed with something unexpected…like the loud and obnoxious goldfish…often stolen from parts of my own character or that of someone I know…I am confident that once I have the character the rest will flow. Then sometimes it happens exactly the opposite way around. Idea first and then the character emerges.’ (Terry Denton)
‘Stupid thoughts and absurd ideas that pop into your head are not necessarily so stupid or absurd. If something’s not quite right, try adding tentacles.’ (Shaun Tan)
The important thing is that all of these strategies tap into the free flowing ‘alpha’ mode of thinking which is the basis for idea generation. A common term for this is ‘creative flow’.
Putting this into practice
Imagine walking into a classroom and giving students a topic:Gold
Let them work in groups as a collaborative lesson. This also works as a strong scaffolding tool.
In five minutes, challenge students to brainstorm ten different ways to approach the topic. For example:
- A wedding ring found on the beach
- A sickly child living during the gold rush
- A gold nugget discovered on school excursion
- Gold sunsets, sands and memories from a holiday
- Wedding proposal where everything went horribly wrong…
The first ideas students come up with are usually not the most creative. They will be the ‘easy’ ideas, the ideas everyone else will think of too. It is only when they push through and get into creative flow that the original ideas will emerge.
At the end of five minutes, students take their ten ideas and share them with another group. In doing so they realise how many ideas can be generated by brainstorming one topic in groups. Repeat with another group to further reinforce this. Repeat this activity with different topics every morning for a week. Soon students will realise that ideas are easy to generate.
That’s all! Don’t get students to write the story. Don’t make it hard work. Let students practise idea generation in its own right and enjoy the creativity and freedom of thinking this brings.
Try out the sample lesson on Planning for Success™ (see link below) and see how creative your students can be when you give them time to think and brainstorm.
Brainstorming is a form of imaginative research
It is commonly accepted that students can be allowed time to carry out research for informative and persuasive writing tasks, but the same time is often not allowed for imaginative research – the generation of ideas from scratch.
Ultimately, however, if we want more than ‘cookie cutter’ ideas, or the revamp of the latest TV show, we must allow students time for reflection, deep thinking and creative flow.
When we respect the time creating original ideas takes, we see a much greater richness in writing as a reward.
To access the sample lesson on Planning for Success™ go to: www.sevenstepswriting.com/samples/lessonplans/.
For more lesson plans become a member of Seven Steps Online: https://www.sevenstepswriting.com/info-seven-steps-online/.
Jen McVeity is the creator of the Seven Steps to Writing Success (www.sevenstepswriting.com) and the author of over 20 books for children.