Learning Design Patterns as an Alternative Model of Course Design

I’ve discovered Chris Alexander’s work on architecture, and I cannot read it without hearing every line as a statement on problems in course design.  Alexander approaches architecture not through top-down design or bottom-up chaos, but through generative constraints, that is, he begins with the environment and then runs through a “grammar” of building. The design emerges through these constraints the way a sentence arises from grammatical templates/rules (depending on your view of grammar).

I’m new to this, but the way it seems to work is you have a pattern such as “Light on Two Sides“. This pattern notes that people naturally gravitate to rooms with windows on at least two walls. This pattern is made possible by attending to some higher order patterns dealing with the “edge” of the house: Positive Outdoor Space, Wings of Light, and Long Thin House. If Light on Two Sides is impossible in spaces where you need it, you may need to revisit the higher order patterns.

This Light on Two Sides pattern when executed then becomes the higher order pattern to a number of even lower order patterns: Windows Overlooking Life, Deep Reveal, and Roof Layout. In other words the work proceeds in the way you might write a song or form the plot of a book. You write a series of notes that determines the key, which generates more melodies and suggests a bridge in the relative minor key. You add a drum beat which suggests for you the rhythmic structure of the bass. The bass suggests a keyboard hook. Layer by layer the song emerges as a living thing. Everything ends up original, but it is the process of putting one piece in place guides the next piece of work.

In pedagogy how would this work? I have a 150 year old book on teaching I recently read, and scattered through it are comments such as “Place Hard Work First” (e.g. students have limited metal effort to expend, put the activities requiring the most effort towards the front of the lesson). That might be placed alongside a pattern about Peer Learning — and if peer learning is effortful it would suggest the position of peer learning in your course. The use of peer learning might require a higher order pattern about the length of the class or the format of the furniture.

So if the patterns are the same, how do designs end up different? Because you start with different constraints. The same way the shape of the land or relationship to other houses will trigger certain solutions in Alexander’s pattern language:

“Above all, the shapes of the building must spring from the land, and buildings around, like a tree springing from a coppice — it fits perfectly, the moment of inception.”

Your students have certain backgrounds, various strengths. Your institution has certain facilities and your technology has certain affordances. Just as a limited number of grammar rules produce an infinite number of sentences based on the needs of the moment, so learning design patterns combined with the circumstances and aims of instruction can produce infinitely expressive learning designs.

What excites me about this is it is a way to combine research and practice without succumbing to an industrial paradigm. This isn’t “wing it on the whiteboard” or the class as the artistic expression of the instructor. This is a framework which is as rigorous in its own way as any ADDIE-fueled design monster. It’s premises can be challenged. It identifies right and wrong ways to go about things. It would evolve in reaction to new data. It is a distinct methodology which can be shown to produce either good or bad results. But, unlike many methodologies. it seems to me to work in the natural directon of our thought. And as Alexander points out it’s this pattern of a work reacting to itself and its environment that gives it the spark of life.

I am placing some quotes of Alexander’s here to give you the flavor of his thought. They come from random places with no original sourcing, so I paste them here without links. If you find them as powerful as I do the context will eventually present itself.

“In an organic environment, every place is unique, and the different places also cooperate, with no parts left over, to create a global whole – a whole which can be identified by everyone who is part of it.”

“In the past century, architecture has always been a minor science — if it has been a science at all. Present day architects who want to be scientific, try to incorporate the ideas of physics, psychology, anthropology in their work . . . in the hope of keeping in tune with the “scientific” times. I believe we are on the threshold of a new era, when this relation between architecture and the physical sciences may be reversed — when the proper understanding of the deep questions of space, as they are embodied in architecture will play a revolutionary role in the way we see the world and will do for the world view of the 21st and 22nd centuries, what physics did for the 19th and 20th.”

“Every building, every room, every garden is better when all the patterns which it needs are compressed as far as it is possible for them to be. The building will be cheaper; the meaning in it will be denser.”

“I’ll tell you a story. I was in India in 1961. I was living in a village most of the time. I studied that village, tried to understand what village life was all about. And I got back to Harvard, a few months later, and I got a letter from the government of [the town in India], saying ‘We’ve got to re-locate our village because of the dam construction. Would you like to build it?’. I think about 2000 people were being moved. And I thought about it. And then I was very sad. And I wrote back, and I said, ‘You know, I don’t know enough about how to do it. Because I don’t want to come in and simply build a village, because I don’t think that will make life. I know that the life has got to come from the people, as well as what’s going on physically, geometrically. My experience of living in the village is that I do not know enough about how to actually make that happen. And therefore I very very regretfully decline your kind offer.’ And I was actually chagrined beyond measure, that I had to give that reply. But it was honest, and in fact, it was because of that letter that I wrote A Pattern Language. Because, I thought and thought, and I said, ‘You know, this is crazy. What would I have to do, to put in people’s hands the thing with which they could do this, so that it would be like a real village and not like an architect’s fantasy?”

“We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form which we have not yet designed and a context which we cannot properly describe.”

“If you have a feeling-vision of the thing – a painting, a building, a garden, a piece of a neighborhood – as long as you’re very firmly anchored in your knowledge of that thing, and you can see it with your eyes closed, you can keep correcting your actions… It’s not a question of holding onto every little detail, but of holding onto the feeling.”

“From a sequence of these individual patterns, whole buildings with the character of nature will form themselves within your thoughts, as easily as sentences.”

“Nowadays, the process of growth and development almost never seems to manage to create this subtle balance between the importance of the individual parts, and the coherence of the environment as a whole. One or the other always dominates.”

11 thoughts on “Learning Design Patterns as an Alternative Model of Course Design

  1. I was pretty much at my peak Alexander-philia when I was getting my MAT at Brown. I was probably annoying everyone in sight with it and maybe missed out on a job (which would have sent our lives on a completely different course) because I couldn’t shut up about it.

    Anyhow, I didn’t get anywhere, at all, trying to actually think of a pattern language for education. I just couldn’t figure out where to start. Which isn’t a criticism of Alexander’s overall approach — more that it illustrates how subtle his particular language for architecture is. A huge amount of work has gone into pattern languages for software, for instance, and they are somewhat useful, but Alexander is right when he points out that they really only scratch the surface of his work in architecture.

    You’re going to have to move onto The Nature of Order, which is brilliant, exasperating, and oddly off-putting.

      • Well, on the whole he needed an editor. It is really sprawling, in a way that is exhausting and discouraging to the reader.

        And one big problem and quite serious problem which is EXTREMELY strange given Alexander’s work as a whole (and the price) is that The Nature of Order is the most physically unwieldy set of books I’ve ever tried to read. It has heavy coated paper, like an old deluxe edition of the World Book encyclopedia or something, and a really thin hardback cover, that always seems on the verge of just collapsing under the weight of the paper if you try to hold the book in your hands. It is inexplicable.

        For that matter, kind of like his web presences, which have always been terrible, despite the fact that A Pattern Language is still one of the towering achievements in hypertext.

        I do see now that Battle is out finally. I’ll have to get a copy… I’m enough of an Alexander geek that I tracked down a copy of an excerpt in a Japanese architecture magazine in the RISD library. I posted an excerpt here: http://www.tuttlesvc.org/2008/07/world-system-and-world-system-b.html (six years ago!). That is (accidentally) one of the most on-point framings of our school reform battles you’ll ever find.

    • Oh, and I think you’re right — that patterns look easy, but actually finding a number of patterns that can generate meaningful designs is another thing altogether. If you pursued it for a while though, that’s a good sign to me. I could do worse than tread over old paths of Tom Hoffman😉

      • It is very confusing because it isn’t like A Pattern Language is just any pattern language. It is “A” pattern language like the Bible is “A” book. You can write other books, but it isn’t going to have the same weight.

        The patterns in A Pattern Language have the specific property of being life generating patterns. Alexander wasn’t completely conscious of that at the time, and he spent a few decades working that out writing The Nature of Order. You can write other kinds of design patterns, in computer science or learning design, and that’s fine, but it is not the same thing, and ultimately isn’t that interesting to me.

        The question is whether you can design life-generating patterns for education and learning. Hypothetically, yes, but I’ve gained the flash of insight necessary to do it. I would say that a life-generating Pattern Language for Learning would have to integrate seamlessly into A Pattern Language, which explicitly overlaps with education at several points.

        I did have a nice chat with Elliot Washor of the Big Picture Company and The Met here in Providence about Alexander at the end of a job interview, at the time they were planning a new campus. He was very well aware of Alexander’s work and said it would be impossible to hire him. I had noticed that the first building they’d built in Providence was absolutely full of Alexander’s patterns, at every level. It was impressive!

      • Someday we will be able to edit our own comments… I have NOT gained the flash of insight necessary to design life-generating patterns for education and learning. 😉

  2. Mike,

    Welcome to the wonderful world of design patterns! Allow me to recommend:

    professionallearningmatters.org (I’m one of the authors)
    Peter Goodyear’s many interesting writings on the topic
    Laurillard et al’s Pedagogical Patterns Collector

    I’d also highly recommend Linda Rising’s “Fearless Change” as a great example of applying pattern thinking to a field that’s neither architecture nor software development.

    Happy to provide links, but I presume your Google works as well as mine😉

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