Creativity is the key to good instructional design. When learners experience something creative and interesting, it makes them pay attention and absorb what we are trying to teach them. Because of this, learning experiences should avoid straightforward “telling” whenever possible and focus instead on “showing,” using whatever creative resources are available....
Okay, that was a really boring way to start. Let me try again....
Math class in high school was tedious. Every day, the teacher would stand at the front of the room and tell us about this theorem or that, give us some problems to solve, and send us on our way. He reminded me of a snail. An incredibly boring snail.
One day, our regular teacher was sick. At first, we eyed our substitute teacher suspiciously. He looked weird. He wore a hat! He rushed into our classroom as if he wasn’t quite sure he was in the right place.
But then...he opened his mouth. And he started talking about math not as a series of abstract theorems and problems, but as the fabric of our universe. He talked about how even the simplest problem tells a cultural story and contains its own unique history. And we were enraptured. For that one day, I LOVED math.
So...that story’s not true. But it’s sure more interesting, isn’t it? Why tell when you can show, especially when stories have the power to stick in learners’ minds?
Recently, I had the chance to design a learning experience for a client who wanted something creative. After throwing around a bunch of ideas, I had the crazy notion of writing a learning module entirely in rhyme.
At first, I was hesitant to even propose it. But after workshopping it internally, I brought it up to the client, who was very receptive. And after spending three full days in front of a computer with nothing but a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus, I had completed a 10-minute instructional poem, which I think is one of the best learning experiences that I’ve created.
What made this idea successful? Or rather, what were the conditions that allowed me to exercise my creativity, in an industry where creativity can be difficult to come by?Stories make learning more interesting, but what organizational support enables creativity?
Here are some things that helped me push the bounds of what I thought was acceptable:
- Canvassing support from my organization. I can’t stress enough how helpful it is to confer internally about your ideas. That doesn’t just mean asking permission. It means putting together a small team for an ideation meeting, bouncing ideas off them, and asking for suggestions. These are the kinds of processes that can validate your ideas and give you confidence to move forward.
Pushing the boundaries. New ideas always seem weird at first. But outside-of-the-box thinking is what makes the box expand and grow. Taking a creative risk is not only about the individual course or module. It’s about changing what is professionally acceptable or normal, not just for one client or one organization, but for the profession entirely.
- Being willing to abandon an idea that just doesn’t work. Lofty ambitions and ideas are one thing. Execution is another. Even the best ideas sometimes don’t work when they’re put into practice. Being open to changing course mid-design actually gives you more freedom to pursue crazy ideas early on, because you’re not locking yourself in.
As the definition of “learning” keeps changing, it is up to instructional designers to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. What creative learning experiences have you had at the back of your mind that you’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to explore?