What is ideation?

The terms ‘creativity’ and ideation’ are often used synonymously but they are not identical. Creativity refers to a whole global process whereas ideation is more concerned with generating new ideas which is one (major) part of creativity. Often, materials writers talk about their need to be creative when in fact they are probably referring more to the need for ‘ideation’. In other words, if I’m starting work on a new lesson, I might need to generate some new ideas, choose from the best one, and develop it.

Being aware of how you ideate

You might assume that ideation is not something that can be taught or learned. After all, ideas seem come to us when we least expect them as one survey of problem-solving senior executives showed: They were asked where and when they got their best ideas. The top three answers were on vacation, in the shower, travelling to and from the office. Very few people in the survey reported having many news ideas ‘at work’ or ‘when they were trying to’. (Reported in Smart, J. 2015 The Little Book of Clarity Capstone, p88)

Creating the right conditions for ideas

Of course, a view that suggests ideas generation is something random and best done relaxing by a swimming pool isn’t much help to us when we need ideas on a daily basis. But what we can do is to create the right conditions that are most likely to help us generate them.  To illustrate the importance of knowing how to ‘ideate’, we asked a variety of established materials writers and content creators where their ideas came from. What was striking was how aware they were of the processes and condition they personally needed in order to increase the chances of generating ideas. Here’s a summary selection of their answers (not their exact words):

whenever I read or watch anything that might be interesting, I bookmark it for inspiration at a later date

– reading broadly and keeping up to date with news relating to topics such as technology, science, and culture

– from social media such as my LinkedIn feed

– google key topic words and see what it generates

– talk to my co-author to bounce ideas off each other

– when I’m stuck for ideas and have an idea I’m unsure about, I sleep on it

– use an AI tool like Chat GPT to generate a range of ideas to choose from or adapt

Thinking inside the box (not outside it)

So, for most writers, the starting point might be a text that sparks our interest or a selection of suggestions using AI. It’s rarely (and possibly never) a blank sheet of paper (or screen) in front of us which helps us to magically produce a new set of materials for our lessons. This highlights how misleading the expression to think outside the box really is. Instead, having limitations imposed on our writing, perhaps in the form of a publisher’s brief or the limits of what our authoring software will allow, can be the spark; in other words, having to think inside a box.

For example, if I need to start developing ideas for a text, limitations like ‘it must have no more than 200 words, be no higher than B1 level, contain ten key words and target Brazilian students aged between 14-17’ makes all the difference.  Or if you have a well-defined lesson framework to follow every time you prepare a function-based speaking task, that removes the need for routine thinking so you can focus on ideation.

Why not comment below on when, where and how you get your ideas from?


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