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Home » research » The Nutshell Studies: An instructional design case worth listening to, again

The Nutshell Studies: An instructional design case worth listening to, again

Frances Glessner Lee, Parlor (detail), about 1946-48. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD. Photograph by Susan Marks, Courtesy of Murder in a Nutshell documentary. I believe this is how my students feel during the academic crunch time in November, but that’s not why the picture is here.

Years ago Elizabeth Boling mentioned this classic instructional design, The Nutshell Studies, and I just had not run into a thorough discussion of it for years. It is an instructional design intended to support the learning of forensic science for detectives. The most remarkable part of the design are 19 miniature dioramas which make lifelike crimes scenes available for viewing by multiple detectives in training. A perfect instructional design case for a historical issue of IJDL, but the dioramas, and the life of their creator Frances Glassner Lee, were recently featured on an NPR show called Sidedoor, and in all honesty, Tony Cohn from PRX does an excellent job, hitting all the required components of a design case. As AECT is just around the corner again, I am sure I will be talking about instructional design cases again in the near future, and this Sidedoor episode is a case worth discussing.

Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, is actually the name of an art exhibit, but is spawns from an instructional design, from which Cohn crafted his audio instructional design case. Mrs. Lee created complex dioramas with such detail that they could tell the story of an entire murder, well, almost the entire story. A curious aspect to her dioramas was their purposefully unsolved-ness. There is no solution offered to the detectives in training. In other words, despite their intricacy, they will always remain, unsolved. This 1940’s design choice of creating unsolved murder scenes, fodder for discussion but not for resolution, speaks to the persistence of discussion, rather than resolution, as being an ever-present aspect of higher order thinking. The key is not to select the right answer, but to untangle the complexity and multiple possibilities that could play into each scene. Of course, the hope is that with practice, learning the process of disentanglement will result in better investigations, leading to a higher chance of getting things right eventually.  Once we let go of the idea of always getting is right this time, and focus on getting it right most of the time, our chances go way up each and every time.

Learners in the Master’s program in IT here at UT chuckle about my choices of terms: grapple, dig in, go deeper, dissect, take apart.  But these terms do tell what I am trying to accomplish. I don’t think we’re ever going to learn definitively how to teach (sadly) and I don’t think we’re ever going to definitively determine the right way to design instruction (woefully), and , that’s not the point (joyously). The point is, to see a design like the Nutshell Studies for more than just the dioramas, though, for sure, the dioramas were pretty damn cool.


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