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Aesthetic Principles


Aesthetic Principles for Instructional Design

Patrick Parrish

The COMET® Program

In Press, Educational Technology Research & Development


This article offers principles that contribute to developing the aesthetics of instructional design. Rather than describing merely the surface qualities of things and events, the concept of aesthetics as applied here pertains to heightened, integral experience. Aesthetic experiences are those that are immersive, infused with meaning, and felt as coherent and complete. Any transformative learning experience will have significant aesthetic qualities, and all instructional situations can benefit from attention to these qualities. Drawn from aesthetics theory and research and informed by current ID and learning theories, a set of five first principles and twelve guidelines for their application are described. The principles are not only compatible with existing ID theory bases but can complement and support that theory by offering ways to embody it in engaging learning experiences.

Aesthetic Principles for Instructional Design

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in reclaiming the idea that instructional design (ID) is indeed a design discipline and more than just science or just technology (Bolling, 2003; Gibbons, 2003; Rowland, 1999; Wilson, 2004). In the spirit of this view of ID as design, this article offers principles intended to contribute to developing the aesthetics of instructional design (Parrish, 2005). By broadening their concerns beyond immediate learning outcomes and considering all the qualities of designed experiences, instructional designers can create designs that have deep and lasting impacts for learners. The aesthetic qualities of learning experiences, in particular, offer a potent dimension through which to expand learning impacts.

In offering new ID principles, one must be sensitive to the potentially overwhelming pluralism of influences and competing theories that already exist, which can lead to frustration or to retreat into a comfortably narrow set of guidelines. For this reason, it is imperative, when possible, to show compatibility between aesthetic principles and existing ID theory. But aesthetic principles offer more than just compatibility with existing theory—they complement and can support that theory by offering ways to embody it in engaging learning experiences. The principles described in this article extend our conception of what is entailed in designing an effective learning experience, while also honoring other perspectives.

The article first makes a case for the value of considering the aesthetics of learning experiences. Then it offers a set of aesthetic first principles, followed by guidelines for their application. The term “first principles” is used to suggest that the principles are productive for deriving a wide range of guidelines for learning activities and can be applied in any instructional situation. The use of the term is in part an homage to Merrill’s prescriptive first principles of instruction (2002), which he derived as fundamental to good instruction after comparing a wide set of valued instructional theories with traditional sources. The aesthetic principles offered here are not prescriptive in the sense that every case of good instruction requires demonstration of each of them; nor are they axiomatic and timeless, even if they strive for that status. They necessarily reflect current conceptions of what makes good art and good instruction. Neither is the list offered here in any way comprehensive or representative of the full range of aesthetic first principles that might be found on further investigation.
Considering Learning Experience
Three traditional components of the instructional environment vie for the attention of teachers and instructional designers—subject matter, instructional methodology, and the learner. Instructional designers often broaden this traditional view by including the instructor (or instructional designer) and the instructional context to describe the complete instructional system. However, a more holistic approach would also include the idea of “learning experience.” Learning experience describes the transaction that takes place between individual learners and the instructional environment. In addition to the components listed above, learning experience includes the way that the learner feels about, engages with, responds to, influences, and draws from the instructional situation (See Figure 1.).

Figure 1: Components of instructional environments.

Learning experience is different for each learner, depending on the connection made to the other components of the situation and depending on what the learner brings to the situation and draws from it for future situations. “Experience” in this sense describes more than a passive event. It is a transaction with the environment in which learning is an outcome (witness the saying, “experience is the best teacher”). The word “experience” is rooted in the same Indo-European words as “experiment” and “peril.” Meaningful experiences contain qualities suggested in each of these terms. Viewing learning as experience broadens the concerns of instructional designers because it necessitates consideration of the quality of that experience and not just its goals and mechanics. For example, this viewpoint raises learner engagement in status: only when learners consider the experience worth attending to and reflecting upon will the transaction of experience have its full impact.

Learning experiences have many qualities, including cognitive ones of course. But they also have emotional, social, cultural, political, and aesthetic qualities (Wilson, 2005). All these come into play in determining the immediate qualities and enduring meaning of an experience. Aesthetic qualities include the rhythms of instructional activities; methods for creating intellectual and emotional tension and revealing unity within content sequences; strategies for providing memorable closure to learning experiences; and the sensory impact of classrooms, computer interfaces, and texts. But these immediate qualities are not attended to simply for their immediate rewards—they are designed to lend the experience lasting resonance. An instrumental view of learning may consider only the immediately measurable outcomes of a learning experience, particularly its impacts on cognition, behavior, or performance. But a more inclusive view, one that values a growing capacity and willingness to engage with and learn from the world, considers the continuity of experiences (Dewey, 1916) and is concerned with how the quality of an experience impacts the meaning we attribute to it. A meaningful experience leads us to engage fruitfully not only in the immediate situation but in the future experiences to which it points.

The Importance of Aesthetic Experience

The word “aesthetics” is often used narrowly to describe the sensual qualities of an object or designed experience. But from a Pragmatist viewpoint, aesthetics describes a category of experience. Aesthetic experiences are heightened, immersive, and particularly meaningful ones (Dewey, 1934/1989). They stand out as complete in and of themselves and as providing an immediately felt impact. Aesthetic experience is most often linked to our engagement with works of art because art is expressly designed to stimulate it. But it can develop when we are engaged in any activity, including experiences as diverse as learning to hit a baseball, creating or viewing a painting, decoding the human genome sequence, enjoying a good mystery novel, or having a meaningful conversation. Each of these experiences is marked by focused intent to resolve an indeterminate situation and becomes aesthetic when we are deeply invested in the effort.

Aesthetic experiences are important to us because they demonstrate the expressive power of life (Alexander, 1998). They reveal the depth of meaning life can hold and suggest how we can use our powers to discover and create that meaning. These rewards are why we seek out aesthetic experiences, why we attach monetary value to them, and why we struggle to achieve them. The opposites of aesthetic experience are boredom; mindless routine; scattered, dispersed activity; or meaningless, imposed labor. Unaesthetic (or, in the extreme, anesthetic) experiences like these are unlikely to deepen our capabilities, show us meaning, or move us to engage with life. In contrast, during an aesthetic experience, we sense (at times subconsciously) an impending consummation through revealed meaning or fruitful outcome. Aesthetic experience is marked by emotionally charged anticipation, deep engagement, and willingness to follow through to completion. Because these are optimal conditions for learning, we want learners to have aesthetic experience in the instructional situations we create.
Sources of Aesthetic Principles
Sources of principles for designing aesthetic learning experiences become apparent when we consider the affinities between making art and designing instruction. John Dewey asks us to reject the “museum” conception of art when he tells us that works of art are merely “refined and intensified forms of experience” (1934/1989) and not distinct in quality from many everyday experiences. Works of art stimulate growth by challenging us to see the world freshly, to become open and responsive to possibilities in the world around us—a particularly important precondition to learning. Instructional designers are also in the business of creating “refined and intensified forms of experience,” even if we typically avoid talking about their aesthetic qualities (Parrish, 2005). While instruction is not art in its narrow sense, the distinction is more accidental than essential when instruction strives to stimulate heightened, reflective experiences. Due to this affinity, ID can enhance its own aesthetic status by drawing useful guidance from what has been learned in the realm of the arts.

The aesthetic principles offered in this paper are drawn from multiple sources. The arts provide a rich source of strategies for achieving aesthetic experience, so they are the first source. The principles discussed here draw heavily from Aristotle’s Poetics, probably the most influential historical source of aesthetic principles and one that continues to inform artists and designers to this day (Laurel, 1993; Tierno, 2002). Secondly, although John Dewey and his Pragmatist approach to aesthetics (Dewey, 1934/1989) offer no systematic aesthetic principles, Dewey’s description of aesthetic experience suggests several guiding principles. A third source of principles is research into the aesthetic decisions of instructional designers and teachers made while considering the experience of their learners (Parrish, 2004). Finally, the choice of principles is informed by current learning and instructional theory. Most aesthetic principles have parallels in information-processing, constructivist, and social learning theories because aesthetic experience, in fact, underlies all efforts to find or create meaning. However, these parallels are rarely explored in any coherent way, nor do instructional designers seek the full potential of aesthetics as a resource for theory and practice. In the following sections each aesthetic principle and guideline is connected to relevant learning and ID theory. Using an aesthetic lens can expand the utility of this theory, allowing it to reach into instructional designs through new avenues. Each principle is discussed only briefly, and all require further research to determine the ways in which they are and are not applied successfully in practice.

First Principles
This section offers four aesthetic first principles for creating artful instruction. A final, fifth principle is saved for discussion in a subsequent section of the article.

Not coincidently, the four principles discussed here correspond to the common concerns of literary criticism—plot, character, theme, and context (which encompasses such qualities as setting, tone, and frame). Literary criticism is not the only useful source of aesthetic principles for instructional design; but the focus literature and drama place on human activity, human growth, and temporal structure—and the central role of narrative in our creation of meaning (Bruner, 1990)—make it an especially rich source. However, plot, character, theme, and setting also have formal parallels in the visual arts and music; in fact, whether a work of art takes the form of painting, sculpture, architecture, drama, dance, film, or music, our experience of it has narrative qualities. This narrative always follows a pattern of inquiry in which we perceive the object or situation and over time, through engagement with it, come to sense its meaning or unity. Overall, plot, character, theme, and setting provide a useful framework for discussing aesthetic learning principles because they correspond to the instructional components discussed previously—methodology, learner, subject matter, and context.

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