January 15, 2021

A Problem-Posing Learning Design

There's a movement across the field of learning and instructional design to create a digital education which seeks to confront or dismantle the what-already-is of learning design.

A Problem-Posing Learning Design

There's a movement across the field of learning and instructional design to create a digital education which is more inclusive and just. There's a growing awareness of the lack of complexity in the way that traditional design methods based on behaviourism confronts or tries to manage the complexity of learning, the intricacies of identity in digital spaces, and the increasing population of non-traditional students (so many of whom can be called "non-traditional" that we may need to reconsider what "traditional" implies). This movement and awareness is being defined by efforts such as digital sanctuary, design justice, and inclusive design.

Each of these efforts seeks to confront or dismantle the what-already-is of learning design in favour of something which might represent approaches other than behaviourism, and which might echo something different from hooks' "imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy." Costanza-Chock, for example, writes that Design justice is "a growing social movement that aims to ensure a more equitable distribution of design’s benefits and burdens; fair and meaningful participation in design decisions; and recognition of community based design traditions, knowledge, and practices." And so out of design justice we see a greater inclusion of marginalised people in the design process itself, which leads to not only a new vision for design, but the opportunity to design learning which supports the success of more and different people. We also see the interruption of behaviourism by traditional ways of knowing, indigenous pedagogies (indigegogy), feminist pedagogies, and critical (digital) pedagogy.

Any new approach that is intended to upset the "objective reality" of the-way-things-have-always-been-done naturally poses questions. As when Jess Mitchell wonders about inclusive design: "Can we sniff out inclusive? Does it trigger something in your gut? Does it trigger something in your algorithms? How do we know if it’s here? How do we measure it?" These questions are more important than the answers, because answers lead us to a sense of certainty about the validity of an approach or practice, and when we are confronting issues as difficult and as historically elusive as inclusion, justice, difference, and diversity, certainty can be deadly to our intent.

I have written a bit about critical instructional design, but it was not until recently that I realised what the most important piece of a truly critical instructional design must be: problem posing. Because, in the tradition of hooks, Freire, Greene, Giroux and the rest, asking questions—posing problems—is an integral piece of praxis (that cycle of reflection and action).

But can we imagine a design approach—whether for learning design, instructional design, training design, classroom design—that is itself a problem-posing mechanism? Not one that provides space for asking questions, but one which asks questions by design? What might that look like? How uncomfortable would that be? How productive or obfuscating? How comforting, or how dangerous?

How does design ask questions? What does a problem-posing design look like? (Hint: it probably resembles in no way the rubrics of Quality Matters, or the alignment principles of LXD and ID.)

And more: What are our responsibilities within such a design? Who does a problem-posing design benefit, and who does it leave out? Is problem-posing inclusive? Is it strictly Western in its approach? Is it imperialist, capitalist, white-supremacist? Is it patriarchal? And what might keep it from being that?

And even more: When we tilt our heads at this idea of a problem-posing design, why do we? What makes us uncomfortable? What practices have we become accustomed to which we don't see any point in questioning, and which we cannot imagine going without? And when we discover those things, what do we do?

Design is a living practice, not a done thing. It is a medium for building relationship between ourselves and those who will benefit from or be harmed by our design choices; and as such, design is iterative, a praxis—a process of doing, examining, reflecting, doing... and of never getting so set in our ways that we forget there are always new things to try.