Learning Design Pattern #121: You’re Doing It Wrong


Had a great lunch today with Michael Berman in Portland, and boy am I glad I got down there. We talked about my recent fascination with the idea of Learning Design Patterns, and more broadly with agile methods in learning design. I mentioned that one thing that was a struggle was getting the pattern at the right level. The trick with patterns is they must be concrete enough that you can “think with them” but broad enough that they can generate unexpected solutions.

Michael, who worked a bit with design patterns in the 1990s, came up with a pattern that I think is at just the right level. He called it something along the lines of “Doing it Wrong”, pulling together the Trolling exercises of ds106, the public speaking exercises where you ask students to give a poor speech (e.g. mumble, use horrible powerpoint slides, don’t make eye contact, give a series of points that don’t relate), and the stats exercises I used to do where I told students to create a “biased data visualization” through using weird cut points, truncated Y-axes, strange groupings (lumping together people “shot OR killed”), and uncontrolled data.

At the moment, I think this is just the right level for a learning design pattern. There’s some underlying cognitive logic here about how we deconstruct experience. There’s an ability to match the pattern with higher order patterns about course design (what we might call the “edges”) and lower order patterns on the level of a single class session. It’s bigger and more generative than an Assignment Bank assignment, but smaller than a methodological category.

You might also have a design called “Formal Commitment”, where you push students to commit to an answer before discussion. You see this in a number of places such as Peer Instruction and some exercises from Brookfield’s Structured Discussion. There’s  a lot of evidence that students need to commit to a Theory of the Moment, even if it is only temporarily, so that they can more rigorously explore a question. Students who don’t internalize a theory or prediction can’t see when that theory fails. This pattern might plug into some higher order patterns about targeting preconceptions or some lower order ones about Role Play.

Why does talking in this way matter? Because there’s something really special about well-delineated ideas expressed at that level. If they truly plug into something fundamental about cognition, we can learn things about this group of assignments as a class. What are some issues around the set-up of “You’re doing it wrong” assignments? What are some challenges of assessment?

If it’s a particularly good pattern, we’d also learn how it relates to certain environments — in learning design cases that environment might be a discipline, or the particular talents of your students.

Most importantly it’s at that crucial generative level. When we think in terms of activities, it’s too easy to get lost in the detail and lose track of what we are trying to accomplish. Theory, on the other hand, understands the point, but is too abstract to lead directly towards solutions. Patterns represent a sort embedded theory that provides the coherence and rigor of the theoretical while generating the warmth and resonance of the particular.

The larger goal is to create a middle ground between the deadness of current Big Design approaches to instructional design and the anarchy of ignoring design altogether. Because Big Design gives you this:


And design anarchy gives you this:


And what you really want is this:


Not to say a church and gazebo, mind you. But you’re looking a three centuries of architecture above in the Keene square, built by dozens of different people with no sense of urban theory and, for the most part, no architecture training. And yet it looks organic, it feels whole, like a single piece, and it functions better than most anything you’ll find anywhere. Why? Because the patterns of the New England town were internalized in such a way that you could build with the coherence of theory and predictibility of large-scale process without having to use theory or large-scale process.

I don’t know if design patterns is what gets us to this in learning design. I don’t know if you could ever reliably produce an education that works as well or feels as human as the New England town square. But it at least gets us away from the “10 tips for teaching” nonsense while avoiding theory. So let’s give it a go, right?

14 thoughts on “Learning Design Pattern #121: You’re Doing It Wrong

  1. The Keene square picture is not a good example. The gazebo doesn’t seem inviting or comfortable, the overhead lighting is wrong, it is generally just seems to be there because that’s what one drops in a New England square. It might work better in real life, but you’re not capturing the quality of life in that photo.

    • It’s interesting you say that Tom, I spent way way too much time trying to find a picture that looks like my experience Keene and nothing worked. It feels intimate on the street, but on film the street seems way too wide, and the street too symmetrical. I ended up using this because at least it felt the right scale.

      You can blame the lighting on the 1990s if you want.

  2. I love how you’ve made the learning environment metaphor palpable through the places and spaces photos. The more I think about it the more excited I am to “try it on” as a means of putting learning designs in perspective.

    I also think you’re right in concentrating on the right size and fit for an effective design pattern. A proper balance between specificity and generality may let you apply the pattern to a variety of different learning outcomes as a way of providing repetition without monotony. More importantly, perhaps, by changing the context and rules through which that outcome is encountered, it may help you move a concrete idea (i.e. a necessarily inflexible understanding) toward the abstract, the transferable.

    • Yes, I think this is exactly the point. I admit this is not a new idea, and I am horribly amateur at it, but I can’t see another way to escape the gravity industrial style design seems to exert these days on higher education. As we move online we can either double down on the rigidity of current online instructional design, or take this opportunity to change the conversation. So this is a small attempt at the second option.

  3. I’m glad that you’ve fallen in love with Christopher Alexander too. I was so obsessed with him for a while that I created a whole blog category dedicated to posts about the applications of pattern languages to education. Some of them explicitly invoke Alexander and pattern languages while others don’t. Here are a couple of samples that don’t embarrass me looking back on them after all these years:

    Here are a couple that didn’t embarrass me rereading them all these years later:

    Pattern Languages and Learning Objects
    (This one should ring a few bells:) Imagining a WeLE
    Jim Groom Unbound
    Why Big Data (Mostly) Can’t Help Improve Teaching

    It’s fair to say that the idea of pattern languages has had a deep and pervasive influence on my thinking about education.

    • These are great! And I love you threw in a 2004 post to really school me. It’s interesting that we both see the Assignment Bank as related to this.

    • I’ve not spent a lot of time with Teach Like a Champion, but there is probably a good argument that Lemov has created as much of a pattern language as the software patterns people or anyone else not working directly from Alexander’s work. It is just a very compliance oriented language. It is essentially the opposite of Alexander’s broader philosophy, but similar structurally.

    • I don’t know much about Teach Like a Champion — perusing it, it seems like pattern-ish advice for classroom mangement — I guess I am thinking a bit more on the design level here. But I may be misreading Lemov, or exaggerating the distance between classroom management and design.

    • I’ll also say, ala Tom, that a true pattern language would also suggest structural changes upward as well as downward — a lot of Teach Like a Champion seems to be grounded very much in the current constraints of the school system

      That’s refreshing in many ways, because that’s the sink or swim problem most teachers have. But it’s also limiting, because the generalized technique can be the result of institutional constraints more than larger truths about cognition and motivation. A true pattern language would encourage rethinking things on both the micro and macro level, while at the same time admitting we work sometimes within difficult constraints.

      But again, maybe I am misreading TLAC.

      • I think to get far with this discussion we’d need more examples of pattern languages other than Alexander’s that we agreed were or were not “true” ones.

      • Maybe not what you are talking about, but I think even looking at the University of Oregon stuff is interesting, because it is less abstract. “Department Hearth” should be no more than 500 feet from all offices, etc.

        As far as what would be a true language or not, I’d be a poor judge being relatively new at this. But I’d observe that design patterns in software, while different, did push software in a Alexandrian direction:

        * Organic Order: the design emerges through a process, not from an initial blueprint.
        * Incremental Growth: development occurs by small increments.
        * Patterns: a pattern language guides the planning process.
        * Diagnosis: development is guided by an analysis of the problems with the current design.
        * Participation: user involvement must prevail throughout the planning process
        * Coordination: working together benefits the product as a whole entity.

        Cunningham and Beck never got their pattern-centric computing revolution exactly. But my impression is the talk about patterns gave a credibility to people arguing against waterfall-mania, and that helped move corporate software out of the dark(er) ages.

        My context here is I’m watching the templated mode of online education slowly invade higher education. And I’m looking for ways to talk about structure, and norms, and research-informed pedagogy without going down the completely scripted route.

      • Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me of the Oregon Experiment. My Alexander books are still packed away. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that the normative and descriptive meanings of “pattern language” are entangled (if I’m using those terms correctly here). It is kind of like saying “what we need here is a poem,” particularly in a culture where there is one great corpus of traditional poetry that dominates everyone’s perception of what a poem is.

        Just skimming back over some of the Oregon patterns, what is interesting about them is all subtlety. When do you coin a new term “department hearth” and when will a traditional one do “arcades.” Of course the precise choice of words — “hearth” not “office” or “lounge.” The mix of specific (each workplace at least 25 square feet” and general. An informality of tone disguising a highly formal process.

        Saying “this is a pattern language” doesn’t mean much more than “this is a poem.” It doesn’t tell you if it is a good one or bad one.

        But, yes, even much less subtle applications of pattern languages are useful! I just think it is important to be very conscious of the relationship between Alexander’s and everyone else’s.

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