The Third Pillar of Praxis

Learning and doing are important, however without sensing we are practicing and growing in the dark.

Praxis is a word that describes the interplay between learning through knowledge and action working together. The more we do, the more we know and the more we know, the more we can do.

Praxis is vital to innovation — it’s the application of what we know into what we do and brings in the learning from that action into shaping how we understand something. Yet, stuck within the middle of this is a missing pillar and like a two-legged stool, it can’t stand up without it.

What’s missing?

Our human senses.

Sensing and Design for Improved Praxis

Our ability to sense what’s going on around us through our sight, hearing, taste, touch, emotions, smell, physical sensations and experience are often taken for granted. Without attuning to the world around us – our inner and outer experience — we risk creating products and services that are divorced from what it means to be human.

It’s through our senses that we understand the world and live it as a human. It’s also easy to forget this when we’re physically apart and mediating more of our work and other aspects of our lives through screens.

When I bring up sensing to those I work with, very often the associated imagery with that concept is like the image above. What we forget is that we’re always using our senses even when we’re behind a screen. The pandemic’s push toward wide-scale remote work has had the effect of pushing our sensory awareness way down. We are mediating so much through screens it’s easy to forget that we still have sight, sound, and both our physical sensations and our emotional reactions (even if touch and smell is pretty limited).

Praxis and the sensory aspect of it is what brings human qualities to knowledge and production (doing). It’s the mediator between what we think and what we create. Great praxis is therefore designed to accommodate this aspect of what we do.

Praxis graphs on to knowledge, action, and sensation together.

The distinction between the traditional dyadic model and this one is also that it recognizes that any activity can fall closer to any one, two or three of these dimensions rather than force us to push to one or the other. It also allows greater space to move between different aspects of praxis activities — more doing, more attention to our feelings and body, or more facts and figure content.

Putting Praxis To Human Work

It’s a bit strange to describe work as ‘human‘, but a close look at what we define as work these days is far from human.

When we design for humans, we create things that fit human sensibilities, capabilities, aspirations, and behaviours – not just the systems around them. Real behavioural design considers the whole human, not just the thinking part. Behavioural design considers the irrational, the social, the reflective, and spiritual parts of what it means to be human. Our designs for praxis therefore consider all of these as factors that are part of our sensory landscape.

I might feel a part of a project.

You might be motivated to act.

We are inspired to ask more questions or do more.

The tools and technologies like those illustrated above are means to building an understanding with data or artifacts, but it is our senses — that third pillar of the stool — that support whether our actions and knowledge are translated into something we hold on to and integrate into who we are and what we do.

For educators seeking to design better learning environments this means accounting for much more than tools and tech, but the social and emotional spaces we create. For online classes, this might mean more ways for people to stumble through a topic rather than pursue it as a linear set of steps. When we stumble, we attend and pay attention. That is learning.

Practically, this means designing space for reflection, contemplation, sharing, and promotion of psychological safety in our workplaces and learning institutions. It also means getting out more — for leaders, learners, and supporters — away from what’s in our heads, what we see in front of us, and to create some sensory variety and diversity. Whether we are in-person, online or something else, the lesson for praxis is to create the conditions that resemble the kind of complexity that is at the heart of human learning rather.

Great learning provides us with new knowledge, experiences, and the chance to weave them together through projects. When we do that we achieve real praxis.

Photo credits: “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash, Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash, and by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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