Artful Program Design: 5 Elements

April 5th, 2011

Creating an educational program should be like creating a piece of art. Make every piece essential and thoughtful. Waste nothing. Include only that which will enhance, ruthlessly, unapologetically remove everything else.

Think about it. We only have so much time to make a positive contribution to the lives of others. Design a program as you would a piece of art and you will ensure you make the most of these finite opportunities.

When I’m working with an organization, these are the top 5 elements I look for:

1. Relevant

Here’s how you can make sure your content is as relevant as possible. First, refine your message to those components most likely to pique student curiosity. Present these components in small, pithy bursts. Try to do this in less than ten minutes. Use the next ten minutes to encourage students to ask questions and interact with you and each other. Then provide another nugget of content, followed by focussed interaction. This is relevance-making in action!

2. Responsive

We’re inclined to view student questions and comments as a barrier to getting through content. But what if we designed programs to invite questions? Questions are our primary tool for learning. Why not encourage students to exercise this tool?

A word of warning. The value here is in students asking questions, not in you answering them. The process, not the product, adds value to learning.

3. Punctuated

Reading a book without periods, pages, or chapter headings would be a disorienting experience. The previous two elements work best where clear structure exists. Students need to know what you are talking about in clear terms. Once they’re on board, you can open the conversation. The structure you provide will serve to accelerate the learning process.

4. Coherent

Research on the brain indicates that when our brains can’t connect two concepts in a coherent manner, we’ll flush both. Work to make your material build upon itself in a logical manner. This takes work. It’s like rearranging furniture. There are innumerable possibilities, but some make a lot more sense than others. This may sound  rudimentary, but I see this a lot. What flows to us may not have a natural progression for the people we serve.

5. Actionable

Can students clearly identify how they will translate your curricula and program into action? If not, we’re wasting everyone’s time. Budget time to help students determine in clear terms how they plan to translate your conversation into actionable steps.

How are you doing on these 5 elements? What design changes will help your program be a piece of art? Making these changes requires courage.

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    Simplicity: Evidence of Mastery

    March 31st, 2011

    Mostly Martha is beautiful film about a chef in Hamburg, Germany. At the beginning of the film, Martha, played by Martina Gedeck, makes the following observation about the best chefs:

    One knows a good chef by the quality of his simplest dishes.

    Take for instance salmon in a light basil sauce. Most people think it’s no big deal and put it on the menu. But frying or steaming a salmon just right and putting the right amount of salt and spices in the sauce is very difficult.

    In this recipe there is nothing to distract you. No design. No exotic ingredients. There’s only the fish. And the sauce. The fish and the sauce.

    The evidence of mastery is our ability to deliberately omit exotic, distracting ingredients. What remains is something people can savor for its simplicity and potent flavors.

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      The iPhone, Education, and the Artful Interface

      March 24th, 2011

      Systems tend to grow in complexity—education in America, for example.

      Artists create remarkable things by moving in the opposite direction. They pursue simplicity and move away from complexity.

      Consider the design of the iPhone. Its circuitry is complex. Its interface is simple.

      Education is complex. Our interface should be simple and artful.

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