Bodong Chen

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Notes: Farris2016-fz: Democratizing Children’s Computation: Learning Computational Science as Aesthetic Experience



Citekey: @Farris2016-fz

Farris, A. V., & Sengupta, P. (2016). Democratizing Children’s Computation: Learning Computational Science as Aesthetic Experience: Democratizing Children’s Computation. Educational Theory, 66(1-2), 279–296.


Summarize: Drawing on Dewey’s classic works (Democracy and Education and Art and Experience), the authors make an intriguing argument that learning computation should be seen as an ‘aesthetic experience’. This argument is based on a detailed discussion of ideas from Dewey, ideas from the philosophy of science, and challenges with introducing computation to K-12 classrooms.

From worked examples from the elementary grades, they highlight two criteria of students’ aesthetic experiences in computing:

  1. Continuity across domain. That is, learning computation is not an isolated act but connects with other subjects areas.
  2. Balancing institutional aims and “true” aims. That is, learning computation is not only to learn computation per se but to achieve “true”, personally meaningful aims beyond prescribed curricula. Instead of fixating upon a single “tool”, multiple tools and modalities are mobilized to assist in students’ expressive goals.

Assess: This essay is inspirational (not b/c I recently met with P. Sengupta). It greatly opens up the space of computational science education and shine a spotlight on learners (and their true aims) instead of numerous mandates of CS4All.

The aesthetic dimension, as well as the unity of science and art, should be addressed more often in K12 classrooms (and education at all levels + the public discourse).

Reflect: I will continue to grapple with these ideas…


a democratic approach to children’s computing education in a science class must focus on the aesthetics of children’s experience. (p. 1)

In Art as Experience, Dewey presents aesthetic experience as the fundamental form of human experience that undergirds all other forms of experiences and that can bring together multiple forms of experiences, locating this form of experience in the work of artists. (p. 1)

Dewey calls the process through which a person transforms a material into an expressive medium an aesthetic experience. (p. 1)

Introduction (p. 1)

Developing computational literacy requires developing epistemic and representational practices such as thinking algo- rithmically, and designing and creating computational artifacts such as programs and simulations. (p. 1)

Several scholars have argued that increasing access to computa- tional literacy for children in the realm of public education involves integrating computation within existing courses such as science and math that all children are required to take (p. 1)

Uri Wilensky, Corey E. Brady, and Michael S. Horn, “Fostering Computational Literacy in Science Classrooms,” Communications of the ACM 57, no. 8 (2014): 24–28 (p. 1)

Pratim Sengupta, John S. Kinnebrew, Gautam Biswas, and Douglas Clark, “Integrating Computational Thinking with K–12 Science Education: A Theoretical Framework,” Education and Information Technologies 18, no. 2 (2013): 351. (p. 1)

must involve efforts to create computing in the image of children’s lives, and not vice versa (p. 2)

In this essay, we argue — in part by example — that an effective and democratic approach to children’s computing education within a science class can and must focus on the aesthetics of children’s experience. (p. 2)

For Dewey, the value of educational experiences lies in “the unity or integrity of experience” (DE, 257). (p. 2)

he claims that aesthetic experience can bring together multiple forms of experience. (p. 2)

We extend Higgins’s argument by claiming that aesthetic education should not only be exemplified by the arts, but it must also bring computing and science education into its fold. (p. 2)

Chris Higgins, “Instrumentalism and the Clichés of Aesthetic Education: A Deweyan Corrective,” Education and Culture 24, no. 1 (2008): 6–19. (p. 2)

On Aesthetics in Professional Science and K–12 STEM (p. 3)

Philosophers and historians of science agree that beauty and aesthetics play an epistemic role in the development of scientific knowledge (p. 3)

Gideon Engler main- tained that the beauty associated with Einstein’s theories, which was also widely acknowledged by his peers, can be understood in light of the following aesthetic qualities: simplicity, symmetry (including invariance, equivalence, and covari- ance), unification (unity), and fundamentality.8 (p. 3)

the aesthetic proper- ties of theories (p. 3)

cannot help linking Kuhn’s work and my work on promisingness of ideas/theories in learner communities. Have not thought about aesthetic properties earlier. (p. 3)

Philosophers of science have also asserted the importance of scientists’ interpretive work in the production scientific knowledge, including scientific inscriptions, such as drawings, diagrams, photographic images, and computer visu- alizations. (p. 3)

Gideon Engler, “Einstein and the Most Beautiful Theories in Physics,” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 16, no. 1 (2002): 27. (p. 3)

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 64–73. (p. 3)

  1. Nancy J. Nersessian, “How Do Scientists Think? Capturing the Dynamics of Conceptual Change in Science,” in Cognitive Models of Science, ed. Ronald N. Giere (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 3–44. (p. 3)

In their critique of objectivity in the sciences, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison argue that the pro- duction of inscriptions in science reflect the values and the epistemology of the scientific culture in which they are made.13 (p. 4)

The progressive centrality of computation in current scientific practice has further transformed the epistemological nature of science. (p. 4)

There is little, if any, understanding of the aesthetic dimensions of scientific practice, as well as the journey of “becoming” a scientist. (p. 4)

They locate aesthetics in the classroom dis- course, and they present guidelines for teaching science as an aesthetic experience by proposing forms of questions that teachers could ask students (p. 4)

Miles MacLeod and Nancy J. Nersessian, “Building Simulations from the Ground Up: Modeling and Theory in Systems Biology,” Philosophy of Science 80, no. 4 (2013): 533–56. (p. 4)

Mark Girod, Cheryl Rau, and Adele Schepige, “Appreciating the Beauty of Science Ideas: Teaching for Aesthetic Understanding,” Science Education 87, no. 4 (2003): 574–87. (p. 4)

Lemke argues that central to this account of the transformative nature of experience in the production of scientific knowledge is “the vital fusion of theory and experiment (or observation) that makes science truly a performance art,” which science education has failed to address in an authentic fashion. (p. 5)

at the heart of scientific progress is the “dance of agency” between theories and instrumentation.19 However, Pickering’s work does not address the dimensions of the scientists’ affective involvement and personal meaningfulness, which are also essential elements of Deweyan aesthetic experiences. (p. 5)

In stark contrast to such heightened forms of engagement and experiences lie the learning experiences of the disempowered and the disinterested, who are typically left out of the fold of deep engagement with the curricular content in most classrooms.21 (p. 5)

Jay Lemke, “Articulating Communities: Sociocultural Perspectives on Science Education,” Journal of Research on Science Teaching 38, no. 3 (2001): 300–01. (p. 5)

Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). (p. 5)

most of whom do not identify themselves as computing- or STEM-competent, even at the college level.22 (p. 6)

such students will develop a deep interest in their curricular work and (in the context of learning science) come to see that work as both scientifically and personally meaningful (see DE, for example, 128 and 227–39) (p. 6)

We therefore ask the following question: What is the nature and role of aesthetic experiences for such students in the context of doing computational science? (p. 6)

Democratizing Science and Computing Education: The Nature and Role of Aesthetic Experiences (p. 6)

Achieving coherence between the learners’ interest, or what Dewey terms “true aims,” and pedagogical aims would foster continuity of the pedagogical experience with the learners’ experiences outside the classroom (DE, chap. 8). (p. 6)

For Dewey, “the measure of the value of an experience lies in the perception of relationships or continuities to which it leads up” (DE, 147). (p. 6)

Curricular domains of knowledge are institutions that are disconnected from each other (DE, 294–97), and this iso- lation of curricular experiences “rupture[s] … the intimate association” between domains of knowledge as experienced by the learner in a continuous form in his or her everyday life outside the classroom (DE, 295). Dewey considers this a serious breach in the learners’ continuity of mental development because this makes the curricular experience unreal for the learner and can therefore lead to a loss of interest. (p. 6)

Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002). (p. 6)

He locates the paradigm of such experiences in the artist and claims that aesthetic experiences arise in the artist’s process of trans- formation of a material into an expressive medium (AE, 111–13). (p. 7)

It is this interpenetrative nature that makes aesthetic experiences fundamen- tal, in that they transcend domains of knowledge and represent the unity of expe- rience through which the object becomes expressive and personally meaningful to the artist. (p. 7)

The creation of computational programs that underlie any usable software (or application) involves the use of computational abstractions,25 that is, representational structures that are domain-general (for example, algorithms, data structures such as lists and arrays, and so on). (p. 7)

The essential nature of the practice of com- putation is therefore transformative. To put this in Dewey’s terms, the material of computation — typically, a programming language — gets transformed into an expressive object, specifically a software application that has value because of its usability and meaningfulness in other domains. (p. 7)

Our second reason concerns Dewey’s emphasis on the continuity of learning experiences for a democratic education. (p. 8)

Over the past three decades, research on making agent-based computation accessible to young learners has identified several activity forms that can poten- tially support interest-driven computing. (p. 8)

new forms of activities within which programming is embedded: game design,26 digital narratives,27 digital animations of sketches and graphic design,28 and integration of programming with physical computing and the use of low-tech objects.29 (p. 8)

That is, as the learners (in these studies) engage in the development of multiple, personally meaningful representations of the object of inquiry, they begin to “see” the unknown through using experiences that are personally meaningful and familiar. (p. 8)

Mitchel Resnick, John Maloney, Andrés Monroy-Hernández, Natalie Rusk, Evelyn Eastmond, Karen Brennan, Amon Millner, et al., “Scratch: Programming for All,”Communications of the ACM 52, no. 11 (2009): 60–67. (p. 8)

For example, taken together, these studies suggest that computation, and in particular agent-based computation, is indeed a malleable medium that can lend itself to multiple activity forms, and further, that certain forms of computa- tion might even bring together multiple domains within the act of learning. (p. 9)

To summarize, we argue that the transformative and fundamental nature of aesthetic experiences can provide useful guidelines for designing an inclusive and democratic pedagogy for kids’ computing (p. 9)

should provide learners opportunities to transform a material (for example, a computational programming language) into an expressive medium. In the context of computing education, this means that the learner should be able to create a personally meaningful artifact. This in turn requires balancing the learners’ interests or true aims with institutionally man- dated aims that instructors have to abide by. (p. 9)

the second dimension, the fundamental nature of aesthetic experiences implies that the learning experi- ence must also be continuous. That is, it should also enable learners to connect the present experience with their lived experiences outside the classroom and to bridge different domains that are traditionally taught as ontologically distinct from one another. (p. 9)

A Worked Example (p. 9)

Note that our goal was to reframe learning computational science as an aesthetic experience; therefore, we intentionally integrated multiple domains and tools in our pedagogy. (p. 10)

The “Tools”: ViMAP and TuneBlocks (p. 10)

ViMAP (see Figure 1) is an agent-based visual programming language and mod- eling platform34 that uses NetLogo as the simulation engine.35 (p. 10)

Episode 1: Programming “Thomas” (p. 12)

Ariana began writing a ViMAP program to make the turtle write “Thomas” (Figure 3). (p. 12)

Ariana: The fourth Thomas is my best friend, the third Thomas is from The Maze Runner, and the second Thomas is the Maze Runner’s dad, and the first Thomas is Thomas Edison, the scientist. And this will be our fifth Thomas, our little turtle here. And he is so good. He is going to preschool and he is knowing how to spell his name. (p. 13)

we highlight the two key criteria of an aesthetic experience that are central to a democratic education (p. 13)

Continuity across Domains. In Ariana’s work, geometry and programming were deeply intertwined with one another. (p. 13)

Balancing Institutional Aims and True Aims. Ariana’s project shows that the computational agent (the turtle) truly became a transitional object — that is, she projected her identity onto the turtle. Her way of learning programming was by making the turtle learn how to write Thomas. This in turn transformed the material (ViMAP) and the activity (learning programming by drawing letters) into a means to talk about her serendipitous encounters with the many Thomases in her life: literary figures, historical figures, and friends. (p. 14)

Episode 2: A Collaborative, Multimodal Model of Acceleration (p. 14)

Continuity across Domains. In this episode, learning about the physics of motion — that is, learning to represent motion as a process of continuous change — was deeply intertwined with the use of programming and musical notations. (p. 16)

Balancing Institutional and True Aims. The multimodality in Ariana and Matt’s models illustrate children’s agency in interpreting and symbolizing scientific ideas (p. 16)

Conclusion (p. 17)

Can the disinterested find their voices in the STEM classroom, especially in classrooms where computation is the medium of “doing” science? (p. 17)

That is, the democratization of computing hinges on designing pedagogies that enable the learner, especially the disinterested learner, to transform the computer as a material into an expressive medium in a manner that can create a fundamental and unifying experience. (p. 17)

It can therefore provide children entrée into anewkind of science, where the mundane is reimagined and (re)represented as complex, and children’s true aims find a place alongside the institutionally mandated aims. (p. 17)

Dewey argues that the habitual nature of art is such that it helps us “see” complexity in the world of our everyday experiences, the mundane. He wrote, “Art throws off the covers that hide the expressiveness of experienced things” (AE, 110). (p. 17)

The many Thomases in Ariana’s life and Matt’s experience of his daily car rides as well as his aspiration to be an actor are repre- sentations of children’s interests and Deweyan “true aims” that are typically left behind in pedagogical time. (p. 17)

the “value” of a democratic education lies in the unity (or integrity) of experience. The essence of technology being nothing technological,39 we believe that the unity of experience, which Dewey argued to be at the heart of aes- thetic experience, is truly the essence of democratizing children’s computational science. (p. 18)