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Is program design an art or a science?

By Joshua Kukowski

On the one hand, there's data. On the other hand, there's your gut. As I branch out and begin to truly understand the programs I work for and grasp their impact and begin to plant some of my own programmatic seeds, I am thinking about youth development program design. In a recent experience, I had a positive outcome that sparked me to ask this question: Is what we do an art or a science?

My answer? I think there's a healthy tension between the two that goes unnoticed. I am finding tools for program design that bring out both sides.

Many youth workers, teachers, and volunteers don't have time to critically analyze each lesson or activity on a daily basis. We often rely on quick improvements on quality, feedback, and our own "guts" to improve our practice. In my previous role as a teacher, I remember making quick modifications before class, making notes for next year on what worked, and often-times throwing out the entire lesson plan because I felt it didn't work. This is the art of experience-informed improvisation.

On the other hand, school administrators and program leaders often rely on data (or create the data) to drive programs and program needs. As I improvised in the classroom, part of what drove my decisions was data -- the science side of education.

The healthy, positive tension between art and science in our program design or improvement often goes unrecognized or unappreciated in all education levels as we strive through for the same goal of making the best for our youth.

In some recent work with a small sub-group of the Minnesota State 4-H Ambassadors who were tasked with planning the service-learning project at their annual state leadership conference, a little bit of data mixed with the untouched canvas of ideas. We asked young people to design a program. They held dual roles by wearing the administrator hat (equipped with data) and teacher hat (armed with their passion). We armed them with elements of a technique called smallify in which they made "small bets" on their ideas, merging art with science.

Smallify is similar to another familiar program design improvement technique called Cloud-Bursting. Both of these techniques involve thinking about data and doing exercises to promote creativity in planning. These techniques create a space that promote the highest levels of youth engagement.
The outcome was important (and successful), but the process was equally weighted between art and science. I believe that equal weighting is key to this discussion.

Smallify and Cloud-Bursting are two simple exercises that can help expose the art and science in your program design. I am certain there are many more. How do you create the space that permits this healthy tension? Can you share some examples of how you champion the art of teaching with the logical aspects of science?

-- Joshua Kukowski, Extension educator

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  1. When working as an educator build off a high quality curriculum that I can adapt. I remember when I was first looking for information on how to teach robotics...I know I will never be a robotics guru but was confident I could teach if I had the right tools. I looked through a number of books, went to a variety of hobbyist websites and reviewed a few curriculum packets.
    Once I selected my core curriculum I was able to build out my program using their content as a skeleton. The art, as I do it, is adapting a proven curriculum for a nonformal environment so that it is engaging, teaches problem solving and has intentional reflection built into each experience.

  2. What an interesting way to think of our work, Joshua.
    I see program design as definitely both an art and a science. I also see that program evaluation can bring some science (in the form of one kind of systematic feedback, anyway) into our (usually gut-checked) creative re-design in the future.

  3. Joshua: Good comments concerning the healthy, positive tension between the scientific method and the more artful approach. I agree with Mark H., who points out that if given a research backed lesson, the "artful" teacher can take that lesson and adapt it to their own style and the needs of their own classroom. Unfortunately, many administrators and district officials often lack faith in their instructors and look for a cookie-cutter approach, preferring to have the teachers use canned lessons, which are easier to "measure".
    But, with good administrators that pick good teachers, (which is the real key to this) provide them with ample resources, and then get out of the way, the artful teacher can connect with their classes and magic happens. Ideally, the new artful lesson can then be analyzed scientifically and the circle can continue.
    Thanks for getting this discussion going!

  4. Thank you Mark for your comments, I absolutely agree with you. Oftentimes curriculum is too prescriptive and we need to adapt it to our ever-diverse audiences. I also get that writing a curriculum for all audiences is tough. I remember as a teacher we were often forced to read 'the bolded print' and it was often out of context or order. Good style.

  5. Art,
    Thank you for your comments. You bring up the point that having the right people in the right places. Often, it appears that some teachers, youth workers, administrators, or volunteers are often misplaced. While each may share a passion, finding their right place in education is important. That healthy tension becomes an awkward one if we blindly mix our intentions without considering the science or art of the person or program in question. Keep this discussion going in your sphere in Sonoma County!!

  6. Heidi,
    I also agree that most parts of our work can be thought of that way and program evaluation - as an extension of program design should be considered that way as well. I was recently at 4-H camp and a colleague and I were evaluating the group's bonding and as they were leaving, they all hung out for a while, gave big hugs, and planned a future hangout...that also went in the evaluation. Can you make the stretch into volunteer systems? Any connections there?

  7. Hmmm, a stretch into volunteer systems.... I can think of a couple. One is that it's not always easy to develop in a person that seemingly innate love for the art of program design. I think that perhaps this is like music - or even leadership: people have varying degrees of natural ability, but everyone has some, and everyone can hone and improve what they have.
    For those who don't come by that art part naturally, many can "get there" though the science part. A young woman who volunteered in NE Minnesota recently told me that she is not the person that that breaks out into song at camp--and gets all the campers to join in. However, when the situation calls for it, she can dig it out of herself and be THAT person.
    Likewise, a person that has that innate ability can reflect deeply on his or her own more "artistically" grounded experience and use best practices from other youth workers to improve the learning or whatever he or she is focusing on. So a well-designed program allows for that design-on-the fly--and vice versa.
    And whether one comes at it from the art or the science, it's really useful to use both to help young people to learn, lead, and contribute--and to have fun doing it!

  8. Joshua - thoughtful blog on the important balancing act that is quality practice. It is both science and art. This means that as youth workers we need to strengthen both our "artistic abilities" and our "scientific abilities". Artist do more than use their gut - they learn sound principles of practice and develop a sense of what it looks like and feels like when youth are engaged. They create an informed gut. They learn techniques that they can use. Similarly on the scientific side, youth workers need to learn how to generate and use data that helps them 1) improve their practice and 2) helps demonstrate its impact to those who invest in their efforts. In short, it is a balancing of skills in both areas. We need to help practitioners develop their confidence and capacity in both areas and in there use.
    Also related to point about trusting those who have to adapt programs. Implementation science supports the importance of adaptation to having impact -- as well as the problems with adaptations that are not aligned with or use the underlying program design. Fidelity with adaptation is also a balancing act. Finland took a very different approach to improving education than the US. It raised the profession of teaching and made it more appealing to bright capable people and made getting into teaching harder / more demanding and then encourages them to use that higher level of expertise to adapt what they do to those they work with. Their approach has succeed while our suspicion driven accountability has not done so well. Blind following of curriculum in school or in OST is unlikely to yield what we all seek - impact in the lives of young people.

  9. Here, here, Dale! I think that you more eloquently said what I was trying to say at the end of my post. We need people who can do both. And I do believe that we can help volunteer to develop that side of themselves to which they may not be naturally drawn. Perhaps stories of how volunteers made improvements to their program by going to that new (and perhaps at first uncomfortable) place will help folks to see that it can be done and how.

  10. I've had the pleasure of working with amazing colleagues along the way. One mentor I had who I reached out to on classroom management and positive reinforcement said you had to be "firm and fair", now this is echoed in classroom management classes all over, but what it meant at the time was took me time to understand what that meant, it took me many ways to improve my 'gut' and study what worked and didn't. So, Dale, my informed gut was improved over time. And to follow up with Heidi, yes, we do need both and at times, we rely on one more than the other. Thank you both your thoughts.
    I heard about the Finland experience. With all things considered, they consistently rank at the top of all educational categories. I believe that most people enter the education profession out of passion, but get distracted along the way (low pay, satisfaction, etc), but if we up the notch and make this work a consistently valued profession, then we may attract and keep our high quality professionals. I can share a little of that sentiment as I left the classroom for a while to rediscover why I was in there in the first place.
    I enjoy this discussion very much.


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