One of the reasons I fell in love with instructional design is that it’s both analytical and creative. You might start the day deep into an instructional analysis and you might be ideating a creative treatment at the day’s end. Even though we must often be creative on demand, we lack a good framework for creativity in instructional design.
Creativity is Under Discussed in our Industry
Creativity is often thought of as a mysterious phenomenon, arising out of those ‘struck by lightning’ moments. Although it is an important aspect of the instructional design process, it seems to be missing from the traditional instructional design models. In addition, creative thinking is under-discussed in industry conversations.
Now is the Time
With all the complaints about unimaginative instruction, the time is ripe to investigate, examine and analyze creative thinking. In fact, the more we decompose and try to understand creativity, the greater are the chances for nurturing it. For example, one study found that the explicit instructions to “be creative” facilitated this type of thinking in artistic and mathematical domains across cultural and ethnic groups (Chen et al. 2005).
It’s important to understand what theorists and researchers mean by creativity. A commonly agreed upon definition is: ‘Creativity is the generation of novel and useful ideas.’ This implies several things:
- A solution or idea can rest on the shoulders of other ideas. It can be a unique mash-up of existing approaches and doesn’t need to be entirely original.
- Creativity is dependent on the culture one inhabits. Not only do new ideas emerge from the cultural stream, but they must be useful to that culture.
Creativity in Instructional Design
Do instructional design models leave room for creativity? Some think conventional models suppress and stifle creative solutions. I too recall that as a graduate student studying the Dick and Carey model, my initial impression was that the approach was devoid of creativity. It seemed too systematic and overly prescribed. But it didn’t take long to discover that in practice, I could layer creative solutions onto any project or assignment.
I think we can overlay creativity on any model that we use or teach to new practitioners.
Conceptualizing Creativity in the Instructional Design Process
To this effect, I found an inspiring approach in a journal article about the Design/Creativity Loops (DCL) Model by Clinton and Hokanson (2011). The authors present a convincing argument for integrating creative thinking into conceptual models of instructional design. (Listen to my interview with Brad Hokanson or read the transcript.)
They predict this will enhance the practitioner’s “anticipation of creative possibilities” which will foster innovative thinking. It is also essential for preparing new instructional designers to become competent and creative practitioners. Furthermore, Clinton and Hokanson note that creativity becomes devalued by not including it in the models. When creative thinking is not valued or developed, results are usually generic and unimaginative, they say.
Stages of the Creative Process
The authors present a descriptive model for thinking about creativity in instructional design. It is based on an accepted theory that the creative process occurs in fairly recognizable stages. Although these stages are accepted by many scholars, they are not empirically verified. The stages are often described as Preparation, Problem Identification, Incubation (setting aside the creative task), Illumination (the idea emerges), and Elaboration/Verification (when one works out the details).
In their Design/Creativity Loop (DCL) model, these stages are revisited in an ongoing and iterative process they refer to as loops. Innovative ideas may emerge during any phase of the cycle. In addition, the experienced practitioner may not be aware of the looping process, because the process may be automated.
In practice, the boundaries of each phase of the process are not clearly delineated. The purpose of the model is not prescriptive, but more an effort to influence the instructional design paradigm. See the figure below.
The brackets indicate that the cycle does not lead to illumination in every case.
A Creative-friendly Instructional Design Model
In their paper, Clinton and Hokanson overlap a creativity envelope onto the ADDIE model. They stress that the specific model does not matter. Below I have used their suggestions and expanded this approach, integrating creative tasks within every step of my technology-based instructional design process.
What is most important is approaching every phase of any model with an openness to novel idea generation. The point is that every task can be regarded as an opportunity for creative expression.
Research and Analysis
During research and analysis we gather data, organize information, and look for patterns in order to define the problem. During this process, we become aware of the scope and constraints of a project. Overlaying a creative model, we can:
- Know that constraints and limitations can actually inspire creative thinking. In a universe of unlimited options, there is nothing to push against.
- Make the effort to frame the problem space in a new way. By looking at it from another perspective, you may generate new ideas.
- Think of analysis as research. Find new ways to connect with them and discover the world from their perspective.
- Use techniques from User Experience Design, such as lengthy interviews, focus groups, card sorting and user storytelling. For more techniques, see Crash Course in UX Design Research.
Design and Prototyping
During design and prototyping, we generate ideas for creative solutions and approaches. We select the best ideas and implement them in prototypes in a cycle of feedback and validation. With creative thinking integrated into this phase we can:
- Look at a problem and consider potential solutions that do not involve training.
- Generate ideas for unique and long-term solutions that are context driven.
- Explore diverse strategies that will continue to fulfill each stage of the learning process over time.
- Learn to incorporate Design Thinking techniques to produce novel products.
- Apply interface design patterns used in mobile and web design.
- Design the evaluation strategy early on.
- Reiterate prototypes as needed.
In this model, development involves presenting the design of instructional materials and performance support in the most appropriate way possible. It could include: storyboards, scripts, screen design, key interaction sketches, wireframes, flowcharts, etc. Using a creative thinking overlay we can:
- Generate ideas through rough sketches (even if you can’t draw).
- Bring eLearning content to life through scenarios, games, and meaningful interactions.
- Incorporate an original storyline (see How to Write Compelling Stories).
- Pursue an imaginative approach to visuals.
- See where social interaction can support instruction.
- Continue with Design Thinking protocols to involve the audience. Reiterate as needed.
During production we select and produce all the multimedia assets, create running lessons and create products. We must solve problems that arise from bumping into production constraints. There are still opportunities for creative expression during this phase. We can:
- Remain open to better ideas as opportunities present themselves during production.
- Experiment with new tools that might better serve your purpose.
- Find innovative solutions to problems that arise from real world constraints.
- Continue to think in terms of a long-term vision.
- Continue with Design Thinking protocols to involve and test with the audience. Reiterate as needed.
Evaluation involves collecting feedback data on our product(s). It helps us plan for meeting the needs of the audience. Overlaying a creative model, we can:
- Creatively assess the impact of the solution in terms of retention and performance improvement.
- Consider course evaluations as an opportunity to creatively pivot.
- Find new ways to do evaluations that provide accurate and valuable data (see How to Do Course Evaluations the Right Way).
- Evaluate in a continuous cycle to see the long-term effectiveness of our products.
The digital transformation of the workplace means we need new approaches to learning, training and education. Information changes rapidly. People have rapid access to the information they need. Teamwork and collaboration are high priority skills. This is the perfect time to turn on the creative juice to meet the needs of the 21at century workforce.
- Chen, C., Kasof, J., Himsel, A., Dmitrieva, J., Dong, Q., & Xue, G. Effects of explicit instruction to ‘‘be creative’’ across domains and cultures. Journal of Creative Behavior, 39(2), 89–110, 2005.
- Clinton, G. & Hokanson, B. Creativity in the training and practice of instructional designers: the Design/Creativity Loops Model. Educational Technology Research and Development, 60:111–130, 2011.