Matter Matters: The Transformative Power of Materiality in the 21st Century Classroom

This thesis was researched and written over ten months and is part of a portfolio of written and applied media projects including a podcast. Following are the thesis abstract and a video of the presentation of my research at Precarious, the department’s 2019 Graduate Symposium.


Learning has traditionally been considered a process based in the mind, with the brain as the seat of thought and cognition. The impact of Rene Descartes’ oft-quoted axiom “I think therefore I am” on pedagogical thought has led to a disregard for the objects that children use intimately in order to learn, relegating them to the role of neutral backdrops to the intangible learning process. In thinking broadly about cognition and the mind, it is easy to forget that due to innovations in personal computing and the Progressive education theories from the 20th century, children in classrooms are surrounded by a constellation of materials—paper, plastic, wood, metal, cloth, natural specimens—that form pencils, books, computers, and LEGO blocks that they use intimately in order to learn.

Theorists like Jean Piaget and John Dewey have argued that according to their theory of Constructivism, every object the child interacts with, whether through play or for studying, contributes new information to his or her schema, or mental representation of the world.1 “Learning from experience” is a key tenet of progressive education today, making every material interaction an experiment with the world; the act of doing equals the act of thinking, which leads to learning.2 I rely on Dutch philosopher of technology Peter Paul Verbeek’s post-phenomenological analysis of the role of devices in human lives by classifying all learning materials as technologies which aid this act of thinking through action. Verbeek writes that in the way that the route taken by a train shapes the presence of the landscape for humans, “things are not neutral “intermediaries” between humans and the world, but mediators: they actively mediate this relation.”3

Drawing on the observable influences of this range of materialities on the child’s bodily engagements as well as on classroom practice, this thesis examines the spatial, computational and sociomaterial capabilities of materials through a close analysis of Ananya Parekh, a New York City based middle-school student and the curriculum, classroom environment and teaching practice of the second-grade class at The Buckley School, an independent all-boys school in Upper Manhattan, New York City. This focus on the child as an individual as well as one of many participants in the broader classroom network led me to a well-rounded discovery of the question: How do materials impact learning in the child?

By asking such a question we can begin to think of learning as a material process. For designers, an awareness of the depth of influence that products have on children can lead to a generation of innovative products which enhance the twentieth-century concept of ergonomics into twenty-first century material and child-centred designs. I approach this through a spatial analysis of the material engagement children have by virtue of using objects, and its subsequent effects on their creativity and knowledge formation as discovered through interviews with Ananya Parekh.

For educators, I argue that thinking about the materiality of learning will mean thinking critically about the inherent potential of materials that are brought into the classroom, as well as being conscious of the implications of the complex web that connects children, the classroom and the materials. I combine these ideas into an investigation into the dependency of classroom instruction on the available materials at The Buckley School, and interpret them through a set of measures through which the on-ground integration of materials can be evaluated.

Finally, I propose the introduction of a new form of literacy to the existing canon: material literacy. My intention is to make critical thinking about materiality accessible to the multiple stakeholders in education—designers, educators and policy-makers—but especially to a broader audience of non-Western, resource-poor, technologically-limited educational settings. I believe this is where design research and ultimately the design of learning materials can play a prominent role in changing how learning happens around the world. Verbeek’s concept of mediation is a pillar of material literacy as it will allow designers to design for materiality: designing around how things do what they do, instead of simply what they do; designing for materials and humans as opposed to materials for humans.

In that sense, the title “Matter Matters” serves a dual purpose: it highlights that materiality is a source of, and gives birth to, forms of knowledge, and it also emphasises the need to incorporate the study of materiality into contemporary pedagogic discourse. Paying attention to how things mediate the transfer of knowledge, the assimilation by the child and the conversion into learning reveals the limitations of keeping critical thinking about materiality out of the classroom.

(1) Jean Piaget, Origin of Intelligence in the Child: Selected Works, v. 3 (1952; Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis, 2013), 7.
(2) Dewey, Democracy and Education, Chapter 11
(3) Verbeek, What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design, 114.

Materiality; Learning Materials; Technology; Constructivism; Classroom practice; Cognition; Knowledge; Learning; Sociomateriality; Material Literacy.

ThesisSneha Mehta