The transformative nature of phenomenology as a ‘freezer of waterfalls’


My motivations for starting a research doctorate were to amplify teachers’ voices in an area that I’d become immersed in myself, physical computing. Much is talked about the learning opportunities and applications that physical computing offers towards work-related knowledge and skills, from inside education and external stakeholders, so phenomenology as my chosen methodology offers a framework to reflect on the lived experience of teachers.

The basic idea of using this approach in my own research is to gather and analyse pre-reflective descriptions of physical commuting in secondary schools, that is to examine teachers’ lived experiences in order to uncover the essence of the phenomenon being studied – physical computing. Physical computing is closely linked to constructionism in literature and in Mindstorms (1980), Papert considered 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. 


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 of physical computing, with an aim to build rich descriptions of the phenomenon and explore:

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

Phenomenological frameworks 

In short, there are two main options as a researcher to frame a phenomenological dissertation from the different philosophies of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. My decision to adopt Heideggerian hermeneutic phenomenology was partly based on bringing in my own experiences of physical computing into the study and to examine the phenomenon with teachers as co-researchers. In contrast, Husserlian transcendental phenomenology would mean suspending all judgments as a researcher to reach the pure essence of physical computing.

Heidegger was a student of Husserl and this bracketing of researchers’ experiences and biases is a large part of the differences seen in his own phenomenology, which is hermeneutic phenomenology. He believed that we cannot bracket our experiences, biases or understandings because we are always in the world with others, therefore we can’t separate ourselves from our own circumstances as we examine a phenomenon. Heidegger used the German phrase ‘Dasein’ (translated as there-being) to describe the notion of being inseparable in the world around us, and in my research design I wanted to embed self-meaning and my own encounters with physical computing to gather rich descriptions alongside teachers’ lived experiences. 

Being & Time: “We are ourselves the entities to be analysed”

Heidegger (2008, p.67)

Haugeland (2005, 423) argued that Dasein is “a way of life shared by the members of some community” and this resonates with the communities of practice such as Leeds Raspberry Jam or Computing at School that I’ve been involved in with connections to physical computing. Language is another consideration for adopting Heidegger’s philosophy and Haugeland also noted how we might consider language existing as an entity and a communally shared way of speaking. Through pilot studies, I’ve been excited by the rich descriptions and metaphors shared by teachers which have led to uncovering the essence of physical computing. These contributions in the language of current practitioners in school, not academic vocabulary, are important to the field of educational research if findings are to further inform teaching practice and illuminate future research topics.

Understanding and interpretation

As we start to interpret experiences of physical computing, we start to understand and interpret our own biases, understandings and judgments with revisions as we gather new information. Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle is an iterative process and is a description of understanding and interpretation. It is important to remember that the hermeneutic circle is not a technique, but more Heidegger’s philosophy to support researchers’ understanding of how people interpret and make sense of the world around them.

For my own research findings I will utilise the hermeneutic circle to analyse the whole data collection, and take it in parts of each interview transcript and emerging themes. The iterative nature of this model of interpretation means synthesising the data to look at the whole again and generate a new understanding. Analysis again through the hermeneutic circle considers the parts to make sense of the whole and the whole will make sense of the parts, and so analysis continues in a circular manner which encompasses Heidegger’s belief that interpretation is a constant revision.

New horizons

In writing ‘Truth and Method’, Gadamer (1960) elaborated on the hermeneutic circle to talk about our prejudices as pre-understanding and modifying the nature of understanding and interpretation through renewed projection. He emphasised the opportunity to examine phenomena through personal biases and looking at themes through your own understanding of the subject, rather than trying to suspend or bracket them. 

“Hermeneutics must start from the position that a person seeking to understand something has a bond to the subject matter that comes into language through the traditionary text and has, or acquires, a connection with the tradition from which it speaks”

Gadamer (1960, pg 295)

Gadamer’s belief that no-one stands above and before all others within an interpretive hermeneutic inquiry aligns with my standpoint to study physical computing with teachers as co-researchers, and is a methodology to ensure that all participants are at the centre of the inquiry. I believe it is here that we can breathe new life and insights into physical computing in schools, as new knowledge and understanding emerge during the process of dialogue between me as a researcher, the text of the data collection and teachers as dialectic partners. Collaborating to change and view new horizons.

New horizons

“To reach an understanding in dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s point of view, but being TRANSFORMED into a communication in which we DO NOT REMAIN WHERE WE ARE”

Gadamer (1960, pg 375)

Phenomenology as a ‘freezer of waterfalls’

Interpreting and illuminating teachers’ experiences of physical computing as a hermeneutical phenomenological study is an exciting and fascinating approach to lifting new meaning and insights. In relation to the intention of phenomenology in education, Max Van Manen refers to: 

Its objective is to transform the lived experience into a textual expression of its essence, in such a way that the text’s effect represents a reviving reflection and a reflexive appropriation of something significant: in which the reader comes to life with strength in its own lived experience.

Van Manen (1999, p.56)

Hermeneutic phenomenology has the potential of being a “freezer of waterfalls” and it will be the lived experiences of teachers that impact on data collected and new knowledge produced from this phenomenological study.

Freezer of waterfalls

Jenner (2000) recognised the transformative nature of this methodology in research using a waterfall metaphor 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)

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.


Denny, P., Becker, B.A., Craig, M., Wilson, G. and Banaszkiewicz, P., 2019, July. Research This! Questions That Computing Educators Most Want Computing Education Researchers to Answer. In Proceedings of the 2019 ACM Conference on International Computing Education Research (pp. 259-267).

Gadamer, H.G., 1960. Aesthetics and hermeneutics. The continental aesthetics reader, pp.181-186.

Haugeland, J., 2005. Reading Brandom Reading Heidegger. European Journal of Philosophy13(3), pp.421-428.

Jenner, H., 2000. Se oss i berättelsen: anteckningar och iakttagelser om hur vi skapar mening och redigerar det som sker. Bjurner och Bruno.

Papert, S., 1980. ” Mindstorms” Children. Computers and powerful ideas.

van Manen, M., 1999. Knowledge, reflection and complexity in teacher practice. In Changing schools, changing practices: Perspectives on educational reform and teacher professionalism (pp. 65-76).

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