That which is designed and that which is naturally occurring

Cloud created by:

J. Michael Spector
10 December 2008

There are things that occur without or in spite of human intervention; there are things that

people bring into being; and then there are things that occur within the context of things people

have designed. The Grand Canyon in the USA is an example of something that has developed

without or in spite of human intervention. People have created dams and irrigation policies that

have made relatively minor changes to the canyon, when then continues to evolve after

those people made those changes.

People are learning naturally and without conscious effort throughout their waking hours. Then

instructional designers and educational planners come along and create environments and

tasks intended to further learning and contribute to what people know and can do. During these

activities, people do various things, some of which might be consisten with what planners had

in mind. After engaging in these designed activities, people go on learning, sometimes building

on those activities.

Perhaps this relates to Peter Goodyear's distinction between designing learning tasks and then

observing and recording what people do in carrying out those tasks as they engage in various

learning activities. The learning task is designed. The learning activity is an internal process

that is not designed in same way that the task is designed.

Contact details:

Extra content

Embedded Content


Gráinne Conole
1:21am 10 December 2008

The point is we an influence what happens in the learning process, that is the whole point

of design, albeit we can't guarantee that our intended design will actually be enacted.

In the runtime it depends on the context and what the learner brings to the situation.

Nonetheless we know what some designs are better than others and we can therefore

steer and during the runtime orchestrate the learning process.

J. Michael Spector
3:00am 10 December 2008

Wittgenstein said, in the Tractatus, that we picture facts to ourselves. We do this naturally

and without much thought most of the time. The creation of internal representations of our

experiences is a naturally occurring process. We might influence this process by becoming

better at self-regulation, by developing particular habits of observation, and by improving our

metacognitive skills. Nonetheless, creating internal representations occurs regardless of our

conscious efforts and the intentions of those around us. We construct internal representations.

That is a fact about the nature of being a person. We create internal representations and then

we have evolved the capacity to talk about those internal representations with others. Is this

not quite amazing?

We sometimes realize that some of these internal representations are particularly helpful or

on occasion particularly bothersome. Some facilitate further learning and some may inhibit

learning. Eliciting and examining these internal representations and understanding how they

are influenced by surroundings and others seems to be a critical factor in coming to

understand how individuals learn.

Gráinne Conole
3:54am 10 December 2008

Superbly put. I think this is a key facet of this. We think naturally, internally about our

design practices and hence as teachers feel comfortable within that space, take it for

granted. But now there is a need to make some attempt at making more of that

internal representation external and explicit whilst also acknowledging it will never be possible

to totally represent the internal, externally.

Paul Gagnon
6:31am 10 December 2008


Didn't Wittgenstein also hold that langauge defines reality, and that such defintion builds on shared apprehension of meaning? Which is why, on my way back to Singapore from Sydney last night and up to this moment, I have been reflecting extensively on the comments voiced at the pedagogical planning summit that learning cannot be designed. That there is a - if I understand this viewpoint correctly--something inherently contradictory about believing that one can design a learning experience. To my mind, Skinner proved that to the contrary. I also think that games designers have also put paid to that idea. I guess the arguments around semantics can grind most everything to a halt. I like to believe that there is genetic impulse to find the commonality of shared apprehension and to build on that as we move our way forward , one step at a time in the pursuit of illumination --be it as Michael Jacobsen has so aptly characterised its possible expression: a floodlight or a laser.

Gráinne Conole
9:31pm 10 December 2008

Hi Paul

nice to meet you in Sydney - I agree totally about the semantics!! I think the argument

is simply that at the end of the day the learning happens within the individual and

no matter how you 'design' the learning experience you cant control totally what

happens at runtime. This is why Peter Goodyear makes the distinction between task

ie what the teacher sets and actiivity what the student actually does.

Peter Goodyear
3:33am 12 December 2008

I'm happy to argue about the importance of using language accurately, but the main point of my task:activity distinction is to say that we need conceptions of design that acknowledge the autonomy of the learner and the professional responsibilities of the designer. My 2000 chapter in Mike Spector's book talks about 'reflexive task design', which is task design informed by the knowledge that what the learner does is neither determined nor unpredictable. Drawing on evidence about the things that influence students in the shaping of their activity, we can make a better stab at educational design. Going back to Skinner, I'd say that it's not so much the tightness of the connection between a stimulus and a response that I'm concerned with; it's that students walk away from such offerings.

Paul Gagnon
9:04am 12 December 2008

Peter, respectfully, when has the autonomy of the learner ever been in question insofar as learning is concerned? I would think that we are all fairly aligned with respect to the idea that you really can't make anyone learn something they don't want to learn. It is the 'activation' of and building upon their attention to the 'task /activity' that remains central to the process--in my mind anyway, to good design. Stabbing at educational design is probably one of the reasons our discipline is so ignored by the hard science folks. One would think that after nearly 100 years of research, we should be coming towards a better understanding of the learning process? As I indicated briefly at the meeting in Sydney: We describe quite well what happens/happened as a result of our design--be it task:activity as you describe it; we don't do a very good job at prescribing. My reference to Skinner was meant to be provocative and to highlight that despite many educational reservations about the broad applicability of his research (and I fall into that category at times) many subsequent successful extrapolations, i.e., the resounding success of video and online games based on exactly the 'do this right and get the carrot--simplified I agree, suggests that it is has a place in our toolkit. In fact, many, many students don't walk away from such learning. We need to recognise that and build/design/integrate with that in mind as well. To that end, it remains, in my frame,a compelling tool within the design arsenal; that is if we are interested in layering and establishing neural networks of enduring character.

Contribute to the discussion

Please log in to post a comment. Register here if you haven't signed up yet.