Creators of learning interventions have a number of considerations to address for their learners. These concerns include learning objectives, task and skills analysis, intra-learning activities, teacher or trainer and student interactions, assessment strategies, and program or product evaluations. In an effort to ensure the effectiveness of learning interventions, additional strategies and theories have been developed to aid administrators of learning efforts in fostering learning skills and behaviors in their pupils. Among these strategies is self-regulated learning, which endeavors to create students who are primed and oriented to be ideal receptacles of the knowledge that is being conveyed (Nilson, 2013). These theories lay out a variety of activities intended to create more engaged learners through a range of activities that supplement traditional reading and writing. These activities include strategies for 1) setting goals for each learning session, 2) planning how to accomplish learning tasks, 3) directing focus to stay on task, 4) monitoring their mind to avoid distraction, fatigue or discouragement, 5) maintaining motivation to learn, and 6) intermittently evaluating their command of the material being learned (p. 3). Little is included, however, in these theories related to the willingness of the student to participate in such learning activities. If the quest of bettering oneself through the acquisition of knowledge is insufficient motivation for a learner to regulate themselves, how can additional teacher-imposed activities improve student engagement?
In this paper, I will explore an additional element that should be considered when developing learning objects and activities. This additional element I will refer to as situating aesthetics. The concept of situating aesthetics assumes the view that learners are agents who are intentional, proactive, self-regulating, and self-reflecting (Bandura, 2006, p.164). Learners are individuals who are actively engaged in their world as they act out the narrative of their life. They find meaning in the role they play in their lives and value in what their activities mean for their future (Yanchar, 2011). A learner is a person engaged in the activity, or act, of learning. According to Heidegger:
Acts are nonpsychical. Essentially the person exists only in carrying out intentional acts, and is thus essentially not an object. Every psychical objectification, and thus every comprehension of acts as something psychical, is identical with depersonalization. In any case, the person is given as the agent of intentional acts which are connected by the unity of a meaning. Thus psychical being has nothing to do with being a person. Acts are carried out, the person carries them out. (2010, p.47)
Newtonian determinism would classify people as objects that can be acted upon for a desired end, such as becoming a self-regulating learner, but people are only objects in that they consist of physical matter that occupies space in a material world. The human mind, or psychical aspects of individuals are the elements that carries actions out. The psyche is what experiences, learns, and makes meaning out of interactions in the world.
Situating aesthetics derives a portion of its origin from the concept of situated learning in which a learner becomes involved in the world of the subject of study through legitimate peripheral participation in a community of practice (Lave & Wegner, 1991). In situated learning, knowledge and learning are related to the circumstances in which they are presented, meaning is negotiated between the context the learner finds themselves in and the learner’s lived experience, and all human activities are situated in one way or another as “the agent, activity, and the world mutually constitute each other” (p. 33). Legitimate peripheral participation engages the learner in a social environment in which learning is the intended activity (p. 35). They remain on the periphery until learning progresses to the point in which they become a full participant, having gained knowledge and experience through their observations and interactions with the community of practice (p. 37).
Situating aesthetics become the environment learning takes place in whether or not the learner is engaged in a community of practice. They are the meta-instructional elements that frame the instructional content that the learner must engage with. Situating aesthetics are a manifestation of the empathy that the instructional designer has for the learner. The designer knows that they are creating an environment that the learner will occupy for a great amount of time in the process of learning the materials. Situating aesthetics aid the learner maintain focus and remain in the situation for extended periods of time by providing an environment of comfort, familiarity, competency, and context. At a minimum, situating aesthetics should be a neutral addition to a learning experience; but ideally, they enhance the learning environment in a way that the learner desires to remain engaged and their learning is edified by the aesthetic qualities.
The purpose of situating aesthetics is to provide immediate support and context to the content the leaner is experiencing. It is a concept that, when elaborated on, will provide guidance and items for consideration for instructional designers who may not have visual design or creative writing skills at their disposal. It is intended to be a baseline approach to learning development than what would be considered with a more eclectic approach, where a designer includes less related elements and scaffolding to juxtapose with the content for a deeper meaning and affect. An eclectic approach requires a more expert skill and, if done improperly, can lead to confusion or dilution of the intended message of the content.
Definition of Aesthetic
Traditionally, aesthetics referred primarily to the creation, evaluation, or enjoyment of works of art, but pragmatist thinkers apply aesthetics qualities to any experience in which we become “deeply invested in the effort” (Parrish, 2009, p. 513). Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson paraphrased Monroe Beardsley’s five criteria of an aesthetic experience as follows:
(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. (1990, p.27)
One of the hallmarks of an aesthetic experience is that they are typically engaged in by individuals with no extrinsic motivation or reward. They become their own reward. This is closely related to another phenomenon referred to as a flow experience, which refers to any situation or activity outside of what would typically be considered an encounter with art where the participant achieves a state very similar to Beardsley’s aesthetic criteria (p.28). For the remainder of this discussion, I will continue to use the term aesthetics although flow experience and cognitive flow theory, as it is also called, is a subject of related interest. For aesthetics to effectively enhance a learning experience, they should be applied in a manner conducive to an autotelic experience that enhances intrinsic motivation, which either maintains the engagement of learners who are already self-regulating or creates the situation where non self-regulating learners may become engaged.
In the process of learning, aesthetics become situated when they directly enhance or augment the content that is being taught. This includes the most common connotation of aesthetics in that it is represented in the images, art, and other decorations adorned by the learning environment. Art that supports the subject matter may take abstract concepts and represent them pictorially. This adds an additional layer of interest while providing a visual aid that promotes the understanding of the concept and an image to retain in memory. Visual aesthetics become most effective when a learner analysis that determines the age, proficiency level, and other demographic identifiers is used to guide the complexity and style of the imagery to be used.
Literature, or text, can also create an aesthetic experience (Attard, 2018). Everything from the complexity of the language, to word choice, to the narrative structure combine to wrap the learner in an experience that will aid them in progressing through the learning activity. For example, the choices of words used to teach about trees vary greatly when the audience is kindergarten children compared to college-level botanists. Text alone can often stand alone to paint a picture of a situation in the mind of the learner if it contains elements sufficiently descriptive as to draw upon the learner’s tacit knowledge of the world and conjure up an image in the mind that accurately communicates the meaning of the text. Consider the following excerpt from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens:
“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church-porch.” Hold your noise, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”
A fearful man, all in gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briers; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
“Don’t cut my throat, Sir!” I pleaded in terror. “Pray don’t do it, Sir!”
“Tell us your name!” said the man. “Quick!”
“Once more,” said the man. “Give it mouth!”
“Pip. Pip, Sir.” (1881, p. 22)
As a work of literature, the descriptive nature of this text is able to create an aesthetic experience in the learner that instills sympathetic fear for the child, Pip, and a sense of dread for what the fearful man might do to him. While much of the writing involved in learning will not reach the masterwork level of the Victorian writings of Charles Dickens, it should at least follow a quasi-narrative flow that conveys information clearly at the comprehension level of the learner. An example of a negative textual aesthetic experience can be found in the feature film Beetlejuice, as the main characters are struggling to understand the “Handbook for the Recently Deceased,” Adam remarks to Barbara, “this book reads like stereo instructions. Listen to this: Geographical and temporal perimeters. Functional perimeters vary from manifestation to manifestation” (Bender, Wilson, Hashimoto, & Burton, 1988). Textual information that is presented in a learning product or program that resembles technical documentation, or “stereo instructions,” may lead to a loss of interest and motivation in the learner although the content may have been useful or important to know.
Aesthetics have the ability to provide additional scaffolding to a learner in a situation where the content isn’t sufficient to provide a complete picture of the meaning. Consider Shakespeare. The language used in his plays is archaic in today’s terms and often a direct read of the text can leave learners confused and discouraged. Add to that the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were simply scripts used as a single element in a larger production. “Reading Shakespeare is almost as difficult as reading Mozart on the page [from the musical notes]” Sir Ian McKellen was quoted as saying in an interview (Moreton, 2016). Shakespeare’s plays were always intended to be dramatized in a visual format with sets, props, and stage directions that together complete a picture that conveys a combined meaning. McKellen goes on to say, “The plays weren’t written to be read, they were written to be spoken out loud and acted and for us as an audience to watch” (Moreton, 2016). Experiencing Shakespeare in this way provides a prime example of how situating aestheticscan add context to the content that is being studied. If that context is congruent to the subject matter, then the experience becomes a pseudo community of practice.
Situating Aesthetics and Self-regulated Learning
Self-regulation is a component of situating aesthetics. Bol and Garner (2011) promote the use of conceptual, metacognitive, procedural, and strategic scaffolds to support self-regulated learning in online learning environments for the purpose of self-monitoring, self-reflection, and organization (p. 116). Their discussion of scaffolding does not address the aesthetic appeal that can also serve as a scaffold for students to remain contextually interested and in a state of pleasure that retains their engagement and encourages them to continue. Self-regulation theorists encourage the use of metacognition to monitor the effectiveness of the learner in internalizing the instructional materials and how effective the teaching strategies are. But the aesthetics of the activity are an important meta aspect of learning. It impacts the method of how the information is delivered to the recipient, changes the form of the information, and creates an environment that is either conducive or interferant with effective learning. If one of the chief challenges of online or distant learning is the student’s ability to self-regulate (p.105), then part of the solution could potentially lie in providing an environment of learning that will make online and distant learning an experience that the learner will be willing to situate themselves in.
The conclusion that “learning is inherently purposeful” is reached after Bol and Garner discuss that “learners actively manage their learning by monitoring their progress and selecting appropriate cognitive strategies needed to accomplish academic goals” (p. 106). This suggests that if a learner is an agent who is actively engaged in the story of their lives, they are moving forward with a purpose to continue the narrative of their life as they look for things that will support and promote their future development in their desired direction. The learning activities they engage in should be identifiable as tools they can use to meet those needs. Developers of learning can support this through the judicious use of images, narrative, organizational structure, colors, and fonts that are congruent with the subject matter and communicates to the learner the nature of the content presented so the learner may make an informed choice to engage or withdraw.
Zimmerman identified a structure for self-regulatory systems as a cyclical representation that encompasses three phases: forethought, performance or volition control, and self-reflection (2000, p. 16, see figure 1).
Figure 1. Zimmerman’s cyclical model of self-regulation (2000).
Situating aesthetics could promote a similar cyclical model that would include phases such as: impressions, engagement, and evaluation (see figure 2). These phases are experienced by individuals in an implicit manner that is a natural part of navigating through life in the dozens of decisions to engage or not engage that are made daily.
Figure 2. Cyclical phases of a situating aesthetic experience.
The impressions phase is where the learner appraises the initial characteristics of the learning activity and forms some judgements about the quality of the learning as well as their initial desire to engage. The decision to engage or not to engage is closely tied to the judgement the individual makes regarding the meaningfulness of the encounter (Yanchar, Spackman, & Faulconer, 2013, p. 224). This judgement is based on the surface characteristics of the learning activity before any information about the content can be evaluated. This phase will heavily influence the level of engagement with the content, if the individual decides to engage at all.
The engagement phase is where the individual explores the content in the context provided (p.225). During this stage of familiarization, the individual’s emotional state is a gauge by which they make formative judgements regarding their experience, continuously assessing their willingness to proceed.
While evaluation characterizes the activities of all of the phases of a situating aesthetic experience, this phase passes the final judgement on the aesthetic quality of the learning activity and subject matter as presented and experienced. If there are further needs to re-engage with the materials, this phase will impact their willingness to do so. This will also impact their impression of the content for future encounters in the form of a bias. For example, if the individual develops the opinion that Shakespeare is hard to understand from a learning encounter, then that opinion will likely remain with that individual until it is ameliorated by another encounter. This negative evaluation may stem from a learning activity that did not have sufficient situating aesthetic scaffolds that could have aided the learner in their comprehension and enjoyment of the subject matter. One of the features of an individual, or agent, acting in the world is the ability for that agent to choose where their precious time is spent, or in other words, their dispositional action(Yanchar, 2011, p. 281). The ability to select where and how time is spent introduces the concept of the agent’s ability to evaluate or judge the quality or attractiveness of what they are engaged in. The result of such evaluations will determine future engagement and the value or validity of the information presented.
But what about learners who are in a prescriptive learning environment rather than elective? This brings the purpose of aesthetics into a role of creating an emotionally welcoming environment that can help to bring the learner into a receptive state for learning. The process of learning shouldn’t become an imposed endurance challenge inflicted on a captive audience of students.
In discussing environments where self-regulated learning should be encouraged, generally discussion focuses on the general aspects of the situation. Student-content, hypermedia, multimedia, and electronic text are some of the terms used when describing these interactions, but there is little to no description of the aesthetic qualities of the multimedia, electronic text, etc. It’s possible that some of the self-regulating activities might reveal the impact of some of those aesthetic qualities if the student is encouraged to reflect on the experience. Some pertinent revelations may arise, such as the voice of the narrator is hard to listen to, the text is too small, the art isn’t appealing.
This brief paper has been what I hope to be a starting point for my future research and study as a PhD student. Situating aesthetics, when fully developed, can be a framework to encourage instructional designers to increase their consideration of the level of impact the aesthetic qualities of their learning products contain. What may have previously been relegated to the status of window dressing after the heavy lifting of learning development has taken place should be reconsidered as an integral part of the learning experience for the student. Situating aesthetics are the meta-instructional elements that play a crucial role in a learner’s experience with instructional materials. When implemented conscientiously, situating aesthetics can provide an environment of comfort, familiarity, competency, and context.
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