RE: Designing Learning

William Rankin
May 5, 2020 · 12 min read

With instructionist education throwing up its hands in the face of the pandemic and the ‘education industrial complex’ peddling the same old information-centric instructionalism that drives home-bound teens to sedition and insurgency, lots of us are asking “what should we build instead?”

Unfortunately, despite the itch to make something new, even our well intentioned first instincts are likely to point us in the wrong direction. As Paul Rand famously observed, “The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.”

This is just as true for education, as Paulo Freire cautioned. Ask most parents about their own experience with school (not with their pals or their favorite teachers, but their overall academic experience) and you’ll often get a tepid saga of boredom, frustration, irrelevance, and dissatisfaction. Yet ask those same parents about their kids breaking away from tradition to try something new, and you’ll witness suspicion, resistance, and a vindication of those ‘old ways’ likely to contain the phrases “I turned out okay” or “it builds character….” Many teachers and school leaders demonstrate this same cognitive dissonance.

It’s scary to try something new when the old discomforts have become so familiar….

But the pandemic and its likely aftermath are having none of that. They’re taking a sledgehammer to the old edifice and with it, to our complacency. Making a change now seems to be the only viable choice—despite our resistance, we’ll have to build something new. So where do we begin?

If we want to create a genuinely productive environment for tomorrow’s learners, we need to start by reflecting on what we want learners to be like after so we know what to surround them with during. In other words, despite our discomfort and poor instincts, we’ll have to consider design deeply and meaningfully. Otherwise, our act of ‘creation’ could simply be more consumption in disguise: a waste of energy and resources that reinforces the badly designed status quo. After all, chirpily asking “where do you want to go today?” didn’t bring us a creative cultural explosion, but a thousand bland spreadsheets, generically formatted text documents, and tooth-numbingly horrible presentations, all superintended by a demonic office-supply familiar that was one of the creepiest cases of corporate misogyny and disregard for basic human productivity ever.

“It’s unremittingly mediocre, but it scales!” is just as tiresome a rationale for education as it is for computing. The next chapter of human learning is far too important for such nonsense.

However, considering design presents its own colliding complications. On one hand, some people are so intimidated that even uttering the word feels like stepping off a cliff. For others, it’s so commonly bandied about and so easy! that unqualified Dunning-Kruger amateurs can smugly proclaim “nailed it!” without the slightest glimmer of what design really is.

So maybe we need to begin by defining just what we mean by ‘design.’

As one prominent guru opined, it’s more than “what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Charles and Ray Eames, who laid the foundation for mid-century modernism, observed that “Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.” For the Eameses, good design wasn’t lofty or esoteric or elite. It was grounded in the practical and the productive and the everyday, the seed bed that nourishes and grounds people and ideas.

That’s the sort of design the next generation of learning calls for: not how it looks, but how it works; not something abstruse, but ‘design for living’; not a linear and extractive process, but one that’s creative, organic, recursive, and fundamentally human.

Look at the design of so many recent educational fads, and this is not what you see. Under the thin façade of technology, activity, or Burgess Publishing claptrap, you find the same extractive educational economics — exploitation rather than stewardship, learners sliced into data rather than becoming more fully realized and more fully human. Feeding the open maw of industrialized education seems to be the ‘particular purpose’ for which most of our educational system has been arranged, no matter what shiny, exciting veneer has been applied.

None of this will do for our purposes.

However, if we want something more than industrialized dehumanization, what should our purpose be? As I recently argued, the ‘particular purpose’ of learning is to develop informed, inquisitive, empathic citizens who apply their knowledge and proficiency collaboratively to solve genuine problems in genuine contexts, coordinating with their community’s culturally relevant wisdom and values to engender wellbeing, empower human betterment, and create sustainably in the world.

See? Easy!


In 1977, the Eameses made the short film Powers of Ten. Beginning at a picnic, the film first zooms out a hundred million light years and then zooms back to the picnic — and even further beyond to a proton in the nucleus of an atom in a DNA molecule in the picnicker’s hand. Throughout the film, rhythmic shifts in perspective help illustrate structures we might otherwise miss or ignore, highlighting the way patterns repeat and echo at every level of magnification.

So let’s experiment with something similar and step back to give that learning purpose another look.

the purpose of learning is to enhance people’s creativity, their connectedness, and their responsiveness to the environment

Zooming out one order of magnitude, our new perspective might lead to a statement like this: the purpose of learning is to prepare people who inhabit the interknit domains of information, relationship, and environment to make solutions, connections, and resources that serve individual learners, local communities, and the world. Zooming out again it might coalesce to: the purpose of learning is to enhance people’s creativity, their connectedness, and their responsiveness to the environment.

Can you see the pattern starting to emerge? Content (the information), community (the people), and context (the environment) all churn about and intersect, crystallizing to form repeating and complex structures — the elements in our constructionist learning environment. If we go back to that original statement, we see the same building blocks permeating each detail, combining to form the substance, the relationships, and the interactions within and between each part.

Context, content, and community are everywhere we look. They’re the essential dimensions of learning.

If we want to produce learners who are comfortable in all three of these dimensions after, then we have to surround them with each dimension during. Each dimension will have to be present in every part of our design — not just at the end, and not just in some superficial way, but materially, intrinsically, and thoroughly. Like the universe itself, recursive and fractal, the pattern of interaction among these dimensions will have to echo at every scale in the learning system we design.

When I rail at the educational industrial complex’s myopic privileging of information, it’s not because I believe content is unimportant. After all, it’s one of the essential dimensions! Yet emphasizing content — information — at the expense of the other dimensions just because it’s ‘easier to measure and verify’ isn’t good enough. That’s the fatal flaw in most existing educational programs. Without all three dimensions, it’s impossible to generate the complex patterns that transform information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom, moving up the DIKW pyramid to embed learning in people’s lives.

In fact, this very unidimensionality is what makes information in our schools static, commodified, unincorporated, and fragmented — something more fit for machines than for people. This is the reason that most of what’s taught gets lost or dissipates, never integrating meaningfully or durably for most learners. Consider your own schooling. What percentage of the information you learned over 8 years of primary, 4 years of secondary, and perhaps 4 years or more of tertiary education did you actually retain? And if you didn’t retain it — if it didn’t become part of you and your identity — what was the purpose of all those years, all those assignments, and all those assessments? What did most of it really mean and why did it really matter?

The increased dimensionality provides space for meaning and purpose that content alone lacks. However, preparing learners adequately to navigate a three-dimensional world means they have to do more than simply receive — they must create and share. Consuming and repeating information or following someone else’s recipe simply isn’t enough. As Yong Huang recently observed (borrowing from Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind), ‘knowing-that’ is part of the story, but it’s incomplete without ‘knowing-how.’ And both are incomplete without adding the Confucian concept of liangzhi — ‘knowing-to.’

Our world is littered with wreckage from people who acquired and applied knowledge and skills without ever asking whether they should

If we have only ‘knowing-that’ (content), there’s no guarantee we can apply what we know to perform contextual ‘knowing-how.’ Does good performance on a written exam guarantee we can use our knowledge in a real-world context? Does taking and passing an exam on the physics of basketball or the history of theatre necessarily make us a great player? And even if we have both ‘knowing-that’ and ‘knowing-how,’ does our experience of these guarantee that we understand the appropriateness or implications of our actions — that we can demonstrate the wisdom that constitutes ‘knowing-to?’ Our world is littered with wreckage from people who acquired and applied knowledge and skills without ever asking whether they should: ruined ecosystems, spent resources, heartless bureaucracies, failing states

What we need going forward — what humanity has always needed — is a comprehensive design that offers far more than our current industrialized, content-driven educational system. If we don’t want people to emerge from our schools fragmented, disconnected, and consumerist, we need to design an environment that produces different results. So rather than transferring information and then assessing that transference’s short-term efficacy, let’s build something holistic: a model that considers the three essential learning dimensions at three levels of ‘magnification’: what living in the dimensions looks like for the individual, for the community, and for the world. If we ‘arrange elements’ in this kind of multidimensional framework, we’ll get an entirely new set of competencies for learning.

If we expect the learners coming out of our system to have the analytical and creative skills they need to make meaningful things, they’ll need to make meaningful things right from the start and all the way through. It’s the height of delusion to imagine that learners who’ve only had to consume and repeat throughout their whole academic careers will, upon graduation, somehow magically gain the ability to produce and create. We’ll have to build a new framework for constructionism if we want to prepare learners who can construct what’s next for the world.

The reason so many educational initiatives fall short is that they never question the design of the framework that undergirds them. They simply replace one element with another, to marginal or sometimes catastrophic effect. We won’t create a meaningful, lasting kind of learning for the future by eliminating or ‘automating’ teachers. We won’t do it by throwing in technologies like they’re magic beans or by setting up some disingenuous Ayn-Randian institute for the study of competitive selfishness. We won’t do it by emphasizing culturally biased, starting-one-step-from-the-finish-line concepts like ‘grit’ or ‘rigor.’

We’ll do it by designing experiences that support learners in achieving fluency with content as they become informed, develop proficiency, and practice creation with and from what they’re mastering. We’ll do it by situating learners in contexts that allow them to discover the intrinsic rewards of being inquisitive, solving problems, and keeping a focus on sustainability. We’ll do it by connecting them deeply with communities that encourage meaningful connections as they become empathic, exercise the skills of collaboration, and develop wisdom. We’ll do it by doing all of these all at once all the time.

Our new learning design results in a new set of learning competencies. Multidimensional and fractal, they operate at three distinct levels of ‘magnification’ for each dimension…

This won’t be easy for many people currently involved in education, but they can look for inspiration and guidance to the millions of everyday teachers who already follow this model in homes, communities, guilds, workshops, and studios around the world — and who’ve been doing so without pause since before the edge of recorded history. This isn’t new; its brilliant light has illuminated all of humanity’s most important and enduring creations. Yet we’ve allowed its brilliance to “fade into the light of common day,” shadowed by a miasma of industrialized measurement, bureaucratic record-keeping, and vulture capitalism.

This isn’t costly. It’s not predicated on unwieldy amounts of cash or technology — in fact, it doesn’t require any. If what we make is only available to the wealthy and privileged, we haven’t designed a system to help solve the problems facing humanity. In fact, we’ve made them worse, another force acting to divide us. Our new design doesn’t require the exorbitant or the exotic. It’s ‘practical, productive, and everyday,’ requiring only humanity: guides willing to help those who come after. Learners will only become more human and humane if they can witness mentors dynamically enacting their own humanity and humaneness within their communities and local contexts. That doesn’t require cash; only vision, empathy, and engagement — connection. As Mr Vygotsky reminds us, learning is always relational. To realize a system in which learners embody and enact this new set of learning competencies, teachers will have to enact them first. It’s the only way to show people the path and welcome them to the journey. This is why ‘automating’ teachers is such a horrific idea…

We’ll have to make something better.

We’ll have to restore the sense that humanity’s chief task is not the world’s subjugation or exploitation but its repair and restoration

We have to do this because the future of humanity literally depends on it. In a world where rampant consumption and the Enlightenment-driven slicing up of the universe have left us with what T.S. Eliot called “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water” we’ll have to rediscover what we have progressively forgotten since the 19th-Century consolidation of instructionism in our schools. We’ll have to return to notions that connect epistemology — how and what we know — with the reduction of human suffering. We’ll have to restore the sense that humanity’s chief task is not the world’s subjugation or exploitation but its repair and restoration.

We’ll achieve this by integrating content, context, and community in everything we do.

Overcoming the inertia within the existing system will require a radical shift and considerable energy, as Freire argued. And the old ideology will always try to subsume and neutralize the changes we’re making because it has so much to lose.

But there’s hope.

We don’t have to dismantle the old system in order to build the new one. Given the enormous resources governments, schools, and cultural institutions have invested in the existing instructionist system, that would be an impossibly Herculean task. All we have to do is build our new system alongside the existing one … and wait.

It turns out that because learners in a multidimensional environment are more prepared — more integrated, more supported, more experienced — they actually do as well or better on standardized tests than their peers in instructionist learning environments. Importantly, they do so even if teachers spend less (or even no) time explicitly preparing them for those exams. This is because the information is no longer abstract and external for them; it has become part of their identity as they assimilate into a ‘community of practice.’ Since the extra dimensions give learners more ‘room’ to develop and discover their own applications and purposes, they become more engaged, more creative, and more proficient. They don’t just recognize; they know.

That’s where we need to begin.

Architects have long known that the design, shape, and details of a building form the people who inhabit and use it. It’s time for educational designers to recognize this, too. We face important choices as we build what comes next, and those choices will determine not only what learners can do, but who they will be.

As Charles and Ray Eames presciently wrote, “Beyond the age of information is the age of choices.”

Let’s choose wisely.

[See the previous post in this series, “Education is over” for a discussion of why we need these changes. The next post, “Making Learning” will present specific strategies for using constructionism for learning.]

learning innovations for the regenerative economy

William Rankin

Written by

Former university professor; learning designer who works to improve access, humanity & agency, replacing the Taylorite education factory… is a transformative learning consultancy based in London & New York founded by Graham Brown-Martin and William Rankin

William Rankin

Written by

Former university professor; learning designer who works to improve access, humanity & agency, replacing the Taylorite education factory… is a transformative learning consultancy based in London & New York founded by Graham Brown-Martin and William Rankin

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