The treasure of creative instruction and artful training

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  • 8 MAY/JUNE 2005

    What are creative instruction and artful training? Consider this example.Ms. Pollock, a trainer of physical therapy assistants, wanted her studentsto learn how to assess elderly patients. However, because she couldntfind many aged clients for assessment practice, Pollock appeared in class

    as 84-year-old Aunt Tippi. She put on a gray wig and Halloween makeup to simulatefacial wrinkles. She padded her dress to add curvature to her back. She dressed in asweater because, as Aunt Tippi explained later, she is always cold. She walked with thegait of a person who had recently had hip replacement surgery. She used a cane, as sherevealed, not because she needed it, but because she is afraid of falling. She bandaged herhand because of a laceration to her fragile skin. She wore support hose through whichher students could see the varicose veins she painted on her legs.

    Her students did a double take when she first appeared. After a few giggles, the class gotto the business of assessment. They asked, Aunt Tippi, what is your day like? What doyou do first? She said, I do my exercises. What sort? My stretches. Could youshow us? She stretched and revealed a limited range of motion. Then Aunt Tippi toldabout her breakfast. What pills do you take? She spilled half a dozen pill containersout of her purse. She explained the contents of each bottle and admitted, SometimesI mix them up or forget to take them. She told how she gets help shopping because sheisnt strong enough to carry packages and how difficult it is for her to open jars.Throughout the assessment Pollock maintained her role as Aunt Tippi. After a quickchange, Pollock returned to the classroom to debrief the practice. In this way, her stu-dents completed an acceptable assessment of a geriatric client and did so in a serious,respectful, and professional manner (J. Pollock, personal communication, 1998).

    Is Pollocks instruction creative and artful? Is it original? Commonly, we associate original-ity with creativity (Hallman, 1967; Hayes, 1981; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). It follows that wemight expect creative instruction to consist of a new style or method of instruction.However, there are few, if any, training methods that are new. Hence, to be considered cre-ative instruction or artful training, an approach must only be relatively original rather thanbeing absolutely original. That is, the instructional method must be new for the designer,or new for the group, department, agency, or field involved.

    TheTreasure of CreativeInstruction and Artful Training

    by Stephen Yelon

  • How original was Pollocks training procedure? Frankly, itwas not new in the general sense. For example, I observedmedical educators using simulated patients to teach assess-ment more than 30 years ago. But using a simulated patientwas new for Pollock. It was new for her course and her pro-gram. Maybe it was new for the field of physical therapisttraining. Thus, Pollocks instruction was creative and art-fulnot because it was absolutely new, but because it wasrelatively original.

    Artful instruction is more than relatively original. It must beseen as valuable for work outside the classroom (Hayes,1981). Artful instruction requires the balance of freshnessand function. For example, although it may be relativelyoriginal for me to ask trainees to stand on their heads whilethey learn how to do a needs analysis, that procedure doesnot serve the instructional purpose. Hence, artful instruc-tion is not an isolated attention-getting gimmick. Instead, itfulfills a suitable instructional purpose. Thus, Pollocksapproach was artful not only for its relative originality, butbecause it served the essential instructional functions ofpractice and feedback. It was an integral part of her trainingprogram directed toward her courses objectives.

    But originality and functionality are not sufficient attributesfor training to be considered artful. To be classified as artful,instructional results have to go well beyond the ordinary.The consequences must be memorable, inspirational,and/or elegant.

    Learners must recall the instruction and its lessons for thelong term. To produce this enduring memory, instructionmust be novel, surprising, incongruous, clever, or meaning-ful (Yelon, 1996; Gage & Berliner, 1992). For example, yearsafter graduation, my daughter Debbie still remembers thedetails and the point of her first course in cell biology. Herprofessor announced, Today we are going to construct acell. First we will need the cell wall. He snapped open alarge black plastic garbage bag. Next we will need thelibrary of the cell, the DNA. He threw a large biology textinto the bag. We must have the reticular structure. Hetossed in coils of laboratory tubing. We must have thenucleus, the power generator of the cell. He dropped in anold fish tank motor. We will need some chlorophyll. Hethrew in two heads of iceberg lettuce. We must have thecytoplasm. He poured two pitchers of water into the bag.He tied off the top of the garbage bag. He shook up the con-tents, held it above his head and said, We have all theingredients. But do we have a cell? No! We dont have theorganization and the structure that the cell must have tofunction. And that is what we will study now (D. Yelon,personal communication, 1996).

    To be considered inspirational, learners must report that theinstruction appealed to and elevated their spirit and emo-tion, their insight, or their aesthetic sense. For example,

    nurse trainees were inspired to provide more compassionatecare for elderly patients by the introduction to Dr. Ruskinsinstructional session (Ruskin, 1983). Ruskin began by ask-ing the nurses how it would feel to treat a specific patient.He presented the case of a white female. She does not speak,nor does she understand what is said. She is disoriented.She must be fed pureed food because she has no teeth. Shewakes and screams at night. During waking hours she bab-bles or becomes agitated. She cries and does not stop untilcomforted. The patient is incontinent and has to be changedand cleaned frequently.

    When the nurses were asked how they would feel when car-ing for this patient, they said they would feel frustrated,hopeless, depressed, and annoyed (Ruskin, 1983, p. 2440).Ruskin then told the audience that he enjoyed caring for thispatient and believed they would, too. The nurses wereincredulous until he revealed the patient he described washis 6-month-old daughter. After the surprise, a good laugh,and some discussion, the nurses realized that the elderlyadult had the same symptoms as an infant and their frustra-tion was mostly due to perception and prejudices. Ruskinsummarized their insight and inspiration.

    The infant, the nurses agreed, represents new life,hope, and almost infinite potential. The dementedsenior citizen, on the other hand, represents the end oflife, with little potential for growth. We need tochange our perspective. The aged patient is just as lov-able as the child. Those who are ending their lives inthe helplessness of old age deserve the same care andattention as those who are beginning their lives in thehelplessness of infancy. (Ruskin, 1983, p. 2440)

    To be thought of as elegant, the instruction must be seen ashighly refined and ingeniously simple. For example, Dr.Allison wanted his students to recall the characteristics ofviruses. However, instead of giving the typical assignment,drawing a chart of the types of viruses, he asked his studentsto create a new virus. They were to describe its structure,how it entered the host organism, where it lodged, how itreproduced, and how it spread. Of course, to create a newvirus, the students would have to study every aspect ofknown viruses. For his clever and elegant assignmentAllisons colleagues paid him the ultimate campus compli-ment: I wish I had thought of that (anonymous colleaguesof R. Allison, personal communication, 1998).

    Was Pollocks Aunt Tippi practice memorable, inspira-tional, or elegant? I believe that Pollocks physical therapystudents would likely remember Aunt Tippis surpriseappearance and the lessons they learned about assessmentin years to come. I also believe that Pollocks studentswould be inspired to provide compassionate professionalwork by their interaction with Aunt Tippi. In addition, Ifeel that Pollocks portrayal of Aunt Tippi was highlyrefined; it was planned to the last detail and included all

    Performance Improvement Volume 44 Number 5 9

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    the clues students needed for their assessment. Yet her depic-tion was a simple and a functional approach to practice.

    Seeking the Treasure

    How are creative instruction and artful training generated? Toproduce relatively original, instructionally functional, andextraordinarily productive training, conditions must allow fordivergent thinking and must apply principles of creativity asdisplayed in Figure 1. The specific components of the modelin Figure 1 are based on classic writings such as those ofHallman (1967) and Biondi (1972), as well as modernresearchers such as Csikszentmihalyi (1996) and Korth (2000).

    In Figure 1 there are personal and environmental conditionsthat further the use of divergent thinking. As noted in thefirst column, an artful instructor is confident and willing totake a risk and is able to arrange the environment to makethe opportunities to think.

    To be confident and willing to take a risk, you must be pre-pared. You must be highly motivated to help others learn;possess extensive knowledge of ordinary yet effective train-ing principles and procedures; and be willing to strive forexcellence (Hallman, 1967; Hayes, 1980; Csikszentmihalyi1996). With these characteristics you will be more likely totake chances using new ideas and to overcome the anxietygenerated by moments of indecision.

    To make opportunities to think, you must feel at ease andreduce threats to your ego. For example, at this stage, itwould be prudent to avoid colleagues who are unduly con-servative or excessively critical. You also need to secure aprotected, quiet space and to schedule an undisturbed, rea-sonable amount of time, even if it is only in a corner cafe for30 minutes (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996).

    Once conditions are right, problems can be identified thatare important to learners (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Korth,2000). Ask hard questions and find instructional problems

    to work on in a domain you enjoy. Whats going wrong?What needs improvement? What results need enhance-ment? Make a long list and then narrow it to look for theconcern that seems to be the right one to work on.

    To clarify the concern, express it as a problem (Biondi,1972; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Consider using the formatIn what ways might I ... For example, you might ask, Inwhat ways might I make self-instruction more interesting?or In what ways might I teach staff to write clear reports?The word ways suggests more than one answer, and theword might maintains an open mind (Biondi, 1972). Tofocus even further, you might ask, Why do I want thatquestion answered? For example, building on the previousquestion, you might ask, Why do I want to make self-instruction more interesting? Then use the answer to thatquestion to pose another formatted question. Suppose youranswer to the question about self-instruction was, I wantlearners to complete the self-instructional unit. Then youpose a new formatted question: In what ways might I getlearners to complete the unit? If you continue this processof reframing the question you may see the problem differ-ently and possibly expose a new set of solutions(Csikszentmihalyi, 1996).

    After the best question is framed, you can apply any of thesefour principles of creativity: (1) defer evaluation, (2) stretchbeyond the obvious solutions, (3) make unusual associa-tions, and (4) restructure elements (Biondi, 1972). Eachprinciple has its own procedures, as will be described next.

    Defer Evaluation

    First, to generate novel ideas, defer evaluation. Creativity isnot likely when people judge ideas too quickly or stop pro-ducing ideas too soon. In creative processing, experts adviseto first generate many ideas without criticism and then toapply standards to narrow the list; first think of many ideasand then make priorities (Biondi, 1967). By followingOsborns rules of brainstorming you can avoid premature

    Be confident and willing to take a risk Be motivated and inspired to train others. Have extensive knowledge of instruction. Be driven to excellence.

    Make opportunities to think Reduce threat. Schedule protected time. Remove distractions.

    Seek and find problems Ask questions about improvement. Seek problems. Express problems.

    Find creative solutions Defer evaluation. Stretch beyond the obvious. Make unusual associations. Restructure elements.

    Artful InstructionProduce applications of instructional principles and procedures that are Relatively original Instructionally functional Skillfully created Highly productive

    Memorable Inspirational Elegant

    Arrange these To use this To get thisConditions Process Result

    Figure 1. Seeking the Treasure of Artful Instruction.

  • evaluation (Hayes, 1981; Korth, 2000). To generate innova-tive marketing ideas, Osborn, an advertiser, urged people tolist all possible ideas that come to mind, even wild and sillyones, but to suspend judgment until they are finished. Inaddition, he and others recommended waiting for a periodof time to see what other ideas might appear. This purpose-ful delay is commonly called incubation (Csikszentmihalyi,1996; Korth, 2000).

    Stretch Beyond the Obvious

    To increase the likelihood of producing a new idea, collecteverything you can find about the problem, list everythingyou know about it, and then stretch beyond these obvioussolutions (Biondi, 1972). You can also follow Osborns sug-gestion to generate many ideas and keep pushing for moreideas even when you feel you are done. To generate quantityis to stretch beyond common solutions, perhaps revealing anovel idea. Toward this end, Osborn suggested reviewingideas to determine if any other notions pop up on secondthought. He also advised building on, combining, andimproving previous ideas.

    Make Unusual Associations

    To perceive things in new ways, make unusual associations(Hallman, 1967; Biondi, 1972). One of the major principlesof creative thinking is forcing atypical connections, makingodd relations between a problem and some other object,process, or idea so you may see a new solution. Perhapsthats the way camera phones and wheeled suitcases werecreated. There are many techniques you can use for forcingassociations.

    You can make odd connections by asking, What if I relate(my topic) and (something else)? For example, What if Irelate a lecture with stories, with music, or with sports? Theanswers may enable you to see a lecture in a new waya lec-ture made of stories that students interpret, a song to summa-rize a lecture, or a game to provide practice within a lecture.

    You might also ask, What is (my topic) about? What relatesto (my topic)? For example, Lorin Sheppard asked thesequestions when she wanted to teach her preteen Sundayschool students about the pitfalls of popularity. In her plan-ning she asked herself, What is popularity about? Sheanswered, Fitting in. Then she asked, What relates to fit-ting in? She thought about pieces fitting into a jigsaw puz-zle. In a flash, she saw the instruction in a new way. Shewould ask her students to work on a jigsaw puzzle. But thestudents would not be aware that she had substituted apiece from another puzzle for a piece of the puzzle that theywould be working on. When students came to the finalpiece and found it did not fit, she asked them what theyshould do. They said, Jam it in, and Trim it so it fits.She asked them about the consequences of these solutions.

    They responded, The piece would be ruined and wouldnever quite fit well. She asked, What else might you do?We could find the puzzle it fits and the piece that fits thispuzzle. And that is what they did. In debriefing the activ-ity, the students understood the message, Find the placeyou fit in and dont force yourself to be someone you arenot (L. Sheppard, personal communication, 1998).

    Another technique for making unusual associations is to ask,What processes are analogous to mine? For example, Dr.Noah began a presentation to resident physicians by holdingup a sealed plastic bag filled with cloudy water. The audiencecould barely see a large bar of soap floating within. Noahsaid, This has been in here for 40 weeks, and its about timethat it came out. He snipped the edge of the bag and let thewater flow out into a waiting pan. Then he carefully squeezedthe bar of soap through the hole. He took the wet bar of soapin his hand and said as he approached the audience, Youvegot to see this. I am so proud. In his eagerness, he squeezedthe bar of soap a little too hard and it flew out of his handsinto the audience! His eyes widened and his mouth droppedopen in horror. He hid his face in his hands and then peekedout to the audience and said, When physicians are learningto deliver a baby, they are worried about letting it slidethrough their fingers. Today Im going to teach you how todeliver a baby as slippery as a wet bar of soap without drop-ping it (C. Noah, personal observation, 1998).

    You may also make an atypical association by trying to seethe problem or topic through the eyes and mind of a differ-ent type of professional, a particular professional, or a par-ticular group of professionals: How might an engineersolve this? How might a doctor? How might Sesame Streetcharacters? How might Disney? How might Thiagi?

    You might also consider how others have made relatedapplications. For example, suppose you wanted to create atelevision show to teach children letters and numbers. Ofcourse, you would have to design the show so that childrenwould pay close visual attention to the television screen.You might ask, Who is successful at getting children to payattention to the TV screen, and who is good at getting chil-dren to remember what they see? You also might ask, Whatdo children attend to and remember when watching televi-sion? When Joan Ganz Cooney, President of ChildrensTelevision Workshop (CTW), was doing a feasibility studyfor Sesame Street, mothers told her that their 3-year oldsloved to watch television commercials and they could repeatwhat they saw and heard. She immediately thought aboutusing commercials to teach her audience. Thats how CTWgot the idea of using the magazine format with repetitivecommercials for letters and numbers (Land, 1972). Thus, thesegmented format with repetitive commercials was the resultof seeing how advertisers successful applications of tech-niques for capturing attention to sell products could be usedto capture attention for teaching ideas.

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    Restructure Elements

    To perceive a process or object in a new way, restructure itselements (Biondi, 1972). You can rework a part of the train-ing process or the whole method.

    One approach to restructuring is to take an attribute of a taskor tentative idea and change it in some waymaximize it(enlarge it), minimize it (reduce it), reverse it (do the oppo-site, or do it backwards), use other words to say the samething, rearrange it, substitute for it, combine it with otherthings, adapt it, or eliminate it (Biondi, 1972). For example,Dr. Clark wanted to improve the way he taught adolescentdevelopment. Usually he would present research findingsabout an aspect of adolescencefor example, identity, sex-uality, or independenceand give examples from his ownexperience. Instead, he reversed the process. He asked hisstudents to write a story about their struggle with identityduring adolescence, to check their account against what theresearchers say, and present their story and their commen-tary to the class. Each student followed this procedure forall the adolescence themes and each compiled a book, a per-sonal history of adolescence (C. Clark, personal communi-cation, 1997).

    If you apply the four principles of creativity, you are likely tothink of new ideas. But are novel notions enough to producecreative instruction and artful training? The answer to thisquestion was made most clear to me recently at a folk art fair,where vendors exhibited woven baskets, sewn quilts, andfired pots. Lots of pots. Too many pots. In fact, there were somany pots I couldnt bear to look at any more. As I was leav-ing the fair, strangely enough, some pots caught my eye.Why? The shapes, components, colors, and sizes wereunusual. While I am sure this potter knew the same princi-ples of throwing, shaping, and glazing pots as the others, shefashioned something relatively original, yet functional, finelycrafted, and quite attractive. I asked the artist how she got theeffect she did. She explained that, after she got the originalidea, it took meticulous planning and hard work before shecould bring into being what she envisioned. Thus, novelideas are not enough to produce an artful product. To bringinto being a piece of artful instruction you will have to sortthrough new ideas and choose the most feasible ones. Then,as with all projects, you must create practical prototypes, trythem out, troubleshoot them, and make them work (Biondi,1972; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Korth, 2000).

    Sharing the Treasure

    In summary, creative instruction and artful training can takemany forms, as simple as an assignment or as complex as asimulated practice session. It can be a single application ora series of applications. It can be a highly crafted productionor a straightforward plan. Whatever form it takes, artfultraining is relatively original, instructionally functional,

    and productive. You can produce new ideas for creativeinstruction and artful training when you arrange the condi-tions for divergent thinking and when you apply principlesof creativity.

    After choosing the best ideas from among those you gener-ate, you can pilot test your work of art and eventually put itinto use. When you finally share your artful treasure withyour learners, you will find that the more art you impart, themore rewards you receive in return. Soon your learners willreport that their training has been memorable, inspirational,and elegant. And then others will hear you say, I have dis-covered a treasure.


    Biondi, A.M. (1972). The creative process. Buffalo, NY:D.O.K. Publishers, Inc.

    Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psy-chology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollins.

    Gage, N., & Berliner, D. (1992). Educational psychology.Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Hallman, R. (1967). The necessary and sufficient condi-tions of creativity. In J.C. Gowan, G.D. Demos, & E.P.Torrance (Eds.), Creativity: Its educational implications(pp. 16-31). New York: John Wiley and Sons.

    Hayes, J.R. (1981). The complete problem solver.Philadelphia, PA: Franklin Institute.

    Korth, S. (2000). Creativity and the design process.Performance Improvement Quarterly, 13(1), 30-45.

    Land, H. (1972). The Childrens Television Workshop: Howand why it works. New York: Nassau Board of CooperativeEducational Services.

    Ruskin, P. (1983). Aging and caring. Journal of theAmerican Medical Association. (250)18, 2440.

    Yelon, S. (1996). Powerful principles of instruction.Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

    Stephen Yelon is Professor Emeritus of Educational Psychology and MedicalEducation at Michigan State University. Under the auspices of the Provosts

    Office at MSU he helps college instructors improve their teaching. He also con-

    sults with professionals, businesses, and manufacturers about enhancing train-

    ing programs. His research specialty is transfer of training. Stephen may be

    reached at


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