For the last few semesters, I have taught a course on “ethnographic methods” to designers in an MFA program. The class itself is my own design but the title was gifted to me. I can’t say that I approve of the term “ethnographic methods,” but one has to go along at times. In the main, it is every bit as fun as it sounds. I demand students delineate and pursue their own projects, rather than safely shepherding them through a series of artificial exercises. Though they have their ups and downs as the semester goes along, they have responded with some wonderful work.
The problem they encounter in class is the same they will face on a regular basis as designers, and I think the nature of this problem marks an important point of confluence between design and anthropology. The shared joint is most apparent at the beginning of a project when the parameters are fully in flux. At this point, stating concretely what is to be done two or three steps out is difficult. Donald Schön (1984) recognized this issue long ago and wrote of the main problem in design as one of “problem setting.” That is, design is not about applying the most efficient means to a fixed and understood end, but rather about grappling with the relation of the end to the means. It is not possible to specify in advance what should be done if the contours of the problem cannot yet be fully grasped. The end is not given; it must be discovered. This is the difficulty. And here, there are no right or wrong solutions, only better or worse. I often tell my students exactly what they hear in their design classes: “keep going” and “try again.”
Schön’s pedagogical outlook is derived directly from John Dewey, an influence seen most clearly in Schon’s emphasis on experience rather than cognition. Experience educates. It has pedagogical value. And again, there is a parallel with anthropology, in which your body must be placed somewhere in the world in order to experience something. In both anthropology and design, the experience of ambiguity and serendipity followed by deliberation and judgement is the most powerful educator. Yet this creates a problem with curriculum design, especially when “learning objectives” in the Bloomian sense are in play. And with “methods” as well, but that is for another time.
The curriculum theory popular at all levels of education today, as those of us caught in its web well know, is heavily invested in the concept of learning objectives. Learning objectives, as they are widely invoked, are a product of the University of Chicago, where following the Second World War, Ralph Tyler and his mentee Benjamin Bloom synthesized a line of curricular philosophy stretching back to W.W. Charters. In doing so, they popularized the concept of learning objectives matched to a curriculum designed to impart these selfsame objectives to students. A correlate of their curricular philosophy is that the learning environment, and the experiences within this environment, should be tightly controlled so as to remain in service to the learning objectives.
The process of developing learning objectives is a form of back engineering. Given a known job, say railroad engineer, you first ask what cognitive traits are required to perform the job of a railroad engineer. Then you create a list of these traits. Finally, you design a curriculum (deriving from the Latin for the course of a race), which imparts these cognitive traits to students. The assumption here is that the category of railroad engineer is a stable and well-characterized configuration of traits. We know, and we assume, what a railroad engineer does. The advantage of the “learning objective” approach is that it makes the assessment of cognitive knowledge about these traits simple. If a railroad engineer is the sum of discrete cognitive traits, then a standardized test will do. And here the correlate becomes important. As in the laboratory, a tightly controlled learning environment makes measurement both easier and more accurate.
The problem is that human action, to paraphrase Michael Polanyi, knows more than it can tell. What Polanyi termed tacit knowledge lies beyond the measure of learning objectives. That is, even the simplest human action is more than the sum of its cognitive demands. Experience, deliberation, improvisation, and judgement play their inevitable role. Anthropology, specifically in its reliance on ethnography as the main pedagogical tool (don’t be fooled into thinking ethnography is a method), and design are two fields where tacit knowledge is unavoidably pushed to the fore.
I am going to pause for the moment. Next time, I will trace the development of learning objectives and point to an alternative pedagogical approach that has largely been pushed aside in the Bloomian rush.
Michael Polanyi. 2009. *The Tacit Dimension*. Reissue edition. Chicago ; London: University Of Chicago Press.
Donald Schön. 1984. *The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action*. 1 edition. New York: Basic Books.