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Teaching academic creativity: in what ways might PhD supervisions be seen as a ‘creativity lab’?

Dorothy Miell
Denise Whitelock

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This research was designed to investigate the ways in which academic creativity might be fostered during the course of doctoral students’ supervision sessions at the Open University’s Centre for Research in Education and Educational technology. Interviews with experienced supervisors allowed us to develop an understanding of the nature of their pedagogy, particularly in terms of their avowed mentoring style and the ways in which they attempted to create conducive contexts for creativity and encourage academic risk taking. Some tutors believed the research process to be “intrinsically creative” and this was reflected in their whole supervisory approach. They believed that students did not just have the freedom to be creative but were explicitly expecting the students to be creative. These tutors adopted an apprenticeship type model of supervision where they provided examples from their own work that illustrated creativity. Other tutors saw the supervisory sessions as problem-solving opportunities, and some equated problem-solving with creative activity. The most experienced supervisors had much clearer ideas about creativity and how it could be promoted during supervisory sessions. On the other hand, the less experienced supervisors, although wholeheartedly believing that their work was essentially drawing upon creative processes, found communicating and fostering creativity a far more difficult task.
     Further interviews with these supervisors’ students enabled us to gather their views on the process and particularly the extent to which they saw the academic training ground of the PhD supervision as a valuable and legitimate site for developing creative skills. Students believed that supervisors assisted them in developing their critical thinking which matched some of the supervisors’ notions of creativity. However, many of the students valued the specific skills teaching, e.g. with respect to the appropriate use of research methods, as more valuable than any other discussions. They believed that supervisors supported the creative process most by providing encouragement to think flexibly and to assist them with academic risk-taking. Interestingly, there were different views on the extent to which both students and supervisors saw academic life as an essentially creative endeavour and the PhD training as an opportunity to focus on developing creative skills and this impacted on the various mentoring models (and preferred. supervisory styles) adopted by participants and expressed in the interviews. These findings will be of particular interest to the research training community where current practice is being revisited both by HEFCE and the ESRC.

Author Bio(s)

Dr Denise Whitelock
Denise has fifteen years’ experience in designing, researching and evaluating online and computer-based learning and formative assessment in Higher Education and Adult Education. Researching creativity has been part of that endeavour. She is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Technology in the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology, where she is currently director of the internally funded Computer Assisted Formative Assessment (CAFA) project and the JISC funded OpenMentor Project. She was director of the eMentor team that won a 2004 OU teaching award and has also acted as Director of the Research Master's Programme.

Dorothy Miell
Dorothy is a psychologist who has worked for many years on communication, relationships and collaboration. Recently she has been examining ways in which creative collaborations are affected by the nature of the communication and relationships between the group members, and has published 3 related edited texts: Collaborative Creativity (2004, with Karen Littleton), Musical Communication (2004, with David Hargreaves and Raymond MacDonald) and Musical Identity (2002, with David Hargreaves and Raymond MacDonald). She is currently Dean of the Social Sciences Faculty at the OU.