Learning Architecture: It’s all in the design

By Dr. Martin Scanlan — The best way to read this post is on an Ipad while sitting at a playground.

Pick any playground you like. Borrow your neighbor’s Ipad that you’ve been coveting if you don’t have your own. Seriously, get outside.

Now that you’re settled in on a bench in the shade, enjoying the breeze and watching the kids play, I want to direct your attention to the design of the playground itself. What do you notice? Is the equipment new or old? Does it appeal to the toddlers or the ten-year olds?

Consider how much the design directs the play, orienting kids toward certain activities. For instance, a freestanding slide with a ladder is pretty directive: climb up the ladder, then slide down. On the other hand, consider how much the design leaves the kids the latitude to create their own activities. For instance, a playground near my house has a simple webbing that is wide open to interpretation. Some kids jump and climb around, while others lay back and relax.

Playground design is a helpful metaphor for getting at key features of designing for learning, and what I’ve recently been referring to in my research as the “learning architecture.” Learning cannot be designed directly. As any teacher knows, the most finely crafted lesson can still flop, and no process or product guarantees that one’s students will learn.

Although designing learning is not possible, designing for learning is. This is to say that certain processes and products facilitate learning more than others. The metaphor of a learning architecture captures this point (Wenger, 1998).  As architecture typically references the process and product of designing buildings, a learning architecture refers to the process and product of designing for learning.

Let me describe a couple dimensions of architecture, using the playground where you’re sitting to make my points. First, designing for learning blends both “participation” and “reification.”

Some dimensions of learning are participatory, involving actions and reactions. On the playground, this is seen in the playing of the kids. It’s unscripted, unfolding, a happening. Other dimensions of learning are captured in things – tools, artifacts, stories, and so on. On the playground, this is seen in the actual equipment, the layout and organization. Think of the latter as reification.  These two dimensions work together, influencing each other. Just as on the playground, the types of toys that are available affects how they play, so too in the learning architecture, our reifications influence how people participate.

A second, related feature of designing for learning involves the designed and the emergent. The emphasis here is that processes and products that facilitate learning are both stable (designed) and malleable (emergent). Again, look back at that playground (aren’t you glad you’re sitting outside?!). The equipment itself – take the monkeybars, for instance – is formally designed, with a particular purpose intended. Yet watching those kids on the monkeybars, you’ll quickly notice that all sorts of improvised play emerges that goes far beyond this design.

Attending to these (and other) dimensions of the learning architecture can help us understand how design features facilitate learning. For instance, in one line of my current research,  I’m examining how educators develop their capacities to meet students’ special needs. One way they do this is by working with coaches. Some aspects of coaching are participatory: the give and take of the teacher and coach working together. Other aspects are reified: captured in notes from the coach to the teacher. Some parts of the coaching process are designed, such as the plan to have the coach come to model a lesson. Other parts emerge, such as when the planned lesson doesn’t go as expected, and the coach has to improvise.

In short, paying attention to design provides a valuable lens for unpacking what is happening — whether one is outside at a playground or inside the schoolhouse doors looking at the teaching and learning inside.


Martin Scanlan is assistant professor of educational policy and leadership in the College of Education at Marquette University.

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