Creativity and Constraint

As an instructional designer, I find that I’m often torn between the desire that my work be truly creative and my very practical ― perhaps you could say disciplined ― approach to verifying that the objects and events I help create support instructional objectives. In other words, I’m very concerned that people are not only learning, but learning the specific things they need. (What it means to “need” learning and who determines this need is a separate question that we’ll set aside for now.) Part of what drew me to the field was that same interplay between inspiration and method. I choose the word interplay intentionally here, and we’ll return to it in a moment.

Picture1My years in the university classroom provided some excellent opportunities to explore what I thought it meant to teach, and concurrently re-examine what it means to learn. In the liberal arts curriculum, while we might be somewhat interested in recall (Can the student describe the basics of Gadamer’s approach to hermeneutics? What happened to the narrator at the end of Cortázar’s short story?), typically our greater interest lies in investigating what literature offers about the way we make meaning (hermeneutics) and how we understand knowledge (epistemology). Even basic Spanish held open the possibility of disrupting the learner’s preconceived notions – after all, the assumptions in another’s grammar hold up a mirror to reveal our own.

As teachers or instructional designers, we can have a tendency to want to control and measure the experience of our learners. At the university, this could be as formal as a marked assessment, but it could simply be neglecting to engage with an interpretation because taking the extra time might derail a lesson plan. The quote from Borges reminds us that in spite of our best (worst?) efforts, our learner/reader will encounter our teaching in her own way that may run contrary to our intention. Not only that, her interpretation (from our perspective a misunderstanding) improves upon the original.

It appeals to my creativity to think that we would design for misunderstanding, and that that could actually be a good thing. But it’s also sort of boundless.Picture3

In the field of corporate and nonprofit learning and development, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with a variety of teams, many consisting of very talented individuals who sometimes have very different approaches than I do to learning design. Often, by the time a project lands with me, the scope is already clearly defined and my role is primarily to envision a presentation that will be engaging, effective, and instructionally sound. At other times, I’m asked to help provide the shape and blueprint for a learning solution, or maybe even a curriculum. I love this type of challenge. It allows so much room for creativity.

But I’ve been working on a project lately that has reminded me how much I depend on defining the boundaries of a learning event in order to find structure for my creative side. Often those boundaries are set by time and budget – whether the length of a class session in a university course, or the amount of design and development time available to produce an eLearning module. They also involve the modality, the knowledge of the learner, his or her motivation, what is uncovered by analysis, learning objectives… the list goes on and on. But what if the limits of a project are less defined? An exciting prospect! And in some ways more difficult to approach than a project with heavy constraints.

Picture5Instructional designers draw upon adult learning theory to craft interactions that support effective teaching and focus on the needs of the learner. The approach is scientific in the sense of the late Latin scientificus (producing knowledge). If we think of science in this way, the rigor of instructional design – the method that seeks to produce knowledge – is not in opposition to creativity. To the contrary, it depends on inventiveness to see raw content through the lens of adult learning theory and imagine it in a form that allows for the learner’s meaningful (mis)understanding. Approaching learning design with playfulness does not mean we approach it without rigor; the interplay of constraint and play allows us to design with/for creativity and better meet the needs of our learners.

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