The learning sciences and instructional design community have participated in the development of countless artifacts, curricula, tools, and other technological spaces, as well as principles for designing them and more general theoretical claims based on observation of participants engaging with these designs.
Although well-designed projects, software applications, or even technological spaces can support deep understandings and new practices, less common in this design work is a critical social agenda. Borrowing on the language used in anthropology, a critical agenda is one that, if adopted, calls in to question and potentially disrupts existing practices and structures; it communicates a commitment that the work reflects a critique of the status quo, even exposing inequitable power structures, resource allotment, divisions of labor, or disempowerment (Freire, 1970/2000).
In advocating the role of applied anthropological research, Fine and Weis (1998) so- licit work “which empowers as it exposes, which offers critique as it reveals not only what is not but what could be” (p. 16, emphasis added). In reference to critical literacy, McLaren (1992, p. 319) stated that “the ability to read and write in no way ensures that literate persons will achieve an accurate or ‘deep’ political under- standing of the world and their place within it.” It is our belief that learning scientists and instructional designers are positioned to build transformative models of what could be, to develop curricular interventions that have impact, and to advance valuable critical theory. Toward this end, we have advocated for a design method that we refer to as design ethnography, for those interested in understanding a particular group, context, or organization with the goal of adopting and advancing a critical agenda, as well as reifying the critique into a design intervention that may have useful application for other similar groups, organizations, or contexts.
This methodology is especially useful for engaging in design work intended to illuminate a power struggle or expose an inequity, or even make visible a complex situation. As a designed space for advancing theoretical claims, this work continues in the tradition of design studies by developing a theoretically inspired design intervention, implementing it in naturalistic contexts, revising design decisions according to empirical data, and conducting the work in the service of advancing theory. In the linked articles, my colleagues and I expand on these ideas and ground them in particular projects.
About Sasha A. Barab PhD
Sasha Barab is a Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, where he co-founded and serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Games and Impact.
Dr. Barab is an internationally recognized Learning Scientist who holds the Pinnacle West Chair of Education, and who has researched, designed, and published extensively on the challenges and opportunities of using games for impact.