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The architecture of learning design

July 28, 2010

image: lace-like patterns in dead & decaying elm trunk

The chapter on learning architectures in Etienne Wenger’s classic Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (Wenger, 1998) is not an easy read. Its ideas are densely packed and expressed in triple-knotted impenetrable prose, but it repays the work needed to decypher it. I’m going to try to explicate his four dimensions of learning design, and trace their influence on two more recent models of learning architecture.

Wenger’s dimensions consist of four dualities – a word he uses to express the creative tension between binary forces which he sees as a driver for learning and change. The dualities in Wenger’s architecture work like slide controls on a mixing desk, modulating the output along four separate sliding scales.

Participation-Reification is the slider which modulates between engagement with others and abstraction or conceptual modeling (reification). The key idea is that “design is always distributed between participation and reification.”

The Designed-Emergent slider modulates between prescriptive design and responsive practice. The key concept here is that “there is an inherent uncertainty between design and its realization in practice, since practice is not the result of design but rather a response to it.”

The Local-Global slider modulates between the learning within a particular community and the learning that takes place across community boundaries. The key idea is that “no community can fully design the learning of another [and] no community can fully design its own learning.” (For learning to take place between communities of practice, Wenger posits the necessity of a mediating reification, some kind of model or tool or narrative of practice, which then becomes a boundary-crossing artefact, capable of generating meaning in the context of a new practice.)

Finally, the Identification-Negotiability slider modulates between centralised versus distributed ownership of meaning. The key concept is: “Design for learning .. must set up a framework, but it depends on this framework being negotiable in practice.”

Wenger’s architecture of design has been extremely influential and finds echoes in several subsequent models of learning design – for example, Peter Goodyear’s indirect design framework, in which the designer’s intentions for the Space, Task and Organisation of the learning, are in practice always negotiated by teachers and learners into mediated, co-constructed Places, Activities and Communities for learning.

Image: diagram of Goodyear's model of indirect or mediated design for learning

Wenger’s belief that practice is not a simple result of, more a contingent response to, design (Designed-Emergent dimension) – and his contention that the designed framework is inevitably negotiated in practice (Identification-Negotiability dimension) – both of these ideas are perfectly expressed in Goodyear’s depiction of an indirect and mediated relationship between learning design and learning in practice.

Another version of Wenger’s architecture is embedded in Beetham and Sharpe’s notion of design for learning. These authors see learners and learning situations as essentially unpredictable, and learning as a kind of creative dialogue with the designer’s intentions. “We acknowledge, then, that learning can never be wholly designed, only designed for (ie, planned in advance) with an awareness of the contingent nature of learning as it actually takes place.” (Beetham and Sharpe, 2007)

Beetham and Sharpe go on to point out why explicit and intentional design, though present to some degree in the practice of every teacher, becomes more vitally important when learning moves online, because the teacher is no longer physically present to negotiate and fine-tune the experience in response to the changing actuality of each individual learning situation.

With the use of digital technologies, pedagogical activities require.. an explicit representation of what learners and teachers will do. An interesting and unforeseen consequence of the greater reliance on technologies in education has been this opportunity for teachers to reconsider how courses and learning activities are structured: new technologies make visible aspects of their pedagogic practice that were previously taken for granted. (Beetham and Sharpe, 2007)


Wenger E, 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, chapter 10. Cambridge, CUP

Goodyear P, 2002. Psychological foundations for networked learning. In Steeples C and Jones C (eds) Networked Learning: Perspectives and Issues. London, Springer

Beetham H, and Sharpe R, 2007. Introduction to Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age. New York, Routledge

From → H800

  1. Julie Carle permalink

    Very impressed with your synthesis John, this has helped my understanding, thx

  2. John – thank you very much for this post, which I picked up via a #H800 Tweet. As you say, Wenger’s chapter is a difficult read, and I was struggling with it, so your coverage is helpful. I’m really finding it hard to stay motivated with H800 at the moment, as I’ve said in my latest blog post.

    • johnmill permalink

      hi tony – thanks for this. I’ve commented on your blogpost..

  3. Hi, thanks for this

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