This seems like a big ask, as the mathematics taught in schools are often rigid in both content and the approaches expected, leaving little room for aestheticising. This leads into Nathalie’s second part of her talk, about aestheticising mathematics education. Nathalie acknowledged that this has already begun in some arenas, with the notions of seeing as understanding, the use of fingers for counting and manipulatives more broadly. However, thinking (or reasoning) is still seen as more important, especially when compared to the body.
Nathalie made the case for dualism, as a more continuous – and less discrete – way of thinking about the body and the mind. Due to the possible dangers with binary thinking (like hierarchical relationships, as mentioned above), we need to consider a different approach. Piaget’s work on child development, which identified that there is a growing use of the mind and a lesser use of the body as a child grows up, is one example whereby the body is seen as less valued as a child matures. Similarly, Bruner’s work on the enacted, the iconic and then the symbolic is another where abstraction is seen as more advanced than the concrete.
It seems astonishing that Nathalie questions the work of some of the most well-known and influential researchers in education, yet she doesn’t seem to expect us to throw the baby out with the bath water. Instead, she calls on us to consider new theories in learning, including dualism. She claims that more modern theories of learning, reflecting the tech-dependent society we live in, are needed today.
Her research using the app ‘Touch counts’, an app for 3- to 6-year-olds, shows how, with the use of technology, all of Bruner’s stages (enacted, iconic, and symbolic) can happen at the same time, and a lot of sensing (visual, touch, oral, movement) can take place when engaging with the mathematics in the app. Aestheticising could therefore be about considering all the senses (of which there are at least six), which could be how we aestheticise mathematics education in the future.
Yet, there is still the issue of the disjunction of mathematics itself and school mathematics. As Nathalie stated, it is like giving the students a camera to use but filling the curriculum with perspective drawings: the tools and resources afforded to us by technological advancements are not commonly used in school mathematics, or even banned in many places.
Aestheticising mathematics education research
In her final section, Nathalie started by addressing how we communicate in the mathematics education research arena. She likened this to Shapin’s (1984) description of scientific enquiry, whereby a small group are allowed to witness, and a wider literate group, or ‘public’, can read scientific papers (as is the case today with journal articles). This matter of fact-ness in scientific convention pervades into current academic research, with only a small literate group able to participate or read the work, and often, the heart and spirit of the research is not able to shine through due to the constraints of standard practices. Instead, Nathalie proposed different ways to communicate to reach a ‘new public’, which is more inclusive than the old ‘public’.
First, she argued that we can reach a new public through new and creative methods such as re-enactment, as used in research asking participants to re-enact what they noticed in videos of the 2016 Rio Olympics (Vogelstein, Brady & Hall, 2019), or rebuilding crime scenes (Fuller & Weizmann, 2021) as part of forensic investigations, called investigative aesthetics. The thought of researchers and participants recreating or cocreating as a means of data collection is appealing and could address some of the issues of the more traditional methodologies, such as the hierarchical relationship between researcher and participant, or the difficulties of understanding statistical tables by the less literate. However, one concern remains over the validity of these methods (linking back to the issue of scientific enquiry) and raises the question of what we mean by validity – ie, whether we should let go of the gold standard of the double-blind study, in order to pursue new ways of research. Indeed, in order to aestheticise education research.
Second, reaching this new public can be done through ‘mobilising knowledge’, as Nathalie put it, which, until now, has primarily been done through journal articles and books. That’s not to say we abandon publications altogether (indeed, we need to meet the expectations of funders and research institutions, who expect publications) but perhaps the focus should go beyond publications, towards using different ways of communicating and reaching wider audiences. Nathalie left it to us, the audience, to imagine what this might look like; certainly, in the digital age of Zoom and online learning, there are many new opportunities for us to ‘mobilise knowledge’.