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Generating Ideas

Learning Writing Research
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Creative thinking is untidy
Spidergrams and Mind Maps
Relating ideas
Using Cards to Generate Project Ideas
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Creative thinking is untidy

To present ideas logically in an essay or in the report on a project they need to be sequential. That is, we have to arrange them in a sequence so that one idea follows another like the beads in a necklace. find out more about sequences
click the beads to find out more about sequences

But this is not how we think.
Thinking is creative and untidy -
it is all over the place.


The world vibrates in rhythmic darkness,
Tidal waves sweep the Pacific,
Hurricanes whirl across the Caribbean,
Thunder and lightening crack across the storm washed heavens in orgasms of fertile devastation.

The idea of brainstorming is to release your creative energies by suspending criticism.

You can do it your self, or in a group.

To brainstorm alone just jot down the ideas you have on a subject on a piece of paper, without stopping to cut out ideas you do not want to use, select which are the best, or put them in any order. Just let them all out.


To write our untidy, creative, ideas down, we can use diagrams or patterned notes.

These are often called spidergrams or spidergraphs because an easy way to do them is to write down the central idea or subject and then make notes attached to lines that go out like legs from the subject.

This is also a useful technique for making notes in a lecture when you are unsure of the sequence of the lecturer's thoughts.

Mind Maps

Visual idea-mapping

This material comes from Steve Torrence's Laser project at Middlesex University

Using mind maps is one of the techniques that can be used to give a more creative expression to your understanding. Mind maps are the super- delux version of spidergrams developed by psychologist Tony Buzan as a way to improve study. They are now used world-wide, by business-leaders, politicians, academics and others. (See, for example, T. Buzan, The Mindmap Book, London: BBC Publications, 1993.)

One way to do mind mapping is to take a central concept - e.g. MIND, and map the various key concepts with which the central idea is connected in your mind, using a visual, spatial form of representation, rather than a textual, list-based approach. Thus a simple mindmap for MIND might look like this.

Note the three-stage structure: MIND connects with SOUL, BODY, THINKING, BRAIN, COMPUTER, and each of these concepts relate to several other concepts. This is not the sort of exercise where you have to find the "correct" way to do it. Each person's mind-maps of a given concept, like MIND, will be different. Mindmapping is a way to get clear on what you think.

Relating ideas

In the examples on this page, what one is doing is relating ideas. This will be more productive if you think about whose ideas you are intending to relate. In the mind map example, the ideas are clearly those of the person making the map. Academic work, however, is carried out in the context of ideas that have been developed by many people, so one often needs to analyse and relate the ideas of a particular author. To do this, you will need to identify the concepts used by the author and examine how you think they are related within his or her work.

Authors (theorists) usually have central concepts (key concepts) that guide and structure their work. Relating the author's ideas becomes more meaningful if one attempts to identify the key concepts, and to see how the other concepts are understood in the light of them.

Creativity Card Games

From Ashman, S. and George, A. 1982 Study and Learn

Using cards to generate project ideas

Get a set of file cards or cut up some sheets of file paper and write down each component topic of the field you are interested in, one per card. Put in more, rather than less, including topics which you think are almost marginal.

Now on a clear table top spread out all the cards. Arrange them either in sequence in rows from left to right or, better still, try to work out a scheme starting from the centre of the table and creating a branching pattern according to priority and linkage.

See what new ideas are generated by changing the centre card of the pattern. Also think hard about the type of links you might make between topics. Begin to define what's in the project and what you should exclude.

Be prepared to brainstorm with unlikely connections. By forcing connections between very different ideas, you are tracing new pathways across the subject area. At the least, you will reassure yourself of the relative importance and interconnection of your main study areas. You may also stumble across a new perspective which will provide you with the excitement and motivation to set off on a project.

You could just play around with the cards and put them into a workable sequence

Surprise connections

Take a set of key ideas from the general area in which your topic is to be located and try matching them in turn to a randomly selected series of words - Perhaps you could just collect the random words by letting a dictionary fall open

For example:
Key ideas Random words
Office management

ways of improving

social and tachnical


You should be prepared to brainstorm with the most unlikely connections. Ask yourself what links you could make, for example, between office management and colour. Perhaps this would lead you into considering environmental influences, including colour schemes, on office workers and the quality or colour of their office experience. Perhaps colour might suggest political colour, which might lead on to social structure and organisation.

The card games are an individual way to stimulate creativity.
Word-ball games are a group way

Creativity Groups

Groups of people working together can stimulate one another's ideas. This is one reason why dialogue is so important academically.

For groups to be creative we need to take an interest in one another's projects and to be sympathetic. A friendly group of people working on different projects can generate ideas in the process of just explaining to one another what they are doing and discussing it.

Generating ideas about new projects

A group of students are working on different projects and have explained them to one another. They may be able continue the conversation creatively by exploring the keywords in their projects.

They are writing about surveillance, about madness, about community, about the imagination, about authority and power, about total institutions, about political perspectives and about science, philosophy and theology - but that all of them have only recently chosen or received their topic and know little about it.

It should help to develop their ideas if they explore what each word means to each of them, and what they think it might mean in the context of their project. One way to do this would be to brainstorm similar words, related words and opposite words.

The group played word-ball game. In this, we sit in a circle and throw words at one another. So, the starter says a word (for example: Imagination) and throws it to someone else by saying his or her name (for example: "Imagination - Jayne"). Jayne catches it by saying what she heard, saying another word, and throws it to someone else: "Imagination - Creative - Caroline", and so on. After a while, the group stop and discuss the words.

Here are the results of an actual group

Not lively
The words are mostly similar words or opposite words to the first word.

We wondered if we should let our imagination be more free-thinking. For example, dreams are not the same, but many people who write about the imagination discuss dreams. See, for example, Mary Shelley, William Morris and Sigmund Freud

Some people worried about saying the "right" word. There is no right word - just say anything.

The game helps people get to know the names of the other people in the group. To help, we had a list of everyone's names.

The words seem to break free at oppression. We asked what the link in the person's mind was. She said

"I think of society as about oppression as I am a marxist"

We discussed Raymond Williams comment that community is always a nice, cuddly, concept and that nasty words, like oppression, only get connected to words like state and society. Would this be true of the use of community by Adolph Hitler?





Single parent



The words are very closely linked to one theme. We broadened the issues by discussing how they might relate to other themes. Some people argued that the world of the child is a world of the imagination and that grown ups use rules and regulations to control this. This is an exercise of power that stifles imagination. We discussed the relationship (if any) between madness and imagination.

We discussed the family as an institution and whether it was ever a total institution. As a counterpoint to the idea of the family as control, we discussed the possibility of power being used to develop autonomy. We could have discussed (but did not) whether the family is a community, what political perspectives use childhood and the family as a model for the relation between ruler and ruled and and what the differences are between theological, philosophical and scientific ideas about childhood.

The following game is played according to the selfish-student-rule. This is that each student tries to divert the game to his or her theme. It is a way of exploring the inter-relationship between themes. Something that had already been done in the discussion on childhood Some points at which a student diverted the word are marked with an asterisk (*)
Durkheim *
Surveillance *
The discussion of this was brief as we had spent a long time on linking issues under childhood and did not have much time left.

We discussed the link between authority and power and childhood and imagination

This led on to a discussion of Michel Foucault and the way his theories analyse knowledge as power and the way in which many of the themes come together in his work.

Following on from the childhood link to stress, we could have discussed (but did not), John Watson's argument that fear is as an important a basic motive as love and how he and Rosalie Rayner used this to control children.

Our housekeeping session
We had a session tidying up the word-game results by considering what aspects of our subjects had not been discussed, or not been discussed enough. This is the list we will be working on:

Dreams and their relationship to madness and hallucinations.
More about madness
The social contract [I cannot remember why - Help!]
Science and Imagination and Karl Popper
Sirokin and Weber
Rousseau and Kant
religion as it links to power
Bentham and Eysenck
Laing and Goffman
Robert Owen and Dennis Hardy

Lisa and Jenny
So what have Lisa and Jenny got to do with anything?

Please send ideas about this or any other aspect of generating ideas to Andrew Roberts

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Mind Maps


Relating ideas