The Aesthetic Experience of Learning

Towards an Emphasis on the Aesthetic Experience

When it comes to learning, much attention is given to the procedures that govern the transfer of information from one individual to another (Gagné, 1985), the structures that facilitate that transfer of information (Gibbons, 2003; Gibbons 2014), and methods that can be used to develop self-regulated learners (Järvelä & Renninger, 2014; Nilson, 2013). Learning as an experience has also been addressed in recent years. Wilson and Parrish (2011) defined a transformative learning experience as one that “leaves a lasting impact on a person’s sense of competence or place in the world” (p. 11-12). Additionally, Parrish has advocated for increased emphasis on aesthetics in instructional design (2005) and has explored the potential that attention to aesthetics may have on a learner’s engagement with an experience (2009). 

But what is the substance of an aesthetic experience? To arrive at an understanding of how aesthetics may enhance an experience, a deeper understanding of both may be useful. Such an understanding may deepen the value an instructional designer places on the aesthetic elements of their work, prompting them to place as much value on them as they do the content to be presented, or the instructional system that transmits it. The purpose of this paper is to review some philosophical principles about the substance of an experience and to explore aesthetic principles from philosophers who have described the phenomena of an aesthetic experience. Approaching an understanding of what constitutes an aesthetic experience may aid a practitioner in recognizing elements that may enhance or detract from the overall learning experience. In this paper I establish a framework for defining what an experience is, provide an aesthetic point of view from which an experience may be evaluated, and present principles of aesthetics from three aesthetic philosophers.

A Framework for Defining What an Experience is 

In order to explore aesthetic principles, we first need a common a framework for describing what constitutes an experience and what makes it meaningful and transformative in the life of an individual. Yanchar and Gong (2019) discussed such a framework as it can be derived from the hermeneutic writings of Heidegger (1953/2010) and Gadamer (1960/2013). They include several attributes such as situated participationpossibilitytemporalityinterpretation, and concernful involvement. Yanchar (2011) defines these attributes as participational agency, which characterizes the volition related to human existence or human action in the world. 

Hermeneutic phenomenological philosophy, to which Heidegger and Gadamer were key contributors, presents agents as embodied participants in the world, not as disengaged minds that are fundamentally separate from the world around them. One of the trademarks of Heidegarian hermeneutics is the concept that describes humans as embodied beings, or Dasein, which is Heidegger’s descriptive term for beings that literally means “being-there” (Heidegger, 1953/2010, p. 7).  Dasein take a stance of concernful involvement on their existence in the world and how the future unfolds. Therefore, we, as Daseins, are attentive to the intricacies of the world around us and make decisions, as best we can, to effectuate a beneficial outcome for our future.

From this perspective, we are thrust into a world that is meaningful to us. That world is presented with its own history that we engage with as situated, fully embodied participants in the world, bringing to it our own prejudices and prehistory (Gadamer, 1960/2013). Because of situated participation in the world, engagements with it become meaningful and combine together to form us into what we can become. 

If a phenomenon has the ability to affect a person’s experience with the world, then it can be said to have possibility. The standpoint we take on situations we find ourselves in depend greatly on what possibilities are available to us. They are not simply the known and unknown variables that are always present as potential things that can happen to us, but they are the possibilities that show up in our situatedness and call upon our values and goals in the framing of how we will engage with the phenomenon (Heidegger, 1953/2010; Wrathall, 2005). As we experience the world, the “anticipation of possibility” (Heidegger, p. 251) focuses our engagement because it matters to us what happens next.

Heidegger wrote that “the being of Dasein finds its meaning in temporality” (p. 19). Essentially, we find ourselves as beings in time, in a world that shows up to us with its own history and circumstances in which we decide how and when to engage. Temporality is influenced by the explicit and implicit history that precedes it, which is always present (Heidegger, 1953/2010). There is no temporal distance between us, our history, and the history of the world. They are ever present and available for our own reflection and serve to influence our engagement in the world (Gadamer, 1960/2013). As we are “thrown” into a world that we did not create, that has its own history and presents us with possibilities, our disposition, or “disposedness,” reflects how the world matters to us and how we proceed (Wrathall, 2005).

Interpretation is the mechanism through which we come to an understanding about the world (Heidegger, 1953/2010). Gadamer described three modes of understanding that are present in our engagement with the world: (1). epistemological understanding, where we come to grasp a concept or fact; (2). practical understanding, where we obtain a certain skill or capability to do something; and (3). understanding as agreement, where the meaning of a discourse is known by all and they are in accord (Grondin, 2002). The first two modes are fairly straight forward as the first refers simply to factual knowledge such as the sum of two plus two, and the second mode refers the an understanding of how to do something, like swim or write. But the third is more complex as it addresses a level of communication that successfully conveys meaning and intent from one person to another. It does not necessarily mean that agreement in principle is reached, only that understanding is complete. In the case of debating a philosophical or political disagreement, understanding would be reached when one participant could describe the standpoint of his opponent, and his opponent would agree that the description is accurate while the first participant isn’t necessarily adopting the standpoint.

The above theoretical principles of concerneful involvementsituated participationpossibilitytemporality, and interpretation begin to describe the mode in which we engage with the world that shows up to us. Through these principles, we can begin to understand what may cause an encounter to pass by relatively unnoticed while another encounter could be classified in our reflection as “an experience” (Dewey, 1934/2005, p. 37). 

An Experience

One of the major attributes of an experience as described by pragmatic philosopher, John Dewey, is that it is something that flows “from something to something. As one part leads into another and as one part carries on what went before, each gains distinctness in itself” (p. 38). Parrish (2009) described an experience as something that has a beginning, middle and end. To illustrate this, Dewey (1934/2005) uses the analogy of a stone rolling down a hill. In the course of the stone, that begins from the top and ends at the bottom, it encounters objects and elements that speed its descent or slow it down. Make it bounce one way and then the other. By the time it reaches the bottom it can be said to have had an experience. He then follows up this analogy with a description of how we sometimes can drift from one event to another without anything remarkable “that controls attentive rejection or selection of what shall be organized into the developing experience. Things happen, but they are neither definitively included nor decisively excluded; we drift” (p. 41). 

In the evaluation learning experiences there are at least three approaches, or points of view, that can be taken. Beardsley (1982) described three points of view that can be used to evaluate if something, whether it is a building, machine, or program is effective or ineffective: engineering, practicality, and aesthetic. For a learning experience, these points of view can be viewed from the following perspectives: 

Engineering

Instruction may be evaluated for its engineering aspects. Design approaches have been developed as an architectural approach to instructional design, which elaborates on the systems and structures involved that constitute the whole (Gibbons, 2014). From an architectural point of view, if the systems are built in a structurally sound manner, with the ability to hold and enable the content, usability, modularity, and upgradability features required for the learning object, then the learning experience can be deemed effective.

Practicality

 Gagné (1985) describes learning as a “change in human disposition or capacity that persists over a period of time [that] is not simply ascribable to the processes of growth” (p. 2). From this point of view, the practical purpose of a learning experience is to create some kind of persistent change in an individual. From a practical point of view, if the learner experiences a change in disposition or behavior over a period of time, then the learning experience can be deemed effective.

Aesthetics

As an aesthetic philosopher, Beardsley (1982) posited the two previous points of view as an introduction to the virtues of embracing the aesthetic point of view. Beardsley defines an aesthetic point of view as an emphasis on the “aesthetic value” (p. 21) of anything, whether it be an object or event. 

But the objects of aesthetic interest—such as harmonious design, good proportions, intense expressiveness—are… part of the breath of life. Their cumulative effect is increased sensitization, fuller awareness, a closer touch with the environment and concern for what is and might be. (p. 34)

Viewing instructional design from an aesthetic point of view can guide the designers to solutions that will provide the learner with experiences that will be worth bearing in memory, which may enhance the outcomes of the learning objectives. It is precisely the aesthetics of an experience that make it an occasion worth bearing in mind. As Dewey concluded with his stone analogy, “the stone would have an experience, and one with esthetic quality” (p. 41). Dewey also discussed what is relevant about the two words artistic and aesthetic. According to Dewey, the word artistic “refers primarily to the act of production” (p. 48), whereas aesthetic refers to the act of “perception and enjoyment” (p. 48). If it is the aim of instructional designers to produce experiences with the aesthetic qualities that are perceived to be enjoyable by learners, then it may be useful to explore what it is that constitutes an aesthetic experience.

An Aesthetic Experience

The focus of the rest of this paper is to establish what is entailed in an aesthetic experience and to make a connection of aesthetics to a learning experience. When it comes to learning, much of the focus in the instructional design world has focused on the engineering and practicality aspects of learning, although recent efforts have been made to place more attention on the benefits of viewing learning through an aesthetic lens (Parrish, 2005). Drawing from three influential thinkers from three philosophical traditions to explore what constitutes an aesthetic experience.

Hans-Georg Gadamer

Gadamer, a hermeneutic philosopher after the same school of thought as Martin Heidegger, appealed to the relevance of beauty as an important aspect of our world experience. He wrote that “it is by virtue of the beautiful that we are able to acquire a lasting remembrance of the true world” (1998, p. 15). Aesthetically speaking, Gadamer suggested three concepts that are crucial elements in defining a concept of the beautiful: playsymbol, and festival (p. 12).

Play. Play is a fundamental characteristic of human existence. There is a non-purposive, autotelic element to the act of play. Humans and animals alike engage in play as an activity with its own rewards. Play is not only a participatory phenomenon, but it is also a spectacle that people derive a great deal of satisfaction from observing. From a sports team to a music performance. The joy in watching the play of others has its rewards as people engage in the world. 

Play is not limited to human interaction. We can derive great enjoyment by observing the “play” of light as it glistens on the ripples in a pond, or the “play” of a butterfly as it flutters through the air across our path. 

Play contains its own rules within itself. The sports team stays within the bounds of the rules established for that sport. The engagement in the act of play is the sole element that restricts the actions of the team. Outside of the game, those rules do not exist, but within the game any deviation is a violation. The experience for the person after the experience of play, whether as a participant or spectator, is transformative. Gadamer writes of such an experience, “we do not leave it with exactly the same feeling about life that we had when we went in… the world has become brighter and less burdensome” (p. 26).

Instructional designers can include elements of play into their work. In doing so, learners can experience a “non-purposive” reason for remaining in the learning encounter, which provides additional opportunities for learning to take place. The phenomenon of play also allows a learner to embrace the contextual rules of the learning environment that allows them to suspend disbelief if they are experiencing a simulation or game that requires them to believe in a reality that is incongruent with the real world.

Symbol. Gadamer defines a symbol in a number of different ways. In one aspect, a symbol is a token of remembrance that, if encountered or received at a later date, carries with it a certain meaning for the recipient. But a symbol is also representative of an element that presents the ability to make something, or someone, that exists in a fragmentary state into something that is whole. 

A symbol is a representation of something else, not a reproduction of it. It doesn’t simply carry an idea to the recipient, it is a thing, whole, in itself. In relation to the communication of ideas and concepts as it is done in instructional design, this is a very important component. The symbol cannot simply be thought of as a bridge or conduit of an idea from the source to the recipient, it contains all of the meaning and intention that it is able to convey. Nothing can be implied or assumed to be communicated that isn’t present in the symbol itself. 

But this does take into account the fact that the symbol exists in a world with a historical context, and is experienced by individuals who have their own pre-histories and prejudices. The temporal quality of a symbol is important. It exists in a history that is constantly in flux, and it embodies meanings that may change as the observer’s point of view changes throughout their lives. But no matter the surrounding circumstances, a designer of a symbol cannot assume a symbol to have anything to offer other than what is contained within it. “Whatever comes to speak to us through representation cannot be grasped or even come to be ‘there’ for us in any other way” (p. 36). 

If the representation of a thing is a learner’s only exposure to it, then care must be taken in the creation of that representation by the learning developer. As the maxim says, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” This is true and relevant to symbols as they have the ability to communicate visually things that may take volumes to say in writing. But in addition to that, they can also bring to mind the historical and cultural contexts and meanings that are relevant to the recipient. A symbol, or representation embodies its meaning. A knowledge of the learner and their culture is invaluable in achieving this effect from the use of symbols.

Festival. The temporal nature of existence is also affected by our level of engagement with an experience. When we are caught up in the “bustle and boredom” (Gadamer, 1998, p. 42) of life, time can seem to move quickly or slowly accordingly. In contrast, a festival seems to exist outside of the constraints of space and time. Festival relates to Dewey and Parrish’s conception of experiences having beginnings, middles, and endings. 

Festivals are communal events that contain meaning and purpose in themselves. The readiest example of festivals are holidays and religious celebrations. No matter if they are experienced in groups or individually, the purpose and meaning of the festival is universal. Regarding the celebration of a festival and its relation to an art experience, Gadamer wrote:

We celebrate inasmuch as we are gathered for something, and this is particularly clear in the case of the experience of art. It is not simply the fact that we are all in the same place, but rather the intention that unites us and prevents us as individuals from falling into private conversations and private, subjective experiences. (p. 40)

In the creation of learning experiences, designers are developing occasions for communal, festival-like experiences that contain their own conception of space and time, and meaning and purpose can be unifying elements.

Monroe C. Beardsley

In an attempt to articulate the character of an aesthetic experience, Beardlsey (1982) proposed five criteria of the aesthetic character of experience (p. 288), they are object directednessfelt freedomdetached affectactive discovery, and wholeness.

Object directedness. the person willingly invests attention in a visual stimulus. There is no outside force required continued attention to the stimulus, but the person remains engaged with until their personal need for investment is satisfied. This attentiveness is achieved through the object itself, through the aesthetic attributes it possesses and how they communicate with the viewer. 

Felt freedom. The viewer feels a sense of harmony that preempts everyday concerns and is experienced as freedom. The object directedness produces a sense of timelessness where other cares about past and future are temporarily relieved, and they experience a sense of having freely chosen their engagement with the object. 

Detached affect. The experience depicted in the stimulus is not taken literally. In other words, there is a narrative distance between the viewer and the stimulus. They are emotionally affected by the stimulus, but not in such a way that any there is any feeling of some kind of impending personal impact from the experience. For example, one might view a picture of a burning building and feel a sense of emotional empathy for the victims of the tragedy, but there is no immediate feeling of personal danger of burning from the perspective of the viewer.

Active discovery. The person becomes cognitively involved in the challenges presented by the stimulus and derives a sense of exhilaration from the involvement as they continuously engage with, explore, and interpret what is being represented by the stimulus. As their attention is directed at the object, there is a process of discovery that occurs, even in cases where it is not a narrative format that they behold. An examination of an image or sculpture can reveal details incrementally as attention is directed at it for prolonged periods of time.

Wholeness. As the viewer continues engages with the stimulus, a sense of integration follows from the experience, giving the person a feeling of self-acceptance and self-expansion. There is a sense of obtaining a part of oneself that was at one point lost to them. Beardsley views this as perhaps the most important of the five criteria where he wrote:

I want to keep in view two levels of this wholeness: the coherence of the elements of the experience itself, of the diverse mental acts and events going on in one mind over a stretch of time; and the coherence of the self, the mind’s healing sense… of being all together and able to encompass its perceptions, feelings, emotions, ideas, in a single integrated personhood. (p. 292)

It is not only the experience of the art that has a wholeness, but it is also the perceptual experience of the viewer which has a transformative effect on them that changes them from the encounter.

John Dewey

Pragmatic aesthetic philosopher, John Dewey (1934/2005), wrote about the “formal conditions of esthetic form” (p. 143) that include continuitycumulationconservationtension, and anticipation.

Continuity. All aspects of the work of art have a sense of unity, that they belong together in the space they occupy. 

Cumulation. Every step along an aesthetic journey builds on what has come before. Dewey also speaks of a consummation at the conclusion of an aesthetic encounter. But that consummation is impossible if the effects of the experience don’t have a cumulative effect that produces an ultimate effect at the conclusion.

Conservation. The cumulation referred to can only occur if there is a conservation of everything that precedes it through an internal continuity. This again refers to the unity that exists within the piece. As the viewer experiences the work, there is no break in the aesthetic principles that define what it is, and the experience is able to continue to its natural conclusion.

Tension. Tension has the ability to create the development and fulfillment necessary for an aesthetic encounter. It is the internal tension that propels the participant forward in their engagement with the stimulus. Without such tension, the participant may drift off and lose interest, thus eliminating the possibility of a meaningful consummation of the experience.

Anticipation. There would be no engagement without some anticipation, or promise, of a desired result that will occur as a reward for engaging in the experience in the first place. Anticipation is the promise of a positive affect to be derived from the experience. 

Dewey wrote that aesthetics does not intrude on an experience from an outside source but are the “clarified and intensified development of traits that belong to every normally complete experience” (p. 48). Whatever an aesthetic experience has to offer comes from the experience itself. For the purposes of someone endeavoring to create an aesthetic experience for someone, then all of the traits of the desired experience must be attended to, or there will be no promise of an experience to be had by any participant. 

Conclusion

From the time Baumgarten first coined the term “aesthetic” in reference to poetry in the 18th century, aesthetics has generally been understood to be referring to the beautiful aspects of a variety of artforms, including visual art, poetry, literature, and dance (Giovannelli, 2012). Aesthetic principles have a reach into all of the experiences we encounter in our lives, whether they be in nature as we behold the majesty of a mountain range with snow covered peaks, or whether it be on a website that contains images, colors, fonts, and language that combine together to create an environment that we enjoy to exist in and return to often.

In exploring the meaning of an aesthetic experience, I discussed Beardsley’s three points of view from which a piece of work can be evaluated: engineeringpracticality, and aesthetic. But Gadamer argues that an end user experiencing a piece of work does not “distinguish between the particular way the work is realized and the identity of the work itself” (p.29), but instead we take the work for what it is as a whole and what it says to us in the moment. He calls this “aesthetic non-differentiation.” By this he means that it “is a secondary procedure if we abstract from whatever meaningfully addresses us in the work of art and wholly restrict ourselves to a ‘purely aesthetic’ evaluation” (p. 29). This is relevant because the end user doesn’t experience an isolated aspect of something, but they experience the whole. So, the aesthetic aspects of an object are not differentiated from the subject matter and the engineering or technology of the thing any more than they are from the color, composition, and typography. The end user experiences the final product in its unified form. 

It is the responsibility of the designer endeavor to come to an understanding of aesthetic principles and to apply them to the learning subject and ensure that it’s integrated into the learning product. Any misalignment of aesthetics to the content or technology, the more there is a chance that the aesthetics will be seen as mere “window-dressing” or maybe attention will be called to the technology (thus removing the learner from a productive learning encounter), or maybe the content will be unclear or underemphasized. 

All aspects of the work must be whole and in harmony with each other, especially in instructional design. The aesthetics must support the subject matter and create a bridge to connect the content to the learner. The technology must function in a manner appropriate to the delivery of the materials in a way that supports the learner’s access to the materials. The technological interface should be in harmony with the subject matter and the aesthetic presentation.

An understanding of aesthetics is a lifetime pursuit. Dewey (1934/2005) explained that aesthetic principles are ontological, not epistemological. “Art is a mode of prediction not found in charts and statistics, and it insinuates possibilities of human relations not to be found in rule and precept, admonition and administration” (p. 363). Approaching an understanding of aesthetic principles is a lifetime pursuit with incremental and cumulative benefits for the instructional practitioner and the learner. The creation and appreciation of an aesthetic object is a similar experience for the creator and the audience. This is how instructional designers, who may be otherwise untrained in visual development techniques can facilitate the creation of aesthetically enhanced learning experiences. If it is something that moves them, that makes the materials come alive for them in the development process, then there can be a measure of confidence that a similar experience may be had by the audience, or students, who will later experience the learning.

References

Beardsley, M. C. (1982). The aesthetic point of view: Selected Essays (M. J. Wreen & D. M. Callen, Eds.). Cornell University Press.

Dewey, J. (2005). Art as experience. The Berkley Publishing Group. (Original work published 1934)

Gadamer, H-G. (2013). Truth and method (2nd rev. Ed.; J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans). Bloomsbury Academic. (Original work published 1960)

Gadamer, H-G. (1998). The relevance of the beautiful and other essays (R. Bernasconi, Ed.; N. Walker, Trans.). Cambridge University Press.

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Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and time. SUNY Press. (Original work published 1953)

Järvelä, S. & Renninger, K. A. (2014). 2nd ed. Designing for learning: interest, motivation, and engagement. In R. K. Sawyer, Ed., Cambridge Handbook Of The Learning Sciences (2nd ed., pp. 668-685). Cambridge University Press.

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Parrish, P. E. (2005). Embracing the aesthetics of instructional design. Educational Technology, 45(2), 16-25.

Parrish, P. E. (2009). Aesthetic principles for instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 57, 511-528.

Wilson, B., & Parrish, P. (2011). Transformative learning experience: Aim higher, gain more. Educational Technology, 51(2), 10-15. 

Wrathall, M. (2005). How to read Heidegger. W. W. Norton & Company.

Yanchar, S. C. (2011). Participational agency. Review of General Psychology, 15(3), 227-287.

Yanchar, S. C., & Gong, S. P. (2019). Inquiry into moral configurations. In B. D. Slife & S. C. Yanchar (Eds.), Hermeneutic moral realism in psychology: Theory and practice (pp. 116-127). Routledge.

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