The Value of Brainstorming For Students
In this post we will be talking about the value of brainstorming with others. And we are going to start this post from an that comes from Neils Bohr.
Niels Bohr was heavily involved in the Manhattan Project—the U.S. race during World War II to build the nuclear bomb before the Nazis. He was also one of the greatest physicists who ever lived— which ultimately made it difficult for him to think intelligently about physics.
Bohr was so respected as the genius who had intuited quantum theory that his thinking was considered unassailable. This meant that he could no longer brainstorm with others. No matter what cockamamie idea Bohr might propose, the other physicists working on the bomb would ooh and ahh over it as if it were something sacred.
Bohr handled this challenge in an intriguing way.
Richard Feynman, as it turned out, was good at not being intimidated by other people—at simply doing physics, no matter who he was with. He was so good that he became Bohr’s ace in the hole. Feynman was at that time just a youngster in the crowd of hundreds of prominent physicists at Los Alamos. But he was singled out by Bohr to do private brainstorming together before Bohr would meet with the other physicists. Why? Feynman was the only one who wasn’t intimidated by Bohr and who would tell Bohr that some of his ideas were foolish.
As Bohr knew, brainstorming and working with others—as long as they know the area—can be helpful. It’s sometimes just not enough to use more of your own neural horsepower—both modes and hemispheres—to analyze your work. After all, everyone has blind spots. Your naively upbeat focused mode can still skip right over errors, especially if you’re the one who committed the original errors.Worse yet, sometimes you can blindly believe you’ve got everything nailed down intellectually, but you haven’t. (This is the kind of thing that can leave you in shock when you discover you’ve flunked a test you’d thought you aced.)
By making it a point to do some of your studying with friends, you can more easily catch where your thinking has gone astray. Friends and teammates can serve as a sort of ever-questioning, larger scale diffuse mode, outside your own brain, that can catch what you missed, or what you just can’t see. And of course, as mentioned earlier, explaining to friends helps build your own understanding.
The importance of working with others doesn’t just relate to problem solving—it’s also important in career building. A single small tip from a teammate to take a course from the outstanding Professor Passionate, or to check out a new job opening, can make an extraordinary difference in how your life unfolds. One of the most-cited papers in sociology, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” by sociologist Mark Granovetter, describes how the number of acquaintances you have—not the number of good friends—predicts your access to the latest ideas as well as your success on the job market.
Your good friends, after all, tend to run in the same social circles that you do. But acquaintances such as class teammates tend to run in different circles meaning that your access to the “outside your brain” interpersonal diffuse mode is exponentially larger.
Those you study with should have, at least on occasion, an aggressively critical edge to them. Research on creativity in teams has shown that nonjudgmental, agreeable interactions are less productive than sessions where criticism is accepted and even solicited as part of the game. If you or one of your study buddies thinks something is wrong in your understanding, it’s important to be able to plainly say so, and to hash out why it’s wrong without worrying about hurt feelings. Of course, you don’t want to go about gratuitously bashing other people, but too much concern for creating a “safe environment” for criticism actually kills the ability to think constructively and creatively, because you’re focusing on the other people rather than the material at hand. Like Feynman, you want to remember that criticism, whether you are giving or receiving it, isn’t really about you. It’s about what you are trying to understand. In a related vein, people often don’t realize that competition can be a good thing—competition is an intense form of collaboration that can help bring out people’s best.
Brainstorming buddies, friends, and teammates can help in another way. You often don’t mind looking stupid in front of friends. But you don’t want to look too stupid—at least, not too often. Studying with others, then, can be a little bit like practicing in front of an audience. Research has shown that such public practice makes it easier for you to think on your feet and react well in stressful situations such as those you encounter when you take tests or give a presentation. There is yet another value to study buddies—this relates to when credible sources are in error. Inevitably, no matter how good they are, your instructor—or the book—will make a mistake. Friends can help validate and untangle the resulting confusion and prevent hours of following false leads as you try to find a way to explain something that’s flat-out wrong.
But a final word of warning: study groups can be powerfully effective for learning in math, science, engineering, and technology. If study sessions turn into socializing occasions, however, all bets are off. Keep small talk to a minimum, get your group on track, and finish your work. If you find that your group meetings start five to fifteen minutes late, members haven’t read the material, and the conversation consistently veers off topic, find yourself another group.