Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

The Interface: Algorithmic Meaning-Making as a Right of Childhood

Published onMay 06, 2019
The Interface: Algorithmic Meaning-Making as a Right of Childhood


Algorithmic Rights and Protections for Children

Journal of Design and Science Special Issue

The Interface: Algorithmic Meaning-Making as a Right of Childhood

Sean Justice, Alexa Briones, Nidia Mendoza


750 words

This paper reports on the way informal computational making with children affects attitudes about (un)willing participation in algorithmic meaning-making. Examples come from summer camps, after school coding clubs, and computational “playshops” at public libraries and community centers, all of which are drawn from our work with Families Learning Together (FLT), a community education project focused on equitable and sustainable computational fluency for children and families in San Marcos, Texas. Our group includes a professor from the School of Art & Design at Texas State University and undergraduates from diverse academic backgrounds, including art education, computer science, English, health studies, dance, history, and biology, among others.

Our work is iterative and emergent, based on fluctuating participant groups, but what we have learned so far is that building integrated physical computing systems in a community-focused context amplifies learners’ awareness of the biases inherent to those systems. This awareness is the first step in securing the algorithmic rights of society’s most vulnerable. We believe this is especially true for the underserved populations we work with in Central Texas. In this paper we will argue that constructing meaningful computational interactions for oneself and one’s family is an important part of protecting the algorithmic rights of children in our networked age. Simply, teaching children to build their assumptions into an interactive algorithm prepares them to reflect on and critique the previously invisible biases they have already encountered in computational networks such as the internet.

FLT playshops often center on physical computing activities where participants build interfaces that activate stories and games programed on a computer. Constructing an interface entangles diverse tools and materials that do not necessarily appear related—e.g., computer programming, electronic circuitry, and picture making. The Interface Pedagogy includes hands-on computational making activities as well as a way of prompting, organizing and facilitating problem-finding and self-empowerment. Interweaving these various domains catalyzes social and dispositional learning that empowers self-efficacy and prepares learners to productively and creatively engage with algorithmic environments.

By framing computational making as creative meaning-making (Berland, 2016; Knochel & Patton, 2015), and by calling on notions of the sociomaterial (Fenwick 2016; Fenwick & Edwards, 2017) while pointing toward the affordances of material learning (Cabral & Justice, 2018; Justice, 2016, 2017; Justice & Yorks, 2018)—where hands-on engagement with tools and materials precipitates collaborative innovation—this paper argues that crafting and re-crafting the components of an interface builds perseverance, grit, and curiosity, prompting learners to build collaborative relationships with fellow learners and with computational materials. Examples come from university education courses (taught by FLT’s director), family playshops, summer maker camps and afterschool coding clubs (led by FLT undergraduate facilitators). In each of these contexts FLT enacts a learner-centered curriculum to increase creative engagement with the internet and AI modeled algorithms.

Reflective and observational outcomes support these propositions. For instance, in university courses preservice students write about how material learning builds perseverance. “The most important thing I learned in this course is to never underestimate myself.” And, “I learned that my level of frustration was always matched with a proud moment of accomplishing when I pushed through to the other side.” Students also write about how collaboration amplified their learning: “I credit any progress I made … to my classmates. …This experience showed me the value in creating a community in the classroom.” Others recognize that interface learning implies equity and distributed expertise: “From this course I have learned that it isn’t always a teacher’s job to teach. In many situations it is best to let the student lead their own learning…the basic principle of democratic free schooling, which I have also been studying.”

Examples from family playshops include a young girl’s determination to re-make a digital painting (in Scratch) after it had been accidentally erased by a workshop facilitator; a father’s pride in sharing his and his son’s collaborative improvements in their computer game; and a cohort of second and third graders who learned to record their voices in Scratch to tell a story about a dragon and a group of villagers.

Each of these examples illustrate collaborative independence enacted from diverse social and material overlaps, which FLT thinks is fundamental to protecting algorithmic rights for children. That is, when learning ecologies have been arranged to support problem-finding, social and material entanglements focused on creative computational making increase awareness of algorithmic meaning-making. FLT’s exploration of the Interface Pedagogy in playshops for children and families in Central Texas implies that is an essential first step toward sustainable algorithmic justice for underserved and underrepresented populations.


Berland, M. (2016). Making, tinkering, and computational literacy. In K. Peppler, E. R. Halverson, & Y. B. Kafai (Eds.), Makeology: Makers as Learners (Volume 2) (pp. 196-205). New York, NY: Routledge.

Cabral, M. & Justice, S. (2018). Material Inquiry: Digital Materials, People, and the Relationships Between Them. In E. Garber, L. Hochtritt, & M. Sharma (Eds.), Makers, Crafters, Educators: Working for Cultural Change. New York, NY & Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Fenwick, T. (2016). Professional responsibility and professionalism: A sociomaterial examination. New York, NY: Routledge.

Fenwick, T., & Edwards, R. (2017). How sociomaterial approaches could support higher education as a critical practice. In B. Leibowitz, V. Bozalek, & P. Kahn (Eds.), Theorising learning to teach in higher education (pp. 13-27). New York, NY: Routledge.

Justice, S. (2016). Learning to teach in the digital age: New materialities and maker paradigms in schools. New York, NY: Peter Lang, Inc.

Justice, S. (2017). Material learning in action: Building an arts-based research community. Art Education, 7(3), 39-48.

Justice, S., & Yorks, L. (2018). Incidental learning as an enacted encounter with materiality. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2018(159), 91-102.

Knochel, A., & Patton, R. M. (2015). If art education then critical digital making: Computational thinking and creative code. Studies in Art Education, 57(1), 21-38.

Author Information

Sean Justice. Assistant Professor of Art Education, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX. My teaching and research addresses Material Inquiry pedagogies as a foundation for teacher education in the age of computing and digital networks. In 2016 I launched Families Learning Together, a community education project focused on building equitable, sustainable computational fluency in Central Texas, with special attention on underserved children, families and K12 learning ecologies that include schools, afterschool clubs, community centers, and libraries. As an artist, I have exhibited photographs, videos and computer animations both nationally and internationally. My book Learning to Teach in the Digital Age: New Materialities and Maker Paradigms in Schools was published by Peter Lang, in 2016. I publish regularly in art, education, and human development journals. Contact: [email protected]

Alexa Briones. Texas State University, San Marcos, TX. Art Education preservice (BFA 2020). I am a learning facilitator in the community education project, Families Learning Together (FLT). Our group focuses on sustainable and equitable computational fluency in Central Texas. My experience includes working with underserved children, families, and practicing educators at schools, afterschool clubs and libraries. My goals for my teaching practice include empowering my students to find creative computation as a meaningful learning material in the art studio. I am interested in design processes that consider children and their well-being. In my own art practice, I marry art making materials and technology. I've presented the work I've been doing with FLT at educational conferences at the national and regional level, including at FabLearn 2019 at Columbia University in New York, and at the Regional Maker Educator Summit at Maker Faire in Austin. Contact: [email protected]

Nidia Mendoza. Texas State University, San Marcos, TX. Art Education. (BFA 2019). I am part of the Families Learning Together program led by Dr. Sean Justice, and have been working on learning and teaching coding to children and their parents at afterschool programs, community learning sessions in public libraries, and small communities wanting to bring technology into their everyday lifestyle. I am interested in bringing technology and coding into schools by starting at a familiar place, like art, and developing a practice of mindful internet usage. Through facilitating coding sessions with parents and children I have learned how children are adapting to the digital age, and how much they want to learn more about computers and coding, rather than just scratching the surface as consumers of social media. Parents also want to encourage their children to gain computational skills while being responsible, though some lack the skills to help their children learn. I have presented my work with FLT at national and regional conferences, including the 2018 Scratch World Conference at MIT and at the Maker Educator Summit at the 2019 Maker Faire in Austin. Contact: [email protected]

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?