Collaborative Techniques for Planning, Being Creative and Making Decisions
There are many tools you can use to develop creative ideas for programs, projects, plans and activities. These brainstorming techniques are particularly useful when working in groups, whether it's a class of students or a team of your colleagues.
One of the greatest challenges for a leader—whether a teacher, a businessperson or anyone else—is encouraging creativity and a sense of collective "ownership" on the part of his or her team while guiding them toward ideas that support the leader's objectives. If you focus too much on the creative side, you'll likely drift toward a mass of possibilities that just won't meld into a practical project. Conversely, if you put too much emphasis on structure, you'll stifle new ideas, deny a sense of shared ownership, and teach children to follow and repeat rather than explore and contribute.
One thing is essential, however, when using these or any other group creativity technique: To be effective, you must already have done enough planning to guide participants toward a project, activity or solution that satisfies your larger goals.
A Process for Generating Ideas
Most collaborative planning projects start with two stages: brainstorming and refinement. In brainstorming, the goal is to get everyone's creative juices flowing and to come up with as many related ideas as possible, saving judgment for the refinement stage. During a brainstorming exercise, everyone's ideas get written down, and no one is allowed to comment on them, either positively or negatively. The concept behind the technique is to create a fertile environment in which each team member builds on the thoughts of others without getting sidetracked by prematurely evaluating the practicality of the ideas.
If brainstorming is about quantity and options, the emphasis in the refinement stage is on decision making. Refinement involves taking all of those ideas and winnowing them down, ultimately selecting the one(s) the team intends to pursue. This process isn't necessarily a matter of figuring out the "best" idea. Depending on the goals of the activity, it may simply be the one that the group thinks is most fun or practical. For a business decision, it might involve a cost/benefit analysis to decide which computer equipment to purchase for your lab. In a curriculum-planning activity, it might be deciding which three topics to cover that term. With kids in a learning center, it might be a matter of helping them decide on a plot for a video or on a topic for an inquiry-based learning project.
Using Graphic Organizers
Graphic organizers (also referred to as visual maps, idea maps and thinking maps, among other names), are a family of techniques that use simple, visual templates to help people generate, collect, organize and record ideas. Numerous templates are available, some for very specific purposes. Some templates are best for the brainstorming phase, others work best for refinement, and some are equally useful in both stages. A few basic principles unite them all:
- They are visually based and use simple, repetitive structures to show the relationships between words or ideas.
- Their structures are simple enough to guide and record the creative process without interfering with the flow of ideas, unlike more traditional formats (e.g., Venn diagrams and outlining), which rely on fairly rigid structures.
- They break the process down into logical steps so that the group can focus on one issue at a time.
- They are usually nonlinear, so they can show multiple relationships between words, concepts or ideas.
- They are well suited to group activities because their simplicity encourages participation, energy and enthusiasm.
Most often, we use graphic organizers to help make a decision or settle on a course of action, but some of them can also serve as a powerful teaching device to form the foundation of "template"-based activities. See for example the target map activities that help kids practice pattern writing.
Graphic organizers are most valuable when you already have a general concept in mind and are ready to search for specific ideas for implementing or executing it. For example, if you know that you want to focus on basic math skills for a particular term, you might use a graphic organizer to lead a discussion with your colleagues, students or both to come up with project ideas.
Types of Graphic Organizers
As noted earlier, many variations on graphic organizers are available. The following discusses just a few of them. You'll find that people use a variety of terms to describe the techniques.
- The most versatile graphic organizing technique is mapping. We encourage you to make mapping a central part of all of your planning, especially in class projects with your kids, as a basic element of inquiry-based learning. When you do, you'll find that the kids will become much more engaged, positive and enthusiastic, even when doing otherwise mundane exercises. For simple and straightforward projects, mapping can help you in both the brainstorming and the refinement phases. Take a look at our overview of mapping as well as some examples for using them in projects and activities to develop a story or to work on pattern writing.
- Webbing can be used in much the same way as mapping, especially for pattern writing, brainstorming and pre-organization before the traditional outlining stage. A variation of the web map, the "comparison webs," is particularly useful for working on compare-and-contrast concepts.
- Clustering is a variation on web maps that is particularly useful for individual brainstorming activities, like coming up with stories, building on plot ideas and overcoming writer's block.
In addition to the graphic organizers described here, others can be found at the end of this section, including software applications like Inspiration, which adapt graphic organization structures for use on the computer.
Other Techniques for Organizing a Project
When used as a planning tool, graphic organization techniques tend to work best for the following:
- To plan simple, straightforward activities that require creative ideas in some kind of loose structure but do not involve a great many factors or decision points.
- In the early stages of broad or complex projects, when the goal is to come up with an initial set of ideas that will be refined through continued research, planning and questioning.
For complex projects, of course, the next step is to develop the project from idea to finished product; doing so often means more thinking, planning and organizing. What's more, many projects that your kids work on will generate new ideas and information at each stage, so you and your students will have to adapt the plans accordingly.
Depending on the nature of the project, your next step sometimes may be to try more traditional, linear organization techniques such as outlining. Graphic organizing, especially mapping and webbing, are great pre-outlining techniques because they can help structure major topics and their relationships to each other (the part of outlining that kids, and even adults, often have the most difficulty with), making the outlining of sub-points easier.
For more far-ranging and research-based projects, you'll also want to provide the group with tools for structuring what they know and what they've learned. The following are a series of simple planning templates developed by Dr. Cornelia Brunner of the Center for Children and Technology. (The links below will bring up the templates sideways in your browser for easy printing).
She has additional templates for keeping on track while the project is going on, including
When working on projects that involve graphic media, such as video, Web pages or multimedia presentations, you'll also want to get kids involved in organizing and planning through storyboarding to help them understand the structure, plan and interplay of words, pictures, setting and motion.