Building New Course Structures

8 Learning through Generative Exploration

Brad Hokanson and Jody Nyboer

Keywords

creativity, generative learning theory, learner generated content, divergent thinking, creative problem solving, situated cognition, learning community

 

Introduction

 

How does one develop creativity in learners? How does one get learners to have the courage to find their own way and to make their own discoveries? How do you get them to openly research and experiment with ideas, and to generate their own learning? How could learners, guided by faculty, generate the content of a course? Here we present some of the “how” learning occurs in our own course through exercises, problems, and challenges.

When I first signed up for this class, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. … I knew I wasn’t the most creative person in the world, there was a lot for me to learn, but I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did from this class…. Overall this class has taught me a lot more about myself than I thought it would, and it has taught me things I didn’t expect. (student comment)

Beginning from our experience in design studios, our pedagogy is based on learners developing much of the content. Learning must be an exploration where it is better to discover than to be told. We want our students to be personally interested and invested in their work and for them to be motivated and self-driven.

Generative learning theory describes the process of learners constructing meaning by making connections between their existing knowledge, beliefs and experiences and stimuli (Hanke, 2012; Wittrock, 1991). Here we are using “generative” to describe the creative actions and problem solving of the learners. It is a process where learners generate the ideas, the results, as well as much of the content materials of the course.

Current practices in education

Society often views education as being the dissemination of information. And many courses follow this pedagogical model, centered on presenting content. The learning of students and the  success of a course are commonly evaluated by the amount of information that is retained. Economics and class size encourage simplified evaluation models, which are often automated. And, for that matter, many of our students have been trained to expect education in a simplistic format and corresponding styles of instruction.

Generative learning theory describes the process of learners constructing meaning by making connections between their existing knowledge, beliefs and experiences and stimuli. Here we are using “generative” to describe the creative actions and problem solving of the learners. It is a process where learners generate the ideas, the results, as well as much of the content materials of the course.

This same curricular texture can be observed both online and offline, as online courses often develop from face-to-face models. In both, the focus is on declarative knowledge and the learning activities are generally passive. Students receive information through lectures, live or on video, and through reading, participate in some discussion-based activities, and are tested in their knowledge of the material. While there is a range of activities such as written assignments, most learning is in terms of reception and retention. The learning is often low-level and ineffective. And cheap.

For a generation, a stated goal of education has been higher order thinking skills, to be achieved through the development of curricula, course work, assignments, and active learning that is complex and grounded. However, regardless of which version of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956, or Anderson, et. al., 2001) is used as a basis, today most learning experiences continue to focus on remembering and retention. That is, declarative knowledge.

In more progressive learning experiences, “active” learning is typically thought of as discussing and writing-based work, but it seldom goes beyond those methods. An attitude of passive learning still restrains the curiosity of students, and limits an aptitude for investigation.In design and problem-based learning, the complexity and grounded nature of the projects adds a depth, a complexity to the experience. Learning then includes the information about the problem, the development of investigative skills, and the building of problem solving capabilities. The skills developed in such a learning environments frequently are long lasting.

There are domains of learning that employ more challenging and complex learning models, disciplines which focus on active learning. They include music, art, theatre, dance, writing, lab sciences and other problem oriented fields. Our experience is in the field of design, where faculty assign projects tailored to the skills and understanding of the learners. These are generative forms of learning. Necessarily, learning is scaffolded to match learning capability. In design and problem-based learning, the complexity and grounded nature of the projects adds a depth and a complexity to the experience. Learning then includes the information about the problem, the development of investigative skills, and the building of problem solving capabilities. The skills developed in such a learning environments frequently are long lasting.

Generative learning experiences help students gain initiative and confidence in their own explorations and experiments. They are richer and more authentic. The secondary learning that occurs changes their personal epistemology, as investigation and initiative are more inherent in their knowing, and which are applied to other areas of study.

Another instance where this class has affected the rest of my life would be my overall confidence when I’m in public places has been very positively affected. I used to be shy when I was around people I didn’t know but after having to go out in public and do things I would have never even thought about doing before has helped me to be more outgoing. (student comment)

Generative Learning Applied: Course Focus

This writing focuses on a University of Minnesota course on creativity. Creativity as a skill is highly regarded but seldom taught. Academic standards generally give lip service to developing creativity as a broad based skill, but it’s not one which is commonly taught like other skills such as writing, public speaking, or piano. Creativity is a valuable skill which is useful in all domains, and one which can be developed in learners (Scott, et. al., 2004).

What makes our class different from most other courses at the university is its goal, the development of a skill in the learner. The course is not about creativity, rather is focused on making learners more creative. The methods of the course include a variety of challenges, exercises, and projects that engage the learner. This is learning through generative exploration, where learners’ ideas, projects, and findings provide much of the learning material for the course. As with a traditional design studio, the learners themselves generate the subjects of discussion and interaction. In this process, there are responses to challenges posed by faculty, who in-turn offer guidance, not answers.

Creative Problem Solving has taught me how to stretch beyond my limits in other aspects of my life…I have learned something immensely important when it comes to problem solving: not always going with your first idea. Because of the divergent and convergent thinking we have been using throughout the semester, I have been applying those same concepts into my other classes as well as my job as a Features Intern at the Pioneer Press. When I have an initial idea for an assignment or a pitch or article I plan on writing, I will stop and take some time to develop the idea and see if I can build off of it in any other ways. Knowing that the first idea is hardly ever the best idea, I have been able to drastically improve my work in other aspects of my life. (student comment)

Our course, both online and in person, focuses on learning that is active, engaged, and grounded. The teaching methodology is based on studio courses, and has evolved from our backgrounds in design and architecture.The course seeks to involve learners directly, physically, and personally. Most of the work of the assignments, even in the online versions, must be completed in person. This builds on the theory of situated cognition where all knowledge is “situated” in activity, where actions must be completed for learning to occur (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989).

The course builds understanding by exploration and experimentation. Education in some other fields shares much of this idea; for example, the exploration that happens in dance can be compared to the learning that occurs in the painting studio. It’s easy to see a parallel with creative writing classes with repeated drafts, editing, presentations, and completion of finished results.

The creativity class is understood to be playful, personal, exploratory, and experimental. Intrinsically, it is personally engaging. We contend the resultant playfulness and exploration leads to much deeper learning and deep personal engagement.

Course Methods

The course presents a conceptual shift, an different orientation from most other courses. The students in the class must develop the habit to go beyond the first acceptable answer, and to seek other answers that might be better in some way. This is centered in the phrase “the only wrong answer is one answer.” While grammatically awkward, it pushes learners to generate more possibilities. Victor Papanek put it better when discussing the design fields: “Design as a problem-solving activity can never, by definition, yield the one right answer: it will always produce an infinite number of answers…” (1971, p. 5).

This is a change in the paradigm of the solving of problems, where the goal is often to find the solution to a given problem. This new paradigm recognizes that there are many possible, alternative solutions, and that one can develop many answers and must make selections using ambiguous, ill-defined, and changing criteria. This is a mature form of thinking better aligned with the higher order thinking skills of Bloom’s Taxonomy, for it requires synthesis and analysis regarding problems and situations, and identification of why, where and when more than the one right answer is appropriate.

People who pursue creative skills will gain a fluency with ideas, an ability to generate numerous alternatives to a given prompt. They will also develop a tolerance of ambiguity and an ability to see the value in alternative solutions. They will grow in the ability to cognitively elaborate and to generate different types of ideas and solutions. And they will discover the courage to share and improve these ideas. Developing these traits shapes the methodology of the course to be very active, both in the classroom and online.

Every aspect of the course is designed to build the skill in learners to develop and consider more ideas, alternatives, and possibilities. For example, attendance is taken by idea-generation exercise such as the development of a number of thumbnail sketches for t-shirts, instead of a simple roll call. This is practicing divergent thinking, which is a central aspect of creativity.

Learners develop a tolerance for change and ambiguity, for generating ideas that are different from their peers and to build a courage for new ideas. The habit to vary is a long-term goal of the course. Students are trained to make different choices and to expose themselves to different ideas.

The design of the course seeks higher levels of learning, through a learning process that is more complex and challenging, and subsequently, learning that will increase retention and which will develops skills such as synthesis, analysis, and creativity.

A Focus on Divergent Thinking

In class and online, students engaged exercises to practice and stretch their capability to generate multiple possible solutions. These are varieties of the classic Alternative Uses Test, where the challenge is to generate several possible uses for a variety of objects, such as bricks, blankets, newspapers, and paper clips. Integrated into each lecture, and available as an online drill, it provides development and reinforcement of skills in divergent thinking.


Using that basic technique, I have been able to integrate this course’s material into everyday life. One example of this was at work – when my boss and I were inquiring with each other to solve a manufacturing problem that came about, I literally said, “this is what I learned in class,” and I wrote down 5 different ways the problem could be solved. 4 of the 5 potential solutions had not even crossed his mind. This example shows how simple a string of thoughts can be created – having one good idea is having many good ideas, as we’ve learned in class. Listing the initial idea, then tweaking that idea 4 times ended up saving the company a significant amount of money and is still being implemented today. (student comment)

The play and playfulness that are inherent in the course open the imagination. This attitude allows learners to be less dogmatic about their thinking and less parochial. It allows ambiguity and alternatives to creep into their mindset, and to accept absurdities as part of the world. This develops the ability to find and define problems, and to eventually solve them in a creative manner.

This process of learning builds an initiative for investigation and an internal motivation, a curiosity, as it were. Students develop an understanding of investigation, an aptitude toward trying out ideas, and skills such as synthesis, analysis and problem solving. We have not seen this initiative in our other courses.

Principal Course Assignments

These challenges are all designed to be completed in learners’ own context; in school, at work, or at home. Their creativity becomes something that is integrated in their lives, authentic, and very personal. These challenges are similar to an online soil science educator asking learners to complete experiments on a container of dirt where they live. Investigations can then be conducted to better understand the nature of soil (or challenge), an understanding which is “grounded” in their own context.Most of the course focuses on a series of challenges called Do Something Differents or DSDs. Each DSD has a topic, such as to “eat” or “wear” that is actively solved by the learner. In completing the project, a process for creativity is modeled through the assignment structure. For each challenge, the learners must develop a number of different concepts, initiate and plan the experience, photograph the results and prepare a written description. Presenting their DSD in front of their peers helps students become less sensitive to possible embarrassment, and builds a psychological callus.

These challenges are broadly defined, and learners provide their own constraints and definitions. They learn to redefine problems and find new challenges. The flexibility of assignments encourages students to develop their own ideas, to define and redefine the challenges they are facing. Shared with the rest of the class, the project results provide the material for the course. Like a design studio, the work is discussed and critiqued. The complexity of this set of assignments grows through the term. The DSDs become more complex changing from the simple challenge to “wear” something different to a conceptually more difficult such as “give”. Later assignments involve others as partners, as inspiration, and as non-class members who are convinced to be different in some manner.

These challenges are all designed to be completed in learners’ own context; in school, at work, or at home. Their creativity becomes something that is integrated in their lives, authentic, and very personal. These challenges are similar to an online soil science educator asking learners to complete experiments on a container of dirt where they live. Investigations can then be conducted to better understand the nature of soil (or challenge), an understanding which is “grounded” in their own context.

Critical to the success of the model is for learners to actually execute their ideas. Doing the projects of the class embodies the thinking, and builds on the complexity of grounded problems. Ideas often fail when they face real life and need to be adjusted, just as experiments don’t always work out in the science lab. This helps develop an ability to adjust and change, as well as courage in the face of failure.

It is situated cognition, in that knowing is inseparable from doing. Cognition cannot be separated from context. They’ve got to ride the bike, do the dance, and walk the walk.

Creativity in a Learning Community

By nature of a definitional inclusion of originality, creativity involves doing things that are contrary to popular choice or expectation. It is about ideas that are out of the mainstream of a “culture of conformity” (Sternberg & Lubart, 1995), against a current which is particularly strong for undergraduates. They seek to fit in with their peers and to not be different. More than in other courses, the support from other students in the course for others’ divergent efforts is essential. However, with an on-campus but completely online course, developing the normal in-person social engagements of class work is a challenge.

Developing a learning community is valuable, beyond the discussion boards prevalent in online classes. The course assignments help learners to connect with each other through pairs, teams, and shared experiences. Building a real, physical community in an online class is difficult but very rewarding. While students in a face-to-face class have the opportunity to meet one another, online students on campus are often invisible to each other. Our response to this is the Purple Ribbon Assignment which began in an online version of the course. Each student was given a length of purple ribbon at the beginning of the term and told to wear the ribbon around campus. The ribbon, often tied to their knapsack or coat, identified members of the class. Each student then took selfies around campus with other ribbon wearers, fostering personal connections that can’t be made online. The assignment tagged students as being members of a select group, providing an open “introduction” springboard to many new connections. Friendships, study groups, and lunch buddies all developed, adding some of the qualities of an in-person course. This has subsequently been adopted in the face-to-face course with comparable success.

I made a lot of connections through this assignment, and met a lot of different people with different majors. I think what I found the coolest about this assignment was being able to spread my own community at the U and who I interact with, which is a hard thing to do at a school of this size. It was a good way to break the ice, and now I have more connections of people I run into regularly in my schedule. It is always good to make new friends. (student comment)

Changing Course Structures

There are substantial shifts that occur with this class, moving from passive to active learning, and from simple dispensed information to complex, student-constructed learning. Learners generating materials is part of the process; this requires guidance by faculty with an eye for scaffolding learners, and not toward covering specific content. In this, learners can develop a richer learning experience, a broader ecology of their knowledge.

Our research shows that the creative skills learners develop are retained after the course. Testing of past course participants has shown that over 90% of the measured increase in creative skills is still present two years after completion of the course (Im, Hokanson, & Johnson, 2015).

As other faculty also seek deeper and more complex learning in students, it’s a valid question whether such techniques such as student-generated content, problem-based learning and social tagging can or should be applied to their courses. While the specifics of any topic will affect which modes are applicable, each of the techniques may have some value to other disciplines and can be transferred.

Coming into the course, I had no idea just how much my mindset would change through this class. I have primarily noticed how my standards of doing even the practical things, as well as my confidence among others have greatly changed and increased. My standards of doing the practical have become higher in their originality. That is, what I once considered routine, I now see as an opportunity to be a new experience.(student comment)

As faculty, as teachers, each of us must strive to more fully engage learners. And we must find effective ways for engagement including grounded challenges and problems that are personal, engaging, and generative. Making and creating solutions involves learners cognitively and deeply. We observe that these techniques have value in our courses, and look to hear of comparable developments in other disciplines.

References

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., & Bloom, B. S. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Allyn & Bacon

Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals: Cognitive Domain. Longman.

Brown, J. S.; Collins, A.; Duguid, S. (1989). “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher. 18 (1): 32–42.

Hanke, U. (2012). Generative Learning. In Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning (pp. 1356-1358). Springer.

Im, H., Hokanson, B. & Johnson, K. (2015). Teaching Creative Problem Solving Skills: A Longitudinal Study, Clothing and Textiles Research Journal. [33] 129-142.

Papanek, V. (1971), Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. Chicago Review Press.

Scott, G., Leritz, L. E., & Mumford, M. D. (2004). The Effectiveness of Creativity Training: A Quantitative Review. Creativity Research Journal, 16(4), 361-388.

Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1995). Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity. Free Press.