During a learning design process, (indeed during most creative processes) the designer must adopt quite distinct modes of thinking at different times. At one extreme they need to be intuitive, divergent and open-ended in their thinking, while at the other, they need to be logical, analytical and judgemental.
While many design disciplines – notably architecture – train practitioners in different ways of thinking, the discipline of learning design has no tradition of such training. It can be difficult for less experienced designers to adopt the appropriate modes of thinking as required.
The history of learning design (instructional design) has tended to favour rational, analytical modes of thought. Instructional design has typically been seen as a rational, controllable, step-by-step process. Even today, a review of instructional design websites will reveal almost no references to creative thinking as part of the instructional design process. This is partly a function of the origins of much instructional design theory – the US military – and of the rational, analytical cultures that are typical of many information technology businesses.
Yet building a design discipline – learning design – around purely logical processes appears to contradict widely accepted notions of what design is, and runs contrary to all other design disciplines. It assumes that logical processes of analytical thought are capable of resolving the kinds of open-ended, highly complex problems that learning designers now face. Yet, if learning problems require new ideas, analytical thinking, by its very nature, cannot deliver them. Analytical thinking only looks at what is not what might be.
The rational, analytical mindset – sometimes called “convergent thinking” – contrasts with a more intuitive, open-ended, “divergent” style of thinking that is required for creativity. Divergent thinking is more about possibilities and new ideas, and less about understanding the current situation. Divergent, creative thinking styles and techniques have been studied and widely popularised by writers such as Edward DeBono and Michael Michalko. Such authors have asserted that creative thinking can be learned and applied throughout a person’s work and life. Creative thinking has been described as having characteristics such as:
- making novel connections between things that are not immediately apparent; producing unusual associations
- withholding evaluation and judgement; keeping options open
- shifting perspectives on things; quickly seeing the other side of arguments; turning accepted views upside down
- redefining or “re-framing” issues
- sustaining uncertainty and ambiguity; even holding directly contradictory views at the same time
Researchers Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton have drawn a slightly broader distinction, between what they call “hard” and “soft” thinking. Hard thinking is about objectivity, clarity and reason; it is concerned with articulating and solving problems. Soft thinking is subjective and relies more on intuition and unconscious processes; it values not knowing, not being clear and “wandering around in the fog”. It is increasingly apparent that although creativity can certainly be enhanced by the kinds of divergent thinking techniques developed by DeBono and others, creativity is also cultivated by this soft, hazy approach to thinking.
A particular challenge facing learning designers is that, unlike other design disciplines, the role of soft, inefficient, subjective thinking is not highly valued. A graphic or fashion designer would only rarely be questioned about the logical explanation for particular features of their latest creation; for a learning designer it is often the logic that attempts to drive the design. This makes it all the more important for learning designers to both understand the role of soft thinking in what they do, and apply it when they need to.
|There are many books, websites and courses that aim to help develop appropriate thinking styles (see the links at the bottom of this article), and it is not the aim of this article to teach specific techniques. Rather, its aim is to highlight that there are different styles and that they may be appropriate at different points in a typical learning design process.|
It is important not to regard the different styles of thinking described here as contradictory or in opposition. They are, of course, complimentary. And while there are certain parts of a creative design process where a particular type of thinking is more prevalent, a challenge to the learning designer is that they must learn to move fluently between them at almost any point. Particular thinking styles cannot be reserved for special sessions, phases, or types of meeting. Experienced designers may learn this fluency over time. But it may help less experienced designers to have guidelines as to the styles of thought that may be appropriate at different parts of the design process.
This diagram – from The Creative Learning Designer’s Defence Kit – suggests where creativity is required during a typical learning design process.
An expanded version of this diagram, which includes suggestions as to how each type of thinking may be used at different parts of the process, is available here.