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Design: Natural Learning vs. Machine Learning

In Life is Learning: Learning Design - Natural vs. Machine Robert Paterson dovetails Christopher Alexander's ideas about natural design with learning...

Natural and Mechanized Approaches to Learning: In a mechanized approach to learning, and therefore life itself, our experiences are segregated into discrete parts (i.e. - topics, subjects, expertise) by what seems to be a constant urge to classify and rationalize our experiences. People become the object of design by virtue of the fact that they do not participate in the creation of these systems of classification but are merely the intended recipients of it. Both education (by way of curriculum) and work (by way of a job description) treat people as objects of design, often in spite of the language used to describe these processes.

In a natural approach to learning, our experiences, situations and circumstances become the source of design. In other words, the authentic experiences that each individual brings to learning are a source of design. This is a more inclusive perspective in which the confluence of each person's individual life experiences are acknowledged and welcomed. From this emanates the idea the each person is a source of design, or the real designer. In this context, we hear about ideas like authentic learning and learning how to learn.

Learning as Interaction Design: Robert keys on what I think is one of the more important elements of design, and that is interaction. But this is not merely interaction design related to computer interface. It is a design perspective on the intersection of interaction and learning that is focused on how our relationships with the people, places and things in our lives can become more vibrant. He speaks about four kinds of interaction:

  1. Interaction with parents and the home.
  2. Interaction with the immediate community.
  3. Interaction with our life's work.
  4. Interaction with the underlying mystery that life is.

And this orientation to interaction is closely aligned with the idea of interdependence and referenced against the natural forms of interdependence that nature provides.

From this learning as interaction design perspective we arrive at:

Any design for a learning tool that continues the idea of separation will fail. The design that will work will the design that brings the individual back into the communities that we need to be human. - Robert Paterson

Stephen Biko as Interaction Designer: There are many examples of this kind of design process at work. For example, Stephen Biko's dedication to the cultural and psychological liberation of Black's in South Africa is a monumental testimony to the power of interaction design and learning. The immensity of Viktor Frankl's struggle in the relentless horror of a concentration camp is a revelation in natural design. Dan Eldon's pursuit of safari as life is an intriguing example of interaction design at the height of personal achievement.

We are surrounded by numerous examples of inspiring and deeply hopeful perspectives on design interaction in the confluence of everyday life. There is no need to invent a model or theory - these are living examples.

Much of what we need to embrace a more human-centered approach to design and interactivity are already staring at us. The question is, are we really seeing it? Or do we want to?


  • Christopher Alexander: Pattern Language
  • Christopher Alexander: The Nature of Order
  • Some Notes on Christopher Alexander
  • NPR Interview With Christopher Alexander

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Hi Stephen,

First of all let me thank you for your comment. I have great respect for your work.

I find myself in complete agreement with your reference to the organic. It is a kindred spirit to Rob's reference to the natural. For me, they both reveal an underlying faith in humanity and the good in humankind, in full view of and in spite of all the atrocities that occur in our world. I have tried to embrace this ideal in much of my own work to varying degrees of success (and failure).

When I started looking at interaction as a source of design I tried aiming the design parameters of learning at three things - people, places and things. This still has a mechanistic taint to it I know. Yet I still sense that helping people to develop various kinds of capacities, capabilities, powers of perception (rather than teaching traditional curricula via traditional instruction), we can help them to more fully interact with their world and in doing so become more interactive with the world. On a personal level, this realization has also been helpful for me.

It was a fundamental shift in my own assumptions about education from teaching pre-defined forms of knowledge, skills and attitudes to encouraging more open and deeper forms of interaction with people, places and things. It wasn't entirely organic, but it clearly had a different and exciting emergent properties about it.

Often, in this environment, I stood back from my "students" and realized that I was the one who had much to learn. Design was far more inclusive, participatory, and interdependent.

And as I re-visit your mission statement I realize that we are very much alike:

"I want and visualize and aspire toward a system of society and learning where each person is able to rise to his or her fullest potential without social or financial encumberance, where they may express themselves fully and without reservation through art, writing, athletics, invention, or even through their avocations or lifestyle.

Where they are able to form networks of meaningful and rewarding relationships with their peers, with people who share the same interests or hobbies, the same political or religious affiliations - or different interests or affiliations, as the case may be.

This to me is a society where knowledge and learning are public goods, freely created and shared, not hoarded or withheld in order to extract wealth or influence.

This is what I aspire toward, this is what I work toward. - Stephen Downes"

Hi Jeremy,

"Experience design forces us to look deeper and question underlying motivations and values." I think you have captured an extremely important point with great clarity. This is one of the things I admire about your work - you are constantly searching and exploring the underlying assumptions that are often hidden and sometimes disguised.

In "The Heart Aroused" (if you haven't read it, you'll love it!) David Whyte provides an opening quote from Irene Claremont de Castillejo (bold and italics are mine):

"Only a few achieve the clossal task of holding together, without being split asunder, the clarity of their vision alongside an ability to take their place in the materialistic world. They are the modern heros.... Artists at least have a form within which they can hold their own conflicting opposites together. But there are some who have no artistic form to serve this purpose, they are artists of the living. To my mind these last are the supreme heros in our soulless society"

Isn't this a truly wonderful thought - artists of the living? The idea of being an artist that does not confine herself to a specific form, but an artist that fully embraces the wonderful and terrifying confluence of living as their palette.

This, it seems to me, is an excellent way to approach lifestyle and design. The idea of artists of the living is, for me, a close companion of the experience designer.

Hi Cyn,

"There is a great design." Isn't it marvelous how this has emerged in recent weeks?

It reminds me of a number of deeply moving conversations I had in the past with Derrick de Kerckhove about connectedness, and of life in general. Derrick has an unwavering belief in the underlying good that inevitably emerges when people connect in authentic ways in the full knowledge of the problems we create for ourselves. It is a belief that, through the fullness of time, I have come to embrace as a way of being.

We building a sense of connectedness here. You speak of the organic and authentic - and I agree, we are all starved for that. I know I am. And Rob uses the wonderful phrase, "wealth as relationships." Jeremy speaks of, "the life you choose to live," and design as "creating meaning and purpose." And Stephen brings us to the core again - the organic.

I wonder where this will go? How do we move this out into the world?

Hi Rob,

As always, you raise profound thoughts and questions. I am going to say a heart felt YES to all of them and preserve hope. And we work together to build the wealth you speak of.

Good essay, and one with which I am largely in agreement.

Worth noting is that a taxonomy of the 'four kinds of interaction' is an exercise of the mechanistic sort; when I think of interaction, I think of something more organic.

Compelling as usual, Brian. I'm fascinated by your interpretation of Rob's post, particularly the four kind of interaction in learning. Coming from a few years of interaction design work (in the narrowest web interface sense), I think I see exactly what you're saying here. Experience design forces us to look deeper and question underlying motivations and values. With the lifestylism project I'm trying to tie these ideas together holistically, using the idea of values as the basis for lifestyle design.

Those two words -- lifestyle and design -- both have fluffy connotations in popular usuage. Both get used in the context of image, status and excess consumerism, which is unfortunate. I'm seeing lifestyle more broadly as "how you choose to live" and design as something akin to "creating meaning and purpose".

"In a natural approach to learning, our experiences, situations and circumstances become the source of design."

There is so much power in going to the centre for that authenticity. In theatre we experience truth when something organic has occured. But most of us are starving for that experience, because even in art, the 'machine' becomes the centre, and so it goes...on and on.

When all the planets are in synch, there is a great design.

Anybody else feeling like a satellite?

Dear Brian
You have this wondeful ability to take an idea and illuminate it. Thank you

Are we living at another Copernican Revolution when the foundation of relationships is overturned? Then it was to exchange the Earth for the Sun as the centre and hence open up the larger universe and also overhtrow the institutions such as the church, the monarchy and land as the power centres on earth.

Now it is to overturn the machine, the separation and to return to wholeness and interdependence. Will we also see an expansion of our idea of the universe from a physical space to an energetic space where we all have an eternal part to play? Will we also seee the overthrow of the power institutions of our day? The Corporation and the monolithic bureacratic government and the media? Will money as an end be replaced with wealth?

Wealth as the relationships that bring us all that we need?

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