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Design for Learning vs Emergent Outcomes

There is a growing interest in what is called Design for Learning. I am reading a nice book on the subject by Julie Dirksen, and Aaron Sams (who is usually credited, along with Jonathan Bergmann, with establishing the ‘flipped’ classroom), discusses UDL (Universal Design for Learning) here at this video post. In engineering, where design has always been implicit, there is renewed explicit focus on all aspects of design, including the aesthetic, and UCL’s Anthony Finkelstein writes interestingly on some of these matters at his blog.

Design makes senses. You focus on what you want to achieve, then you step back and work out how best to reach the goals you set. The attempts, still ongoing, of numerous dull business and education forms to ask us to clarify ‘aims and objectives’ is another way to try to get teachers, administrators and all those innovating at work to think about design. But the D word is much better than the dreary ‘aims and objectives’. Design is attractive, after all, and has obvious aesthetic connotations which ‘aims and objectives’ does not. In an educational context there is also a clear element of personalisation that design – individual design – can give you. With the massive advances in educational material available on the internet, we are approaching some exciting, design-based possibilities for meeting personal learning needs and desires.

And yet despite the genuine appeal of design, there is something about this view of education which is at odds with the, perhaps more conventional, view of university education as something essentially open-ended; education as something for which there are inherently no predictable or reliable outcomes. In modern educationalist language, the label ’emergent outcome’ is now sometimes attached to a lecture series or course with no fixed or predictable outcome; but, frankly, this is really just an admission that there is no real finality or boundedness to what is expected of either student or teacher by the end of the course.  Michael Young and Johan Muller express this well: ‘…knowledge is emergent from and not reducible to the contexts in which it is produced and acquired’ (Young and Muller 2010, p14).

And so I think there is a conflict here between the clarity and attractiveness of design – with its attendant advantages of personalisation – and the open-endedness and flexibility of ’emergent outcomes’, which allow learners to approach the course with, perhaps, more sense of adventure and openness.

How might we try to resolve this conflict? Here are some suggestions, but they are by no means comprehensive.

1. We can push out the level of abstraction 0f what we are looking for. In a sense, this is what the phrase ’emergent outcomes’ is trying to do. By pushing out the level of abstraction, I mean that we try to take a more general view. For example, rather than saying, say: ‘At the end of this course you will be able to programme in Java and build an app for a maths game for kids’, we say things like: ‘At the end of this course you will have an appreciation for the areas in which Java is most appropriate to be used and where C++ is most appropriate to be used’.

Now this seems to be a differentiation between skills  and concepts, and I think that is a fair way to view it. I think that, by and large, design-based learning is best focussed on skills, and emergent outcomes are best focussed on concepts. This, in turn, may be broadly characterised as a difference between training (skills) and education (concepts) and that, indeed, is what maybe nags away at the more traditional side of my educational self. The traditional teacher in me says education should be about concepts and the inherent value attached to this sort of learning. Design seems more focussed on instrumental values, which, of course, are very much in favour with industry and government, but which jar with traditional values of scholarship and enquiry in universities.

However, whilst on the one hand, the design/skills-based approach can seem too instrumental for purists, the emergent/conceptual approach can seem too vague and insubstantial for practical and real-world applications of learning. And who can deny the attractiveness of learning being put to good use, to achieve real and tangible results away from the abstractions of universities!

2. Another way to meet the issue head-on is to say that design works best in some areas of university study, and emergent outcomes work best in others.

It is no coincidence, I think, that in the example above, the design/skills-based approach appears to comes out on top as the better sort of outcome: computer programming is often (and rightly) viewed as an activity with clear practical uses. But if we take an example from the humanities, say English literature, and state: ‘At the end of this course, you will be able to name all the characters in Jane Austen’s novels together with their birthdays’ (a clear ‘learning outcome’) and compare it to: ‘At the end of this course you will be able to investigate connections between Austen’s plots and aspects of the Industrial Revolution in Britain (a more ’emergent’ approach), then I think we can see that in the humanities, at least, leaving outcomes open-ended can not only be more productive, but is also more in tune with the ethos of those disciplines.

Discussions such as these are on my mind as we think more about the sorts of learning outcomes we are looking for from our interdisciplinary modules on the BASc. We are innovating, and we are looking at ways in which the web and our changing society is requiring new things of undergraduate education. Of course we are ambitious and we are optimistic that we will have some outstanding students ready and interested to run with some new ways of doing things. Courses like our Approaches to Knowledge and Interdisciplinary Research Methods are not widely established in UK HE. In this respect, it would seem more appropriate to leave our outcomes as ’emergent’ whilst sign-posting clearly some points to our students along the way and providing stimulating and relevant learning material and assessments for the journey. But we must also be aware that design plays a part. Everyone likes to have some idea of where they are going, even if the end point of a journey is just that you are better equipped to start the next journey.

As part of marrying the issues of design vs emergence, we are looking at how to ‘design for concepts’, rather than ‘design for skills’. That seems a good fit (design term!) for a world class university at which some of the best conceptual thinkers in the world are teaching.


Three Educational Scenarios for the Future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge; European Journal of Education, Vol 45, No. 1, 2010, Part 1

Photo under CC licence from Mortati’s photo stream.

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