Try Question-Storming Rather Than Brainstorming

Question-storming women’s history at George Washington University.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of brainstorming, either by myself or with groups, to find creative solutions to various challenges. The technique has been around for decades and consists of listing as many ideas as possible without discussion or judgment. It can be fun and lead to some new ideas, but I’ve also found that its success is significantly shaped by who’s in the room. It’s also so focused on finding an answer that you often overlook if you’ve defined the problem correctly.

As an alternative I’ve been experimenting with question-storming, an idea pioneered by the Right Question Institute (yup, there is such a thing). They’ve designed it for K-12 teachers as a way for students to develop their analytical skills, but I’ve had success with graduate students as well. Rather than provide a list of solutions, the goal is to produce as many questions as possible about the topic or issue.  I’ve set twenty-five as the minimum, aiming for fifty questions. As in brainstorming, you don’t discuss, judge, or answer any questions—that’s done later.  For more details, see the attached Question-Storming handout.

Some of the questions generated about African American history in Washington, DC.

I recently conducted a question-storming session in my “interpretation of house museums” class at George Washington University, using the history of women and African Americans in Washington, DC from 1750-2000 as the focus. Most of my students aren’t historians, so asking them to identify major events, people, topics, or themes would have been nearly impossible or resulted in the usual ideas, such as slavery/emancipation/civil rights pattern for African American history. By switching to questions, the ideas broadened significantly and were much more sophisticated.  At the end, they narrowed their questions to:

  • Were women able to make their own health decisions?
  • What were the social roles of single women?
  • How did dress and beauty standards for women change over time?
  • How did African Americans engage in politics with the DC government?
  • How did the rights of African Americans in DC compare with other parts of the world?
  • How in DC could African Americans improve their lives?

I want to develop more experience with this technique before I use it with a client, but I’m definitely including it among my tools for developing topics and themes for tours, exhibitions, and programs at historic sites and house museums.  If you are using this technique outside the classroom, please share your experiences in the comments below.

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