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Bricolage or evolutionary approach to designing

“Often we will mainly consider the design as it emerges progressively over time. Indeed Sociologists and anthropologists demonstrated that in scientific laboratories, there is a time-honoured tradition of tinkering first and creating formal rationalizations later.” (Turkle & Papert, 1991)

This type of designing has been named bricolage by (Turkle, 1995) and others. Although we use the word to refer to an object : the system in which teaching and learning occurs, it is used here to refer to the process of inventing or refining new systems.

In education

“Design is not, to use an analogy, simply following a recipe. For a great cook, cooking is not about a teaspoon of salt and a pinch of cumin. Instead, it is an active process of taking action (putting some salt in the soup), reflecting on that action (tasting the soup), locally evaluating the next step to take (perhaps a pinch of cumin), and continuing the reflection-in-action cycle. Design is not something to be done from a distance; it demands getting your hands dirty: trying things out, taking a small step in one direction, evaluating where you are, perhaps backtracking, moving on, etc. In the complex domain of learning, this is even more the case.” (Rick & Lamberty, 2004)

However, if in English the French word bricoleur is used to describe this style of design, in French it has a slightly negative connotation (unfinished, not very resistant,...) and we believe many biologists would feel more comfortable with the metaphor of an evolutionary process. On the other hand, famous biologists use the word bricoleur to describe a new way of thinking about evolution The evolution of'bricolage (Duboule, D. et al.1998)

Complex and highly adapted systems evolve from simple and rather crude designs through numerous iterative cycles of confrontation of the system to its environment. As a consequence the focus is therefore not so much on the quality or weaknesses of the initial design, but on the tight analysis of adequateness and repeated adapting of the design.

“[...] They tend to try one thing, step back, reconsider, and try another. For planners, mistakes are steps in the wrong direction; bricoleurs navigate through midcourse corrections. Bricoleurs approach problem-solving by entering into a conversation with their work materials that has more the flavor of a conversation than a monologue.”(Turkle & Papert, 1991)

From this evolutionary perspective comes also a perception that any successful design is not final but a dynamic state perpetually needing to change (adapt) as the environment in which the design is applied varies. The class is seen as a dynamic system where the students, the teacher and the whole setup interact in complex and difficult to predict fashion (Huberman, 1986). The numerous changes that happen by planned decision or by the unexpected circumstances of social interactions and instant decisions during the teaching result in numerous variations around the initial planned design. In reference to natural selection -the process by which organisms adapt to their environment- these variations will be selected against or favored in the next iteration of the design. Also what a biologist calls the selection factors (i.e. the factors influencing the probability of any given component of the design to be reproduced unchanged in the next iteration) are of course critical. So identifying and clarifying the aims of the design helps a lot, in steering the evolution of the design towards better results along those criteria. Especially since the teacher will be acting under pressure and mostly intuitively (according to his habitus in (Perrenoud 1994 ) 's sense ) (Huberman, 1986). So clearly identifying the goals of the design helps to select the appropriate changes when they happen, and to select against the changes that are not adaptive.


  • Duboule, D., & Wilkins, A. S. (1998). The evolution of'bricolage'. Trends Genet, 14(2), 54-59.
  • Dessus, Philippe et Schneider, Daniel Scénarisation de l'enseignement et contraintes de la situation, In J.-P. Pernin & H. Godinet (2006). (Eds.), Colloque Scénariser l'enseignement et l'apprentissage : une nouvelle compétence pour le praticien ? (pp. 13-18). Lyon : INRP. PDF
  • Lévi-Strauss. (1962). La pensée sauvage. Paris: Plon.
  • Perrenoud, P. (1994). La formation des enseignants entre théorie et pratique. Paris: L'Harmattan.
  • Rick, J. & Lamberty, K. K. (2004). Medium-Based Design: Supporting Bricoleur Designers. In Y. Kafai et al. (Eds.), Embracing Diversity in the Learning Sciences: The proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS). (pp. 630). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. PDF Preprint
  • Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen. Identity in the Age of the Age of Internet. . New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Turkle, S., & Papert, S. (1991). Epistemological pluralism and the revaluation of the concrete. . In I. Harel & S. Papert (Eds.), Constructionism (pp. 161-191): Ablex Publishing Corporation.
  • Huberman, M. (1986). Répertoires, recettes et vie de classe : comment les enseignants utilisent les informations. In M. Crahay & L. D. (Eds.), L'art et la science de l'enseignement. (Vol. 2, pp. 151- 185). Bruxelles: De Boeck.