Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Learning design: where do you get your ideas from?

A recent Guardian Review feature invited several novelists to write about the art forms other than novels which had inspired them. It turned out that, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro got inspiration from films, Colm Tóibín from opera, and John Lanchester from video games. In the editor's introduction, there was a hint that there was something surprising or unexpected about this - which I myself found surprising, because I've always found ideas for my own work in all kinds of places, as is testified by the diverse entries in this blog. Learning design in particular, because it is a form of design - that is, of matching means to ends, of creating a product or structure which will produce certain intended results - is a craft in which it's always possible to learn from designers in other fields, especially those concerned with achieving effects on people's minds, whether cognitive, aesthetic, or affective.

So here are some of the things, other than learning, from the designers of which I've learned.

Websites and interfaces. Like many others, I'm a fan of the writings of Jakob Nielsen and Donald Norman, who in the 1980s between them pretty much invented the whole field of usability, in response to the problems posed by new consumer technologies which people were unable to use. Apart from Norman's own book, the other two great classics of usability and human-machine interaction are John Carroll's observations of office workers trying to use a new IBM personal computer and Lucy Suchman's study of dialogues from people puzzling out the operation of their first duplex sorting photocopier. Their writings, and Nielsen's ongoing Alertbox newsletter, are a rich source of design exemplars, good and bad - the bad ones being especially interesting for the poor design thinking which they reveal: designing for people like oneself instead of actual users, forgetting that users come with and develop mental models of what's going on and what they can do, assuming that users will be happy to read and memorise complex instructions when in fact all they want to do is get on. Learning design, of course, can go wrong in precisely the same ways.

Computer games. There's a close analogy, about which I've written and blogged, between the design of games and the design of learning: in both cases, you're designing a system of resources and affordances which will result in a good and rewarding experience for the player / learner - while having no control at all over what they do with what you've provided. The ways in which games and learning experiences can fail are also analogous: no grab or motivation, too hard, too easy, too boring. The key book on games design, for my money, is Salen and Zimmerman's Rules of Play.

Marketing and publicity. Again this is all about producing an effect (for example, Awareness, Interest, Desire or Action, as they say in marketing) in the minds of people you do not know and with whom you have no direct contact, and whose attention you cannot assume. One blog which I follow is Writing Matters, from an American consultancy which specialises in writing online communications for marketing and sales: mailshots, order processing, complaint handling. Pretty much everything they write about creating and sustaining a good relationship with customers and potential customers is relevant to creating and sustaining a good relationship with learners.

Literature, film, TV drama, comics. Here the central craft is storytelling, of which the basic requirements are the same across all media: creating tension and resolution; changing pace, direction or point of view; establishing voice and relationship; engaging and directing attention; generally taking a narrative from start to conclusion). I enjoy the writings of expert practitioners (such as Ursula Le Guin, Alexander Mackendrick and Scott McCloud), who are both willing and able to reveal the techniques of their own special area (fiction writing, film-making and comic creation respectively). And alongside the techniques of storytelling there are the techniques for planning and coordinating the telling, such as the storyboarding most spectacularly used by Pixar, which allows their animators to check the shape and pace and punch of a storyline, beat by beat, before they ever switch on their computers.

Painting and graphic art. A picture can also tell a story, despite presenting only a single moment in time, by its implication or assumption of a past, its suggestion or promise of a future. I'm particularly interested in pictures which create gaps or spaces, calling on the viewer to fill these with their own imagination: Dutch interiors, such as Vermeer's The Letter, are supreme examples of this, and I have already blogged about The Reader - which as I observed is a picture about what is not on the page. I'm also interested in medieval stained glass and wall paintings, such as the spectacular series at Eton College, which were designed with the deliberate intention of educating a largely illiterate population: a useful corrective for those of us who find it difficult to think of teaching other than in words.

Music. Lyrics and libretti aside, this too is a craft which is essentially non-verbal, operating at a non-cognitive, visceral level. If, like me, you're concerned about the affective as well as the cognitive aspect of teaching and learning, it can be encouraging to be shown or reminded - as composer Howard Goodall does in his TV programmes - that the power of music to move and excite is the result of skill and design technique, and not just god-given inspiration. I have a favourite story (which I have just retold) about George Martin, the record producer of the Beatles, who with one small intervention turned a so-so song into the quintessential hit of the band's early years; the beauty of the story is that the George Martin trick is applicable to the design of writing, especially web writing, also.

Psychotherapy and spirituality. Even more obviously than with the other crafts listed here, these are all about the effect on the audience (the client or pilgrim) because there is no persistent mediating artefact: any words spoken are evanescent and their meaning is peculiar to their local situation. Furthermore, these are crafts which depend on the client doing the majority of the work; the ideal therapist, like the ideal teacher, does nothing except create the safe environment necessary for the work and awaken the client's own inner teacher. For these reasons, the design of psychotherapeutic and spiritual practices are difficult to discuss meaningfully, except in an experiential way. There are books about psychotherapy and spirituality, of course; but these are not the craft itself; as Freud remarked, writing about psychoanalysis doesn't cure people, any more than distributing menus relieves hunger during a famine. In these crafts, perhaps more than any other, the best influence on one's own practice is being party to good practice oneself. Writing and talking about learning design can only accomplish so much; to really understand what good learning design is and what it can do, one needs to experience some well-designed learning

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