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The Power of Juxtaposition in Life and Learning Design

One thing I like, and admire in people is the ability to demonstrate consistency in personality. I do not mean that people cannot swerve between emotions, or between ways of behaving, but I do like to “know where I am” at any stage with people. People who are “unreadable”, who deviate from a set of expectations confuse me. Consistency is good – it takes me a while to assimilate when I perceive large deviations in the way people “present” themselves.

In a lot of the learning theory that I have consumed, it seems the opposite is true. Perhaps because the “human element” is lost, there is a need for inconsistent content format, in order to make the content “likeable”. Juxtaposing wildly different styles and presentational styles can make for a powerful learning experience.

Many theories seem to suggest that juxtaposing content types is good. Elements that “surprise” lead to “stickiness” (see “The Tipping Point”). “The Fool” type from “The 5 Faces of Genius” inverts the truth to demonstrate what is blatently obvious. Placing pictures next to bullets, (yes – they DO have a place somewhere…). One favourite seems to be placing theoretical content next to “real world scenarios”, heavy “just read it” style content placed next to “now we will stop for an Exercise” content.

Just before Christmas, I went for a day out to treat myself in London, doing things that I have done many times before. I decided to see try the whole day from the perspective of juxtaposition, to see whether the experience became any more intense, or enjoyable by, by NOTICING juxtapositions.

As I got off the train and walked towards the Tate Modern in London I realised I was very warm, but my face was cold from the biting wind. I was dry, my face sodden. I crossed the Thames using the most modern bridge, and looked back to see the ancient splendour of St. Pauls.  Looking South, I saw Shakespeare’s tiny Globe Theatre next to the massive austere industrial facade of The Tate Modern.  The Tate Modern has a maelstrom of juxtapositions in every gallery. I left and noticed modern slot machines in an antique public house, the rising spire of “The Shard” next to the ancient Thames bridges – and so the day went on and on and on. Everywhere I went I found an opportunity to enrich the experience by finding counterpoints to what I already knew, or thought I knew. Even the act of actively noticing people talking loudly in an otherwise silent Christopher Wren church reduced the annoyance of the experience.

For anyone seeking a new way to see well-trodden and customary experiences, I recommend you try this experiment;  it made for an incredible day, a very intense experience. Places I thought I knew appeared like new friends to me, I saw another side to them because I could see them in relationship to other objects, surprising me and holding my attention when I was prepared for mediocrity.

The same is true for courses – classroom or eLearning. I am not suggesting that you create an “experience” that lacks in depth and is just heavy on “feature”, but by using juxtaposing ideas, concepts, presentational devices, words, audio, visuals and concepts, I am convinced that any instructional designer can design a richer experience.

Try the “day out” experience and see what you find.

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