Thinking, Making, Doing, Solving, Dreaming: reflections on completing a PhD thesis on creativity in higher education

Note: Recently (Nov. 2014), when looking for something else entirely, I ‘stumbled’ across my PhD thesis which was hidden away on an external hard drive. It was finally completed in 2007 at the end of a long four years during which I stopped work completely on researching and writing for over a year due to the iillness and eventually the death of my father. I eventually and successfully finished it due, in no small part, to the feeling that I wanted to honour his memory.  As I started to read it, a whole lot of memories and emotions came flooding back, particularly in the short final section where I reflect on my own learning journey. Here is that reflective section, which I hope may be of some use or interest.


Wanderer, there is no path;
The path forms itself as you walk it.

Amongst the more significant of the research outcomes to emerge from this study of the different ways that a group of university teachers experience creativity in learning and teaching is the complexity and richness in the way academics perceive their experience of creativity in learning and teaching, and their enthusiasm for and interest in it.  The centrality of creativity-as-transformation in relation to learning and teaching, and the importance of creativity in relation to personal and/or professional fulfilment, poses a series of challenges to the current focus on creativity in higher education.  The outcomes suggest that there is much more to the experience of creativity in learning and teaching than simply ‘being creative’. Furthermore, the outcomes indicate that a focus on academics’ experience of creativity separated from their larger experience of being a teacher may encourage over simplification of the phenomenon of creativity, particularly in relation to their underlying intentions when engaged in creative activity.

The significance in these research outcomes is that academics need to be perceived and involved as agents in their own and their students creativity rather than as objects of, or more pertinently, deliverers of a particular ‘creativity agenda’.  The transformational power of creativity poses a clear challenge to organisational systems and institutional frameworks that rely, often necessarily, on compliance and constraint, and it also poses a challenge to approaches to learning, teaching and assessment that promote or pander to strategic or surface approaches learning.

The studies into conceptions of learning and teaching demonstrate that, at its best, learning and teaching is about transformation. This study suggests that whilst for higher education institutions (and even the government) creativity is seen as the means to an essentially more productive and profitable end, for university teachers, creativity is essentially about transformation.

A personal reflection

This study is a product of an abiding interest in creativity, and it is interesting to reflect – at the end of a long and arduous period of research and writing –  on my own categories of stasis, process, and transformation in relation to this study. Though it was always clear that I wanted and intended to undertake a study into conceptions of creativity, it took a lengthy period of thinking, reading and discussion to opt finally for a single methodology approach i.e. phenomenography.

My original intention was to use a mixed methods approach that would utilise phenomenography and activity theory. However, after careful consideration of a whole set of factors including the nature of the study, time and resources, it was clear that utilising a single methodological lens was by far the best option.

The appeal of phenomenography lay both in its utility i.e. the right tool for the job, and its methods. My professional arts practice and a great deal of my pedagogic practice is focused on the construction, deconstruction and reconstruction of narratives.  In the course of understanding – certainly to a much greater extent than I did before – what phenomenography is and how it works, I was attracted to the way in which it creates an holistic relational structure of meaning through the purposeful and rigorous deconstruction and reconstruction of experiential narratives.  The gradual comprehension of what phenomenographic praxis entailed was characterised by a series of surges forward and leaps backward (the retrograde movement often greater than the forward movement), interspersed with periods of stasis that were of varying length.

A significant ‘threshold’ moment was when I was able to make the link between being a phenomenographic researcher and being a designer. A well-designed research study needs to fulfil the principles of what characterises good design generally e.g. it is  innovative, logical, honest, it requires attention to detail, it is focused on enhancing the users’ (in this case the readers’) experience, it is elegant and minimal.  This study certainly aimed to meet those criteria and display those qualities.

The understanding that the outcomes of phenomenographic research are constituted by the researcher in direct relationship with the data led me to undertake all the interviews and the consequent transcription myself. It never occurred to me to do otherwise, though the practicalities of dealing with a much larger sample than that involved in this study may well have induced some pragmatism.  I enjoyed undertaking the interviews though I was always cognisant of the need to achieve and maintain the important but delicate balance between empathy and bracketing.

Though undertaking the task of transcribing the interviews could not be described as particularly enjoyable, there was a great deal of satisfaction derived from listening to the richness and detail of what was said, and ensuring that it was written down as accurately as possible. There was a strong sense, amongst the sheer grind of the transcription process, that what had been said in the interviews and what I was listening to through the headphones was important and valuable – not only to me as the researcher, but also to those speaking the words. That sense of the value of what I had obtained made me determined to ensure that the data was considered, at all stages, with the utmost integrity and rigour.

I had underestimated significantly the time required to undertake the interviews and the transcriptions, which included – as is the case with most if not all participants in the doctoral programme – fitting the work on this study in and around significant work and domestic commitments. However, that underestimation paled into insignificance compared to the time it took to undertake the analysis of the approximately sixty thousand words that constituted the data. Whilst the interview and the transcription processes were relatively straightforward, the process of analysis coincided with my long and difficult journey into understanding phenomenography. As the Machado poem quoted at the front of this study says: the path was unfolding as I was walking it.

There were a number of personal attributes and dispositions that assisted me in the rather daunting quest to seek out the structure of variation across the transcripts, and to undertake the intense iterative process of constituting, re-constituting and distilling the categories of description and the structural and referential aspects of variation. Amongst them was a dogged determination to undertake the task properly allied to a genuine enthusiasm for solving complex puzzles. It may seem a rather trite comparison, but the capacity to sit for an extended amount of time considering, categorising and attempting to piece together the hundreds of pieces of a complex jigsaw was a useful attribute in tackling the analysis stage of this study.

The mock viva proved to be another significant influence on the course of this study. I approached it with serious misgivings and feelings of doubt. But I appreciated greatly that it provided a relatively safe and supportive environment in which to test, in front of my peers on the course, not only the appropriateness of my approach but also the wider knowledge and understanding that I had acquired. The probing questions and constructively critical comments provided me not only with a crucial sense of confidence and encouragement that I was ‘on the right track’, but also provided me with useful insights into the gaps that I needed to fill and the pitfalls I needed to avoid. I must admit to being somewhat surprised not only at the depth and breadth of my own understanding of the subject, but also my ability to articulate that understanding in a relatively coherent fashion.  It also made me reflect, in relation to learning and teaching, on the enormous amount of tacit understanding that individuals acquire, and the importance of creating opportunities for at least some of that understanding to be made explicit.

Finally, to return to the quote from Machado at the beginning of this study, I have certainly walked, occasionally stumbled, and for some considerable time actually stopped – along the path of this study as it has formed itself.  While the path continues in terms of further research, this document represents the end-point of a long, complex and fulfilling stage of that journey, and marks my own thinking, making, doing, solving…..and dreaming.