Learning and pedagogy – a manifesto

Personal reflections

Michael Shanks

Here are some comments, suggestions, recommendations for a progressive participant-oriented curriculum.

For a more detailed pragmatic outline of learning objectives, method and evaluation, oriented in and on rhetoric and design foresight – [Link].

For an expanded statement applied also to learning outside the academy, see my personal site at mshanks.com – [Link].

Focus on learners and skills

How might learning and education prepare us for a rich and rewarding life?
What do we need to learn, what skills do we need to practise  in order to meet the challenges of life and work today and in the future?
How does the schooling (and research) associated with academic institutions like colleges and universities connect with lifelong learning in businesses, organizations, communities ?

It is under these questions that I place the narrower concerns of how to design and operate curricula in those particular academic subjects and disciplines in which I am expert – archaeology, design studies, classical studies and anthropology.

As an educator with long experience in many learning environments, from kindergarten to corporation, I suggest we focus upon skills, competencies, attitudes, and mindsets in addressing such questions. We learn by practising the things that make sense to us, that connect with our own aims, hopes, standpoints, lifeworlds. Orient teaching on the learner – school or college student, member of a business or organization, a young family member or senior in a civic community – we are actually always already learners. Ground teaching in hands-on experiences of researching and finding out, of making, communicating effectively in different media, collaborating and sharing.

An archaeological sensibility

Archaeology is a way of thinking, a sensibility, an attunement to the worlds we make and with which we engage. Archaeologists  explore the big picture of who we are and where we have come from, understanding how and why we make things the way we do, innovation, why things change or stay the same. A long-term perspective rooted in the fine detail of everyday life, archaeology offers unique insights into key contemporary concerns such as how to increase our shared and creative capacity to deal with change, complexity, uncertainty.

Archaeology offers marvelous scope and material with which to practise key skills and competencies – looking at artifacts, architectures, changing experiences in the lifeworlds of first humans in Africa, through prehistoric farmers, early cities and states in the Near East, Mesoamerica and Asia, through Greek and Roman antiquity to our own world of late modernity.

Outlook, philosophy and mindset

In a world of runaway change, complexity and uncertainty, the challenge for us all – individuals, communities, organizations and businesses – is to develop our capacities to be flexible and adaptive, creative and innovative as well as skeptical and critical, to communicate insight into complexity, to collaborate, because it is only by working together that we may address matters of common and pressing concern that refuse to be contained within established bodies of knowledge and expertise.

This means that we would do well to embrace a mindset of lifelong learning. Every organization and business needs to embrace a culture of constant adaptive learning, exploration and creative innovation. In the academy, more than ever the best objective is to connect research with teaching and with application or impact beyond the classroom.

Carol Dweck’s growth mindset remains inspiring, with its emphasis upon exploration and experiment, being open to hands-on action-oriented learning. The deep philosophical insights of the likes of pragmatism, especially after John Dewey, offer a foundation for this focus upon acting in the world, engaging with things and others, learning through doing and dialogue, in an ongoing conversation around questions that matter to us.

From content to competencies

Teaching should aim to build frameworks for self-directed learning, immersed in research, exploring and finding out, driven by skeptical curiosity, embracing creative tools and techniques. 

Over four decades I have taught in university programs, high school, individual tutoring and coaching at all levels, corporate workshops and training, policy advice. In all I have experienced the value of project-based learning by doing, experiential, personalized and learner-centered, focused on core competencies for now and the future. This is in keeping with expert opinion and research, with most national and international agencies with an interest in learning, education and training.

What are the competencies and skills at the heart of such pedagogy? 

Collaborative cocreation, building bridges across radically different bodies of expertise, convening teams, leadership, judgement/decision making, communicating and synthesizing complexity, ideation – coming up with fresh ideas, mobilizing narrative, navigating ambiguous scenarios, rapid hands-on modeling/prototyping, achieving empathy in researching needs and matters of concern.

Critical skills involve taking into account the context of any project, standpoints and stakeholder interests.

Social skills (addressed in social and emotional learning) are foundational.

Above all is an objective of enhancing creative confidence to reframe and innovate.

All assume some basic literacies, particularly in information and communication technologies, and in civics.

Case studies and project-based learning-on-the-job

Learning by doing needs projects through which to acquire and practice skills – case studies. As an archaeologist, anthropologist, humanist, for case studies I have found it of value to draw upon an archaeological and anthropological perspective on the present as well as the past, on the design of things, on everyday life, artifacts, architectures. Such case studies offer unique and fascinating opportunities for learning key skills and competencies. 

  • What can the pyramid builders of ancient Egypt tell us about motivation and leadership in large organizations? 
  • What kinds of innovation were at the heart of the emergence of the Greek city state? 
  • How does the making and using, the design of bronze artifacts in prehistoric Europe connect with life experiences of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people?
  • How has the power and authority to make things happen changed from prehistory to modernity in relation to complexity of organizations, communities, states, corporations?

Foundations and inspiration

This commitment to learning by making, grounded in the riches of human experience across cultures and history, is backed by:

  • research in education and pedagogy, especially since John Dewey’s pragmatism.
  • research into the working of science and technology since Bruno Latour
  • ways of understanding creative and innovative design articulated by the likes of Don Norman and Pelle Ehn
  • arguments for the importance of bridging the arts and sciences coming from the likes of Elliott Eisner and Michel Serres and going back to the humanism of Giambattista Vico
  • educational policy after Ken Robinson and Tony Wagner
  • ways of conceiving complex systems after Ilya Prigogine, Isabelle Stengers, John Urry and Andrew Pickering
  • process-based management theory after the likes of Tim Brown and Tor Hernes.

Pragmatics – design thinking and rhetoric

How do you run any kind of project? One might embed the competencies I have just listed in two ways of conceiving of projects and project management.

Design thinking

While the term has become popular over the last decade, design thinking is an old and well-established pragmatics rooted in organized making and manufacture. Involved are iterative cycles in context-sensitive action-oriented project management, research-based, involving framing, synthesis, ideation, prototyping/modeling, and testing. Design thinking delivers creative insight and innovation.


Rhetoric is another age-old body of practice that deals in making and delivering cases, arguments, in specific times and places, for particular ends and audiences. The scope of rhetoric is not only written and spoken discourse. Consider that a building may be an argument for a certain way of living, perhaps one centered on particular kinds of gathering, or certain functions of everyday life that can happen within its walls.

The main components of rhetoric are research (including information and standpoint), arrangement of the parts of a case or project, the style of outcome (formal or loose, mobilizing appeals to reason or emotion, for example), the delivery of the case (taking in time, location and audience), access and documentation (who gets to use the outcome of a project, how much access do they have to its intellectual property, for example).

Mindful of methodology and theory

Just as we need substantive challenges, projects through which to practice skills and competencies, we need to be mindful of the theories, concepts, methodologies, tools and techniques that lie within any project and case study.

Design thinking and a related field, strategic foresight, offer a range of effective tools and techniques ranging from ethnographic research to establish empathy with people’s needs and wants, through the facilitation of collaboration, to means of testing a prototype or model of a product or experience. Within orthodox qualitative and quantitative methodologies aimed at establishing pattern and insight, through analysis and interpretation, one might draw on the emerging field of practice as research, research creation.

Theory and concepts are essential in running any project. They allow us to address questions of changing human experience (what concepts will help us get a handle on how people feel about now and the future?), agency and efficacy (the grounds on which people feel they matter and have an impact). There are choices to be made in how we might model the working of society and culture, how we might understand and explain how organizations work, what drives change and innovation. One might use theory to gain actionable insight into ambiguous complex challenges.

Stanford classes – a personal curriculum

At Stanford I teach in the programs in Urban Studies, Design, Engineering, Science Technology Society, Writing and Rhetoric, Classics, Archaeology, and Continuing Studies.

My flagship classes exploring the archaeological imagination are

An archaeology of design
Ten case studies from a prehistoric lithic to robot cars. Project: mobilize key design concepts and methods to reverse engineer an artifact, identifying key aspects of design, manufacture, consumption and discard.

Design of cities
Understanding and planning change in urban dwelling. Case studies: drawn from the evolution of city life in Mesopotamia and prehistoric Europe. Project: conduct ethnographic fieldwork in a local city, researching urban dwelling, with a view to identifying needs and potential interventions.

Eight great archaeological sites in Europe
Exploring place making and experiences of sites and buildings through archaeological case studies. Project: practicing rhetorical skills of writing and presentation in a collaboratively authored site report.

The Graduate Seminar
Each year I run a seminar that explores evolving aspects of the pragmatics of knowledge building for a contemporary world of late modernity using case studies in the fields of archaeology and classical studies. Three paradigms of theory and methodology underpin this advanced exploration of the cutting edge of transdiciplinary research: process-relations (focus on dynamic processes and connections/transactions in a post-phenomenological post-humanist standpoint); performance-design (scenography, dramaturgy and choreography as key dimensions of human-centered design); experience-agency (focus on human experience as flow and immersion in the building of lifeworlds).

Doctoral research – a pragmatic approach
My supervision of doctoral research is pragmatic and focused upon research skills, not as initiation into a disciplinary body of knowledge-for-all-time (for example archaeology, classical studies or anthropology), but to provide the frame within which a graduate student may become an independent researcher, managing the engineering of knowledge in particular contexts (a university or any other site), to particular ends (attending to the reach and impact of research) [Link].

Fieldwork and lab/studio work
Excavation and survey are key components of archaeological and anthropological skill sets. My classes have been part of the excavations at Monte Polizzo in Sicily (2000-2001) and Binchester in the UK (2009-2013).

From 2008-2014 I team taught studio classes in the design program and Stanford d.school with Megghan Dryer, Bernie Roth, Bill Moggridge and David Kelley.

I also regularly run studio classes in ceramics (experimental archaeology).

Stanford Continuing Studies – community outreach
Each year I run at least one class for Stanford Continuing Studies. For the last five years I have helped establish an online program with classes in design and design thinking.

Publications in learning futures 

Creativity in complexity: learning through experience and design. Lessons from 50 years of progressive education on how to prepare for uncertain futures. Edited with Tamara Carleton, Magnus Hansen, Jesper Simonsen, and Connie Svabo (Stanford and Roskilde). MIT Press, forthcoming. [Link]

Business Archaeology: using next-generation Design Thinking to develop your organization’s capacity to innovate. With Victor Taratukhin (SAP and Muenster University) and Natalia Pulyavina (Plekhanov University, Moscow). Book in planning.

Scholartistry: creativity and the future of the Liberal Arts. With Connie Svabo (Roskilde). In Rebecca Pope-Ruark, Phillip Motley and William Moner (eds) Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative Design for a 21st Century Undergraduate Education. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020. [Link]

Smart Universities: Education’s digital future. Edited with Christian Stracke (Open University Netherlands) and Oddgeir Tveiten (Agder University). Logos, 2018. [Link]

Scholartistry: integrating scholarship and art. With Connie Svabo (Roskilde). Journal of Problem-based Learning in Higher Education 6.1: 15-38 (2018). [Link]

Is Design Thinking the new Liberal Arts? A review by Peter Miller (Bard Graduate Center) of our Design Thinking pedagogy. Chronicle of Higher Education, April 2015. [Link]

Michael Shanks and Lynn Hershman: the scientist and the artist. In Adam Bly (ed) Science is Culture: Conversations from the Seed Salon, New York, Harper Collins, 2010. [Link]

Artereality: art as craft in a knowledge economy. With Jeffrey Schnapp (Stanford). In Steven Madoff (ed) Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century. Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 2009. [Link]
This essay summarized experiences running Stanford Humanities Lab 2005-2009, a center of research and progressive pedagogy.
Here is how I expressed its mission:
A – to animate the archive of human experience, because foresight is always grounded in clear hindsight, knowledge of where we have come from;
B – to be transdisciplinary, to build bridges between skill sets and domains of knowledge and expertise, because messy real-world challenges are never contained within a single discipline;
C – to foster collaborative co-creation in flat flexible teams that embrace participation with their communities and clients.