Defining teaching, learning, creativity, and innovation

In a course titled, "Innovation in Teaching and Learning" we were challenged to come up with our own definitions of teaching, learning, creativity, and innovation. Here are mine and the rationale for each. I expect as I continue with the course and indulge in more reading the definitions will be unpacked, nuanced, and refined. In the spirit of learning out loud, here they are.

Creativity is the cognitive exploration of possibilities beyond or outside conventional experience or practice.

Paulus & Nijstad as cited in Runco (2004) offer a brief definition of creativity as, “the development of original ideas that are useful or influential.” This places heavy emphasis on the utility of, or audience for an idea. I'm not so convinced that utility is an essential element of creativity though. Looking at the criteria by which creativity is measured in the literature offers some insight. Hocevar & Bachelor (1989) surveyed existing studies of creativity and established eight categories from their findings. Two measures look at the creative process: divergent thinking, and attitudes and interests. Two more, personality and biographical inventories, relate to personal characteristics of those deemed to be creative. The remaining categories relate to identifying creativity namely, ratings by teachers, peers, and supervisors, judgements of products, eminence, and self-reported creative activities and achievements. There is nothing in those categories that speak to the consumers or utility of creativity. It seems to me that creativity is a process rather than a product. It is the exertion of energy to search beyond conventional bounds for inspiration. I have no problem considering an idea as a product of creativity even if its influences are not obvious anywhere in the world.

Interestingly, research in computational creativity (programming computers to be creative) looks for systems that produce both expected and novel results which are suitable to the purpose and have high value (Jordanous, 2012). Because computers are designed to perform certain functions, computational creativity is purpose driven.

Hocevar, D., & Bachelor, P. (1989). A taxonomy and critique of measurements used in the study of creativity. In J. A. Glover, R. R. Ronning, & C. R. Reynolds (Eds.), Handbook of Creativity (pp. 53–76). New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media. Retrieved from

Jordanous, A. (2012). A Standardised Procedure for Evaluating Creative Systems: Computational Creativity Evaluation Based on What it is to be Creative. Cognitive Computation4(3), 246–279.

Runco, M. A. (2004). Creativity. Annual Review of Psychology55(1), 657–687.

Innovations are processes, products or practices outside conventional experience that result from the application of creative thinking.

This definition emphasizes that innovation has some tangible element while creativity is more cerebral and is supported by Hennessey’s (2010) definition of innovation as, |the successful implementation of creative ideas”. Creativity is the impetus and innovation is the result or product of creativity. It is interesting that Hennessey emphasizes, “successful” implementation – it raises the question whether utility is a necessary element of innovation. It brings to mind the story, probably apocryphal, of Edison describing how he had been successful in discovering 700 ways not to make a light bulb.

“… academic achievement and creativity would lead to innovation, pushing fields such as information technology…”

“… focus on methods to foster organizational climates conducive to innovation.”

“Management must truly want and be committed to creativity and be willing to sacrifice short term results for innovation.”

“… creative abrasion can result in successful innovation.”

Adams, K. (2005). The Sources of Innovation and CreativityEducation. Retrieved from

Hennessey, B. A., & Amabile, T. M. (2010). Creativity. Annual Review of Psychology61(1), 569–598.

Teaching is a behaviour intended to transfer knowledge to another person.

This is a very brief and broad definition of teaching intended to distill the essence of what we understand to be “teaching”. Reflecting on the verb form of the word, there is, I propose, some intentionality or purpose on the part of the actor – if someone is teaching, they mean to produce a change in the learner’s knowledge state.

Understand this nuance in contrast to a child hearing a parent use profanity. The parent is teaching the child to profane, but it is unlikely that the behaviour is intended to develop that skill in the child. In this circumstance, I would argue that the parent is not “teaching” even though the child is learning. By the same token, consider a child informing a younger sibling of a “bad word” and cajoling them to use it in a certain way. The older sibling is acting with the goal of having the learner acquire knowledge of the word. I would argue that the older sibling is, in this case, teaching a learner.

It raises interesting questions about those who are not necessarily teachers, but who are moral examples or role models. Is Oprah a teacher? Nelson Mandela? Pope Benedict? Bill Gates?

A quick peek at Bruner’s (1966) book, “Toward a Theory of Instruction” throws another interesting nuance into the discussion. He describes “instruction”, which is in the realm of teaching, to be behaviours intended to facilitate growth and development.

Both terms, “teaching” and “learning” offer fertile ground for exploration and debate and I have far more questions than answers after this exercise. I expect that these simple little statements will be unpacked over the next few weeks.

There are people whose roles put them into positions of influence and the teaching element is an acknowledged part of that. Oprah, Pope Benedict, Gates, etc. recognize their influence and use their example to teach others. Incidental teachers include parents for sure, but also celebrities who are watched and imitated by others. In this respect, everyone is a teacher. I think, though, to consider one's self a teacher, there has to be some intention behind it. The act of teaching is purposeful. Learning, on the other hand, happens all the time. All of us are always learning to different degrees.

However, since writing this, I encountered the idea that people often actively RESIST learning seeking to assimilate new ideas into their existing schemas. In doing this, they avoid the often challenging work of disassembling one’s own notions and holding them against a different world view.

Learning is the lasting acquisition of knowledge resulting in a change of attitude, world-view, behaviour, or capacity.

While “teaching”, I suggested, has an element of intentionality, learning does not. Learning can be intentional, incidental, and accidental. How do we know if someone is learning? There will be some change in understanding or skills. They will possess some capacity of thought or behaviour that they did not before the learning took place.

It is probably worth exploring whether an understanding of learning should consider temporal bounds – for example, should the acquisition of knowledge that is temporarily stored for immediate use and quickly forgotten be considered “learning”? Does knowledge have to be retained for some time before we should call it “learned”?

Perhaps the phone number scenario is better described as, “remembering” inasmuch as the number is simply held for a period of time though it does, while remembered, afford the learner / rememberer the capacity to make a phone call.

Thinking more on remembering, it could be that an experience long in the past can be recalled to provide a lesson for the present which results in a change in understanding or skills. The learner makes new meaning from old experiences.

And what does it mean to "make meaning"? Is that what we do with learning? Perhaps "understanding" is the act of making meaning from our learning.

Fun thinking about words we toss around as though we know what they mean!


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