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A hermeneutic phenomenological study of teachers' “lived experiences” of physical computing


The purpose of my research is to examine the lived experiences of teachers in relation to physical computing in secondary schools. The impetus for this study has arisen from working with schools and supporting their practice through the adoption of a new computing curriculum in England from September 2014 and a determination to examine physical computing in classrooms with teachers as co-researchers.

The English national curriculum at Key Stage 3 requires students aged 11-14 years to "design, use, and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems" (DfE, 2013b). Physical systems include the use of robotics or low cost physical devices in school such as Raspberry Pi, Codebug, Crumble or micro:bit controller that can support the learning of programming and digital making in school, and teachers use the phrase 'physical computing' to refer to interactions when students control these real-world 'objects' by programming them from a computer to run additional inputs and outputs such as sensors, motors or voice activation.

Physical computing is closely linked to constructionism in literature and in Mindstorms (1980), Papert examined how the computer served as an ‘object-to-think-with‘ to enable children to realise their personal objectives and learning across any subject using the educational programming language of Logo. Constructionist learning is historically linked with computer science education and provides the theoretical framework to develop Papert’s ideas of microworlds and technocentric thinking (Ibid, 1980) and the development of further programming languages for children has inspired the evolution of programmable devices to bring programming into the physical world. Since the early LEGO and Logo 'programmable bricks' from researchers at the MIT Media Lab, we have witnessed several waves of development with physical devices and software environments along new ways to interact with the technologies using embedded systems (Blikstein, 2013). The focus now given to physical computing in the curriculum is interesting as a researcher with the shift back to theory-driven development of technology to teach children in schools, in contrast to the years previously when children used adults' technologies (Ibid, 2013), and this current phase with the adoption and proliferation of more educational devices in England and teachers sharing the challenges they face alongside embedding a computing curriculum with effective pedagogies and resources.

The following definition from Przybylla (2014) goes further to say that physical computing "covers the design and realisation of interactive objects and installations and allows students to develop concrete, tangible products of the real world, which arise from the learners’ imagination”, giving a wider interpretation with emphasis on the creative aspects of the discipline and recognising wider applications for teaching and learning beyond the knowledge blocks of computing as a discrete subject. The methodological framework for my thesis will not be constructionism, however “objects-to-think-with” will be positioned as a phenomenological study of teachers’ lived experiences with physical computing, with an aim to build rich descriptions of the phenomena and examine the following topic:

New horizons in physical computing: A hermeneutic phenomenological study of computing teachers’ lived experiences in secondary schools.

Computing education research

The historical context of computing education research is important to recognise the curriculum subject as relatively new, since the programme of study was published in 2013 and made statutory in English schools from September 2014. Computing is taught across the three strands of computer science, information technology and digital literacy and this is in contrast to the ICT curriculum which was disapplied by the government and focused purely on computer literacy. Moreover, curriculum reform has impacted on teachers' subject knowledge and effective pedagogical approaches to teach computing, particularly those who were not computer science specialists during the transition phase, with research indicating a need for teachers to understand and adopt computing pedagogy to support effective teaching of the subject (Hidson, 2018).

Pedagogies for computing education in school settings are less developed than other curriculum subjects and it should be noted that early studies were situated in higher education settings, with research from the late 1970s and early 1980s focused on the psychology of students involved in the activity of programming and on the learning of programming itself in educational settings (Guzdial and du Boulay, 2019). However in recent years, the move to introduce a computing curriculum in a number of countries around the world has contributed to a growing body of research now emerging with evidence to support teachers' practice in the classroom, with recommendations from the 'After the reboot' policy report (Royal Society, 2017) including the establishment of a long-term research agenda for computing education in schools and the effective sharing of knowledge between researchers, teachers and teacher trainers.

The goal of much computing education research is to improve how the subject is taught and learnt but one study has shown the difference in research topics prioritised by teachers and researchers with "little overlap between the questions that people who conduct computing education research think are important and the questions considered important by people who teach but do not conduct research" (Denny et al., 2019). It’s emphasis on the study of lived experience and what teachers can reveal about physical computing is why I believe that phenomenology can offer exciting educational research opportunities using the voices of teachers themselves with an emic perspective. It is a perfect time to work phenomenologically with teachers as co-researchers and codify what we know about teaching in this area, identify future research agendas and create new knowledge, furthermore making their knowledge of classroom teaching and learning part of the literature on teaching; in this instance with physical computing (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 1990).

A paper from Papamitsiou et al. (2020) analysed the keywords in the past 15 years of selected computing education publications and found the field to be dominated by learning approaches, aspects of programming, computational thinking, feedback and assessment. Physical computing did not appear as a discrete theme in the analysis and research about the discipline at computing education conferences mostly has a focus on extracurricular activities (Przybylla and Romeike, 2017). Additionally, a Computing At School survey in 2016 reported that 38% of 750 teachers said they used physical computing often, 47% sometimes and 15% never, evidencing the use of physical computing activities in schools (Sentance, 2016), so the intention for this study is to illuminate teachers' experiences with classroom practitioners who have adopted physical computing activities in school for at least two years.

Hermeneutic phenomenology in education

Phenomenology is the study of lived experience or the life world (van Manen, 1997) and as an educational researcher I am particularly interested in the emphasis placed on the world of teaching and learning in schools as lived by experienced computing teachers, those who have adopted physical computing in their teaching practice for a considerable time. Also described as the science of phenomena (van Manen, 1990), phenomenology is a method to examine and explore human experience using a reflective awareness to uncover new meanings to a phenomena (Polkinghorne, 1989). Human behaviour is determined by the phenomena of experience rather than the objective, physically described reality that is external to the individual (Cohen et al., 2007) so a phenomenological methodology for this study will advocate teacher's individual experiences and gather meanings about physical computing through the analysis of their language as spoken during interviews (Kvale and Brinkmann, 2008).

The original meaning of the word phenomenology comes from the Greek words phainomen (an appearance) and logos (reason or word) which translates into reasoned appearance where appearance stands for anything one is conscious of (Stewart and Mickunas, 1974). Experience in this study context relates to teachers' direct encounters with physical computing as they teach in school, not the work of a disembodied mind or thoughts of what it could be but rather seeking to understand a teacher's bond with physical computing as a phenomena, and understanding how that presents itself to the teacher. In this sense lived experience described by van Manen (1990, p. 32) relates to ‘becoming full of the world, full of lived experience’ and as a philosophy or methodology, phenomenology in educational research has the potential to reveal new or forgotten meanings from 'experiences' of physical computing as teachers return and re-examine teaching and learning within the computing curriculum. To truly question something is to interrogate it from the heart of our existence and from the centre of our being (Gadamer, 1975, p.43), and this study will seek to understand physical computing as it reveals itself to experienced teachers who will attempt to ‘create a feeling of understanding’ with rich descriptions as the essence of the phenomena unfolds through their experiences (Willis, 2004).

"Hermeneutics and phenomenology are human science approaches which are rooted in philosophy; as philosophies and reflective disciplines" and from this, van Manen (1990, pp. 7-8) argues that education researchers need not be philosophers themselves but understand the philosophic traditions to implement them as a methodology. Kakkori (2009) goes further to suggest that "we are in serious trouble" without this knowledge and this has shaped my own thinking since taught modules during the EdD and the philosophical underpinning of my pilot study. Hermeneutics is an interpretive process that enables researchers to bring understanding and disclosure of phenomena through language (Annells, 1996) and is the study of human cultural activity as texts with a view towards interpretation to find intended or expressed meanings (Kvale, 1996), with the potential therefore to illuminate the lived experiences of physical computing by knowledgeable teachers who will "describe and interpret these meanings to a certain degree of depth and richness" (van Manen, 1990, p.11). Notably, this research methodology is most appropriate to 'give voice' to the experiences of teachers and to incorporate the experiences from myself as a research throughout the interpretative process.

Hermeneutic phenomenological inquiry in education does not recount the immediate, subjective experiences of teachers but is instead a qualitative method that attempts to see 'ordinary things in a new light' as teachers and researcher in this study will reflect critically on physical computing and form a better understanding of pedagogic practice (Henriksson, 2012). Seidman's (2006) model of three in-depth interviews with research participants will enable me to examine their experiences as teachers who have adopted physical computing in school with each interview taking a different focus including career pathway taken to date, descriptions of experiences with physical computing in school and reflecting on meanings during the final interview. In this study, phenomenology will give a different kind of knowledge, knowledge that Henriksson (2012) describes as "relevant for pedagogic practice and classroom interactions" with physical computing and challenge previous 'taken for granted' attitudes and assumption to breathe new life and insights into the curriculum area, notably shared in a language accessible to everyone who has an interest in teaching and learning.

I will use a semi-structured format to help teacher participants revisit their experiences and trigger reflections of physical computing over a series of three interviews. According to van Manen (2016), the purpose of hermeneutic phenomenological methods are to explore and develop a rich understanding of a phenomena as well as to develop a conversation about the meaning of lived experiences with research participants, so more dialogic interviewing is encouraged although I will still pilot a semi-structured approach to scaffold my early interviewing. The purpose of these interviews will not simply be a means of data extraction and truth-seeking, but as an interaction with teachers where knowledge and understanding are created, explored in the moment and later interpreted (Lauterbach, 2018). A semi-structured interview schedule and prompts will assist me as a researcher relying primarily on interview data and I will trial different techniques including 'think-aloud' in the pilot study, to support teachers in describing their teaching experiences retrospectively, for example focusing on planning and delivering a particular lesson with physical computing (Ibid, 2018).

A hermeneutic phenomenological methodology is most appropriate for my research design because it allows me to bring in my own experiences of physical computing as a researcher into the study, in contrast to positivist science when I would have to detach my personal presuppositions (Hammersley, 2000). Phenomenology is not focused on episteme or verifiable knowledge but as a goal to illuminate meaning (Mcphail, 1995) and my work with teachers as co-researchers throughout the meaning-making process has the potential to provide the missing link between theory and classroom practice, codifying what we know about teaching physical computing, creating new knowledge and identifying future research questions. The construction of meaning for this ontological study will be an active process with interactions between researcher and participant, so on the one hand being an insider will enable me to examine physical computing with teachers to make a valuable contribution to education research, but only as I minimise any likely criticism about being biased. Mouton and Marais (1990) argue that individual researchers 'hold explicit beliefs' and my research design will ensure rigour and transparency in the methods of data collection and analysis.

Data collection and analysis

My focal methodology of hermeneutical phenomenology has guided choices in data collection and analysis methods. Adopting Gadamerian philosophy, which follows on from Heidegger’s work and the relationship between an individual and his/her lifeworld using a hermeneutic circle of understanding, provides an iterative framework for me to co-construct understanding and interpret data with teachers participating in the research study (Gadamer, 1970). This method of "examine, reflect, tell" (van Manen, 1997) positions the researcher and teachers at the centre of the inquiry and it is here that Gadamer believes we can breathe new life and insights into a phenomenon, in this instance illuminating teaching and learning details of physical computing. Like Heidegger, Gadamer viewed bracketing as impossible and argued that the unquestionable presence of historicality of understanding can play a positive role in the search for meaning and continued with an emphasis on the ontological mode of uncovering meaning that emerges through language (Rapport, 2005).

Interviews with teachers will be transcribed and data analysis as interpretation will be conducted using the hermeneutic circle, following van Manen's (1997) method of phenomenology as a process to understand the text hermeneutically. The purpose during this phase of phenomenological reflection will be to identify meaningful information and categorise the qualitative data into a set of themes once the text from all interviews with teachers have been analysed (Byrne, 2001). These isolated themes taken from line-by-line analysis will be commonalities between teacher participants in the study that emerge as I examine how time (lived temporality), space (lived spatiality), physical (lived corporeality) and interpersonal interactions (lived relationality) emerge in the teachers’ discussion of lived experiences as van Manen's 'existentials' and will act as guides for researcher reflection during the data analysis phase (Ibid, 1997). From this, hermeneutic reductions will be written for each transcript to connect the teachers’ voices with a researcher's interpretation of their words to create a rich description of experiences with physical computing (Lauterbach 2018).


Teachers' reflections on their lived experiences of physical computing in schools, their reflexivity, will impact on the data collected and new knowledge produced from this phenomenological study (Langdridge, 2007). Hermeneutic phenomenology has the potential of being a "freezer of waterfalls", recognising the transformative nature as a methodology in educational research. Jenner (2000) used a waterfall metaphor, since translated by Friesen, Henriksson and Saevi (2012) to describe the potential of phenomenological attitude to show us what we did not see or understand earlier. The imagery is powerful to outline how life can be brought to a standstill, when the unforeseen happens:

"A man who lives by a waterfall does not 'hear' the fall; it is such a familiar sound that it goes unnoticed. Yet, he notices the cry of the wild geese in the sky above when they fly through the autumn night. But let's say that the waterfall should freeze to ice overnight - then he notices the difference in an instant" (Jenner, 2000, p.38)

Jenner's metaphor of being a 'freezer of waterfalls' *

During a qualitative study for one of my EdD modules, a primary school teacher shared their lived experiences of pair programming in school and talked about different scenarios and themes during the interview. We sat in a quiet area of school without the hubbub of children learning together using computers and the teacher started to question what they had previously taken for granted. The most surprising insight was gathered after the teacher had reflected on the classroom set-up and re-examined how changing the number of computers monitors to two, rather than children sharing a single screen as in industry, had impacted on learning. When the screens are pushed together to form an inverted V shape, the teacher spoke about an impact of increased “output and productivity" from the children. They couldn’t explain it, only as “something weird happens and production levels from the kids would double” and referred to the set up as creating a “cubby-hole” or a “little den” described as “like an isolation booth but for positive reasons.” The teacher had adapted strategies in the classroom so that children were using their driver-navigator roles linked to a particular screen and sharing instructions to ask questions before swapping over, but this insight was completely unexpected and something I was interested to examine further in the study around pair programming in primary schools.

Applying a hermeneutical phenomenology approach would have given us a framework to turn our attention to the nature of events during those computing lessons and broaden both of our perspectives. In what Gadamer (1998, p.354) refers to as "he has acquired a new horizon within something can become an experience for him", in reflection the teacher recognised new knowledge emerging and broadening their own perspective on the learning potential of adopting pair programming. The purpose of phenomenological reflection is to try to grasp the essential meaning of something (van Manen, 1990, p.77) and the strength of the lived experience approach with dialogical discourse gives an opportunity for new meanings to emerge. During that problem-based interview we left phrases such as 'cubby-hole' and 'learning den' as descriptions within the coding of data, without the movement of any horizons. Reflection as a researcher left me wanting to revisit the transcript and collect more data from further interviews to produce richer descriptions of pair programming as a phenomenon. When choosing a research methodology for my main study I have chosen hermeneutic phenomenology as an interpretative approach to examine physical computing because "pedagogy requires a hermeneutic ability to make interpretive sense of the phenomena of the lifeworld in order to see the pedagogical differences of situations" (van Manen, 1990, p.2). The goal of understanding what happens during lessons when a teacher has adopted physical computing is to illuminate and share transformative experiences and teaching practices to others. I see hermeneutic phenomenology as the most appropriate way to form a dialogue with experienced teachers of physical computing to interpret their lived world in education and share rich descriptions of the phenomena. Amplifying teacher voices from the computing classroom using language and highlighting themes that can link "the questions that people who conduct computing education research think are important, and the questions considered important by people who teach but do not conduct research" (Denny et al., 2019) can make a valuable contribution to future research.


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Header image by Photo Collections from Pexels

* Waterfall image by from Pexels



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