My professional background has been that of a graphic designer in corporate setting. As such, my work has consisted of transforming raw information into designed materials that clearly and creatively communicate complex and abstract concepts. In recent years, my professional attention has evolved from a solitary focus on visual design, to a career change in becoming an instructional designer, hallmarked with a master’s degree in Instructional Psychology & Technology and the current pursuit of a doctoral degree in the same subject.
My intention in pursuing a new career path are not to replace my current professional activities, but rather to enhance and complement them. I always will be interested in the impact the visual look and feel of a thing will have on a persons’ interest, motivation, and engagement. With the new activity of developing educational materials that are sources of edifying knowledge to those who need or are seeking it, I see no better occasion to ensure that the learning event is something that is enjoyable to experience. My studies, research, and professional efforts are focused on the aesthetic experience in instructional design theory and practice. As I work to advance in my current position with an eye for new opportunities, this personal statement on learning characterizes my professional priorities. The following information will illuminate what I mean by aesthetic experiences in instructional design.
Literary philosopher, Terry Eagleton, wrote “we always perceive each other against some background or other. Human beings are never not in a situation. Not to be sure of what situation one is in is to be in the situation known as doubt. To be outside any situation whatsoever is known as being dead” (2013, p. 60). To limit situated learning experiences to be only those that conform to Lave and Wenger’s definition of legitimate peripheral participation (1991), is to limit the ability to create opportunities for only those learners able to engage with communities of practice. I believe that an aesthetic experience is something that can enhance a learning engagement in such a way as to effectively situate the learner in a state where they are as open to the learning experience as they would be in an engagement with a community of practice. As an instructional design practitioner, understanding the circumstances to create such an experience can aid in the effectiveness of my professional work. But what is meant by an aesthetic experience?
John Dewey wrote of an experience as being something separate from participation in an activity. Generic participation may have interruptions driven by outside sources or intrinsic boredom. An experience is something that has a natural progression from beginning, middle, and end. It includes emotions and activities that, when completed, may cause that experience to be set aside in the participant’s mind as an experience (1934/2005) worthy of remembrance.
Aesthetic is a term often related to art criticism and analysis, which extends to many forms of art including visual arts, dance, music, and literature (Beardsley, 1970). Aesthetic philosopher, Monroe Beardsley, has defined five criteria of aesthetics that describe the attributes of an aesthetic experience. They include
(1) Object focus: the person willingly invests attention in a visual stimulus; (2) felt freedom: he or she feels a sense of harmony that preempts everyday concerns and is experienced as freedom; (3) detached affect: the experience is not taken literally, so that the aesthetic presentation of a disaster might move the viewer to reflection but not to panic; (4) active discovery: the person becomes cognitively involved in the challenges presented by the stimulus and derives a sense of exhilaration from the involvement; (5) wholeness: a sense of integration follows from the experience giving the person a feeling of self-acceptance and self-expansion. (1982, as cited in Csikszentmihalyi & Robinson, 1990, p. 7)
An aesthetic experience can aid the learner in entering a state where they willingly engage with the information, where the barriers to their ability to focus and continue can be minimized. Although an aesthetic experience has a beginning, middle and end, the experience itself has a progression that flows from one part to another, each carrying with it what came before and ending in a consummation (Dewey, 1934/2005). This consummation is the conclusion of the aesthetic experience, but the experience continues to live on after the fact because the learner carries on what went before.
For a learning engagement to become an aesthetic experience, there should be a sense of unity in all of the elements that comprise the learning object, including the visual style, theme, narrative voice, and argument style (also known as aesthetic argument), all of which must clarify and support the subject matter being taught. Efforts to persuade with aesthetic enhancements should be avoided in favor of using aesthetics to communicate relevance to the learner. In this way, they, as the protagonist “of their own learning experiences” (Parrish, 2009, p. 515), will find themselves situated in an experience that will provide meaning and value to the content and its implication for their life.
Assumptions and Concepts
Learners are agents who are free to willingly engage or not to engage in whatever situation they find themselves in. Often the agent will seek out additional information and understanding as they identify in themselves a need to fill a gap in their knowledge or gain a new skillset. Other times the agent may find themselves assigned to some subject of instruction, either as a requirement for a degree as found in general education courses, or as a compliance training assignment from their employer. Whether the learning engagement has been elected or prescribed, the level of interest, motivation, and engagement can be aided and enhanced through attention to the aesthetic qualities with which the subject matter is presented.
Understanding that the learners who participate in the educational encounters that I am creating are actual agents who have individual interests in regard to their own well-being and personal progress causes me to empathize with them. Because of this, I desire to provide situations that have the appeal to gain their interest and aesthetic unity to keep them motivated and engaged through completion that is also a pleasant experience to have from the outset. Through an aesthetic experience, learners will also reflect on the event as an experience (Dewey, 1934/2005) and will retain the memory of it, and the information found therein, for future use.
Caution is necessary when focusing on aesthetics for learning engagements. This is because so much of the art of persuasion has included the application of aesthetic elements to enhance the appeal of objects and concepts in the hopes of convincing people to part with their money, participate in a cause, or do other things that they wouldn’t be naturally inclined to do. The purpose of learning development is to create educational encounters for learners where they can find relevant information to help them progress in the journey of their lives. The learning developer should be detached from the promotion of the instructional materials they are working on except for what is necessary to inform that it exists to those for whom it has relevance—although this relevance may not be inherently known by the learner, as in the case of children and teenagers who lack sufficient life experience to make informed decisions on what knowledge is and isn’t of use to them.
There is also value in attending to the aesthetic characteristics of learning engagements because we do not want learners to prematurely abandon an otherwise valuable, or potentially crucial learning engagement simply because it lacked the aesthetics sufficient to attract or maintain their interest so that they could fully assess whether the information actually was relevant to them. Disorganization of formatting, unimaginative or non-present imagery, cluttered text, and text that lists facts without context make learning objects difficult to engage with and can become more of an endurance challenge rather than an experience worth remembering.
The aesthetic experience will be supported when all elements are consistent in application throughout the instructional engagement, including a continuity between the graphics, colors, fonts, layout, style, theme, and content. This is not limited to the visual elements only, but includes the language used in the conveyance of the information. Referred to as an aesthetic argument, this influences how information is conveyed, not just what the information is. This forms the narrative that draws the learner in and illuminates the subject’s relevance to them (Crittenden, 1970).
If the emphasis on the value that aesthetics bring to the creation of instructional encounters can be successfully established then, going forward, I hope to be able to extend the techniques and approach that I take in the work that I do, and am continually evolving, in the assistance of other instructional design practitioners so that our audience of learners can be assured that they will find the knowledge that they are seeking in a form that will be a pleasure and an experience worth remembering.
In my brief statement about learning from the beginning of this semester, I outlined my observation of how learners have different motivations and levels of engagement with learning as they grow and mature throughout their lives. Children have less autonomy in their educational choices than adults do because there is requisite knowledge that they need, but they don’t know they need. As people grow, they have more and more opportunities to make educational choices for themselves.
In considering this statement throughout the semester, with my interest in aesthetics ever present in my mind, I have come to realize that an important benefit that attention to aesthetics can bring is that it can create a situating context for the subject and illuminate the relevance for the learner. In these regards, aesthetics become much more than decorations or bells and whistles but become valuable tools to carry the information from the subject at hand to become part of the lives of the learners, no matter what level of tacit interest they may have in the subject.
I wouldn’t say that my views have changed other than that they have been enhanced and clarified. I have, shall I say, fears that I am leaning on aesthetics as a crutch because my attention for most of my life has been on art and design, so I feel like I naturally like to create and experience things that are visually appealing. I’m finding more and more that my default state is not a deficiency, but instead is a subject that needs to be brought out of my habits and subconscious so that my instinctual efforts can become deliberate, defensible, repeatable, and teachable—inasmuch as an activity such as design can be taught (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012).
This paper is limited in space for me to fully explore all of the thoughts and applications I have for aesthetic theory that I have learned. I hope to build upon the information presented here in the development of work that, hopefully, will be of use to others in the field.
Beardsley, M.C. (1970). Aesthetic theory and education theory. In Aesthetic Concepts and Education. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Robinson R. E. (1990). The art of seeing: An interpretation of the aesthetic encounter. Los Angeles, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum.
Crittenden, B. S. (1970). Persuasion: Aesthetic argument and the language of teaching. In Aesthetic Concepts and Education. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Dewey, J. (1934/2005). Art as experience. New York, NY: Perigee.
Eagleton, T. (2013). How to Read Literature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Nelson, H., & Stolterman, E. (2012). The Design Way. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Parrish, P. E. (2009). Aesthetic principles for instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 57, 511-528.