Scientists and Artists: Who should design learning?

It’s generally considered cool to quote Marshall McLuhan. I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend where I presented the notion that learning networks should filter themselves – they should not be pre-filtered the way most of our classrooms and courses are created. Courses are designed by eliminating knowledge elements that the designer feels doesn’t belong. As a result, we end up with a focused, often one-perspective, view of a particular field. This structure is generally perceived as being valuable in providing learners with information that they need to master particular tasks or skills. Anyway, somewhere during the conversation we turned to McLuhan. My friend, an artist by trade and passion, shared his reaction to McLuhan (quite different from what I generally encounter). He stated that an artist finds magic everywhere. The entire landscape of existence holds magic and beauty for an artist. McLuhan entered the space of artists and started defining and detailing and casting a sociologist’s or scientific perspective on elements. In the process, he “killed” the magic. Approach an artist, for example, and ask, “how many birds do you think there are?”. She’ll reply, “I don’t know, lots I guess”…and begin to talk color and beauty. Approach a scientist (my friend’s analogy, I recognize that it’s a generalization), and she’ll start shooting and counting them in an effort to classify types and number.

While this example is perhaps a bit extreme, it does bring to the forefront the challenges that we face as educators and designers of educational environments. I’ve been following a discussion in a listserv that is attempting to parse the nuances of designing learning materials (and surprise – the methods are scientific, outcomes-based). The first question asked, when discussing learning approaches, design methodologies, and theories, is “what’s the evidence?”. Evidence in this case is almost always defined empirically (i.e. scientifically). “What is the return on investment (ROI)?” Where’s the magic and beauty?

I feel it’s important to understand (and be able to measure – though I would like to extend measurement beyond simple dollars) the impact of training and learning. Unfortunately, the “scientists of learning” have the dominant voice in the learning space. The artists aren’t being heard.

If the scientists role is one of determining best approaches to instruction (through empirical research, qualitative and quantitative analysis), what is the role of the artist in the learning space? I believe the artist is the individual who sees the magic in learning. He/she may not know exactly why something worked well, but can see (and dare I say, feel?) that the learners are changing, growing, and developing. The artist of learning sees beauty in the dialogue, in the interaction, in the connections formed between what is known and what is becoming known. The artist sees (and accepts) the beauty of uncertainty, and values learning as both a process and a product. In creating a learning environment, the artist splashes the magic of learning across the entire canvas of life. Tools are used like paint brushes to create the desired painting of learning. Blogs, wikis, podcasts, courses (yes, even an LMS), conversations, communities of practice – these elements are all seen as pieces in the learning experience and ecology.

I would like to see our learning design include the voices of both the scientist and the artist. Neither is necessarily better than the other. In some cases, a business may require the metrics and method of a clear defined, scientific model. In other cases (especially when pursuing innovation and creativity) they may desire the beauty of learning created by the artist. Both, held in balance and for the appropriate task, are needed for the benefit of the learning, the organization, and the instructor.

6 Responses to “Scientists and Artists: Who should design learning?”

  1. Interesting !
    Me myself is a scientistteacher that was on the way to become a fullfledged scientist. But I could feel at that time it didn’t give me the “magic”or as I would say: It didn’t consist of vibrant life. It was all models and it bored me much. Therefore I became a teacher that hoped for a vibrant life in the classroom. It didn’t turn out that way (teaching physics and math) until I had the chance to teach in a crossculture between companies and schools. Very fascinating. NOW I’m back in the old teaching culture, trying to implement some of the ideas from the crossculture. It works but slowly. Take a look at

  2. adrian chan says:

    Your post reminds me of the debate around “beautiful code,” and whether there is such a thing (and if so, how could it be judged?). Master programmers will tell you that they know an elegant coding solution when they see it.
    I do think that web literacy, web 2.0 tools included, is becoming a social skill, especially among MySpacers, youths, et al. And that means that picks up stylistics and other aspects of individual expression. It’s a social practice. And so beauty, if not magic, does play a part, I think.
    What else could explain the rank ugliness of the MySpace UI?!

  3. Very Interesting !
    learning design is not learning photoshop

  4. Aaron Smith says:

    I think it important to always try and be both. Even the scientific process is creative. The way you put together quantitave data and be artistic. The more I think about it the more it is hard for me to see designing learning as either artistic or scientific. It is not that black and white to me.

  5. Deirdre Bonnycastle says:

    I read a lot of medical Blogs as part of my job and they are full of photos, cartoons and graphics. I go to medical conferences and watch video vignettes to illustrate points. Medicine is obsessed with scientific thinking, yet the practitioners are full of artistry.
    Here’s a question to ponder “Why are most educational Blogs full of words?” “What is it about the alphabet that consumes educational practice?”

  6. rich hahn says:

    I believe knowledge elements are often eliminated because of either time constraints or the less than complete work of the designer. I completed a online Java course recently and I had to constantly search the web for information that should have been included in the course but wasn’t. This was not a design choice but poor design.
    I was in the commercial training business for 10 years and only 1 customer ever asked for a level 2 evaluation and that was for just 1 class. Most did not ask for or want any evaluation at all. I tried to work with several customers on level 3 and 4 evaluations but they weren’t interested. What would happen in the University world if a professor got poor feedback from students (level 1) but could actually demonstrate that the students were achieving at a high level?
    A great ID must be part scientist and part artist. A scientist that is not an artist creates training that is likely to be boring, and an artist that is not a scientist is likely to create training that is not as effective as it should be. I would love to see courses that read more like a novel than a lecture.