What is the relationship between precision and creativity in learning design?

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Rebecca Galley
28 January 2013

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” - Albert Einstein

As we wrote in our weekend summary (OLDS-MOOC week 3), we have been struck by the creative response to the tools we have offered up this week and levels of enjoyment some of you have expressed in using them. One of the messages that has come out loud and clear from our own research is that staff involved in the curriculum design process in institutional settings do not generally find the process very creative, and they feel that their ideas get tied down too early. We'd argue that from a learning design perspective, the balance and tension between creativity and precision is an important one. Where do you sit on this? Is creativity actually more important than precision? What is the relationship between precision and creativity?

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There is a nice article on this by Micheal Derntl et al. Here is the link.

Gráinne Conole
09:07 on 29 January 2013

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Leslie Jacobs Cowley
12:43am 29 January 2013

"What is the relationship between precision and creativity?" and "Is creativity more important than precision?" are two of the biggest, fattest, juiciest questions I have come across for a long time.

I don't have succinct answers to either of these questions -  I mostly have more questions. 

I have heard, many, many times, an audience exclaim, "that painting/piece of music/sculpture - could have been done by a child" or "looks like random marks/sounds like a babble of  noises that anyone could do" when, in actual fact, the artist/composer has been extremely precise in constructing the work. It's just that it doesn't suit that particular audience. Precision in creative output is generally a step-wise refinement of an original idea - but is not always the case. Flow of consciousness, improvisation - these are by definition imprecise, unpredictable and unable to be refined without violating the concepts themselves. e.g. if you over-rehearse an improvisation then it is no longer improvised.

I can see that I will continue to ponder these questions for a long time.

Looking forward to seeing what others think.

Gráinne Conole
9:11am 29 January 2013

Nice points Leslie

Clearly there is a very important link between the learners and the design and the learners experience of the learning intervention. Designs can only be evaluated when they are applied in a particular context. The nature of what is 'good' is very subtle. James Dalziel makes a nice analogy to musical notation in a recent document on Learning Design, which can be found here.  We will be looking at this document in more detail in Week 8. 

Gráinne Conole
10:09am 29 January 2013

Don Olcott on facebook makes the following comment...


then what you are proposing is antitheical - creative process and precision design - - - I would appraoch it from creative thinking to precision design . . . . true creativity does not follow a process, only a dotted line schematic . . . a classically trained musician may not be able to write a creative thing - - - a creative musician with no formal 'process' training may write the most beautiful music in the world. Yes, there are exceptions to both . . . but creativity has have an open playing field and then harnessed for filtered back into design precision. Lesson for the Day: Creativity will not emerge by thinking outside the box - - - it will emerge when you start where there is no box.

Ida Brandão
10:41am 29 January 2013

The Larnaca Declaration on Learning Design establishes the analogy of LD and music and I like when jazz is referred:

«The need for educators to adapt or “improvise” in the act of teaching in response to their interactions with learners seems one significant issue for deeper consideration. Perhaps Jazz music will provides an enriched music analogy – it is an example of music that can be retrospectively notated like other music, and yet the act of performance is often based on a combination of professional skill together with just the essence of some musical idea (as opposed to performance of a complete, static musical score).»

 Another quote from that document:

The learning takes place inside the learner, but an educator can carefully design teaching and learning activities that encourage learning to take place and this is «designing for learning».

Gráinne Conole
11:06am 29 January 2013

Yep it's a great document! It is the product of a group of us who have been meeting up over the last couple of years to try and articulate what we mean by Learning Design!

Gráinne Conole
11:06am 29 January 2013

Yep it's a great document! It is the product of a group of us who have been meeting up over the last couple of years to try and articulate what we mean by Learning Design!

Gráinne Conole
11:06am 29 January 2013

Yep it's a great document! It is the product of a group of us who have been meeting up over the last couple of years to try and articulate what we mean by Learning Design!

Sui Fai John Mak
12:46pm 29 January 2013

Precision in learning design gives people a definite framework, the box, if you would like to call it. Creativity in learning design goes beyond such framework, which to me could be more enriching and adaptive to both the educator and learner's needs. Here I have quoted Tina's ideas on where creativity is coming from http://suifaijohnmak.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/change11-cck12-creativity-where-is-it-coming-from-why-is-it-important/ I reckon it depends on what you and your learners like to achieve in both learning experience and outcomes (product and process). If the learning involves procedural and declarative knowledge, then precision in learning design is needed to ensure compliance and mastery of the procedures and canonical knowledge. If the learning involves generative and creative knowledge, then creativity in learning design would be more effective. Such learning design would enable both educators and learners to co-create and explore new forms of knowledge, leading to the discovery of ideas and innovation in new territory.

Leslie Jacobs Cowley
11:57pm 29 January 2013

Thank you Gràinne for your comments and the link. I have been looking at more formal methods of specifying design requirements and have recently returned to an old favourite book "Program Derivation: The Development of Programs from Specifications"by Geoff Dromey, in which he looks at using mathematics and logic to produce elegant and unambiguous specifications - it's worthwhile just to read the introduction alone. I consider mathematics to be a creative subject, in fact, I would go further and contend that creativity pervades all disciplines and also that mathematics is the key to understanding everything - well, at least everything I've looked at so far.

An aside: a secondary school teacher once told me that I lacked focus and that I was interested in far too many subject areas. I was in my mid-thirties at the time. I'm so glad I didn't listen to him. Now, after a lifetime of delving into the cake of human knowledge and trying to consume as much as I could cope with, I think Learning Design seems to be presenting a vehicle to add some cohesion.

The Larnaca Declaration is such an inspirational document. That's what triggered me to look into this MOOC.

Leonor Barroca
9:52am 30 January 2013

I had a go at something that is not totally dissimilar from precision vs creativity; I was expressing it in terms of cerimony vs agility.


Gráinne Conole
10:23am 30 January 2013

Thanks Leslie that sounds interesting!

Penny Bentley
4:22am 3 February 2013

Grainne, I've been tossing around thoughts about precision, creativity etc all week. This is what has always driven me as a Secondary Educator, to engage my students for the love of learning without compromising on academic rigour. I'm still puzzled about the word "precision"... in the context of my blog post here, does it mean how skillfully the animation was put together, how carefully the animation and mathematics work together to convey a narrative, or is it the language of maths itself?http://penbentley.com/2013/02/01/oldsmooc-asleep-at-the-wheel-of-a-a-pdf/

Steve wright
2:32pm 11 February 2013 (Edited 2:37pm 11 February 2013)

There's a rich and healthy source of literature on creativity and contraint - and I'd see constraint as being closely aligned /linked to your notion of 'precision'.

In a recent article (currently in review) I worked with Gale Parchoma and Ben Short on studying creativity in informal mobile learning and we looked in praticular at the relationship to constraint - some excepts below:

The study of creativity and the phenomena associated with it is plagued by definitional issues and assumptions. Stokes (2007) writes that creativity is “a subject having no privileged mechanism or methodology, is continually in search of the first and in need of the second”. However it is important to note that lacking a hard and precise definition of creativity does not necessarily preclude its study (Klausen, 2010). Rhodes (1987) suggests that the psychological study of creativity is best focussed on four areas: person; process; press (pressure on the process) and product. How these areas interact with each other and are located within broader socio-cultural domains that have not generally been a central concern for psychologists who tend to  choose the individual as their unit of analysis.
 Alongside expertise and practice, constraint is another important driver in the creative process (Finke, 1990) with the manner in which constraint is applied having an effect on the process (Stokes, 2007).
We also note the importance of constraint and of practice and expertise in the development of process and product. How we could gain insight on practice and the development of expertise were the concerns in selecting our research methods.


These may be somewhat abstract and sorry for copy-paste dumping here but the main thrust is that some constrtaint promotes creativity whilst other constraints (too much precision?) repress it.

A key article is:

Stokes, P. D. (2007). Using constraints to generate and sustain novelty. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1(2), 107-113. doi: 10.1037/1931-3896.1.2.107

The way constraint is introduced is also key and perhaps influential here: design me a chair generates narrower and less 'creative' (assessed through orinigality/appropriateness criteria) responses than say "design me something to sit on". SO maybe there's a factor in "design a curriculum" bringing less creative responses than "what do you want your students to learn/experience/demonstrate": how you apply constraint and when you seek precision are critical.



Finke, R. A. (1990). Creative imagery: Discoveries and inventions in visualisation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Klausen, S. H. (2010). The Notion of Creativity Revisited: A Philosophical Perspective on Creativity Research. Creativity Research Journal, 22(4), 347-360. doi: 10.1080/10400419.2010.523390

Rhodes, M. (1987). An analysis of creativity. In S. G. Isaksen (Ed.), Frontiers of Creativity Research: Beyond the Basics (pp. 216-222). Buffalo, NY: Bearly.

Stokes, P. D. (2007). Using constraints to generate and sustain novelty. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1(2), 107-113. doi: 10.1037/1931-3896.1.2.107

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