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Session 5.3: EM and Formalism

In his book Object Thinking, Dave West introduces 'formalist' and 'hermeneutic' perspectives on computing. He makes the point that formalism is best suited to machine-like contexts. This is an idea which is strongly endorsed by EM thinking. To accommodate formalism within an EM perspective, we first need to understand how EM activities can be used to establish contexts that have machine-like characteristics (cf. the heapsorting construal studied in Session 5.1).

A major challenge for EM is countering the perception that all our experience is in essence (if we could but appreciate this!) machine-like. If we believe this, then there is seemingly no need for us to establish machine-like contexts - only to appreciate and exploit them.

A good focus for the discussion of EM and formalism is Mordecai Ben-Ari's paper Constructivism in Computer Science Education. Ben-Ari argues that the objective machine-like qualities of the computer make it hard to justify educational approaches that are based on constructivist principles. In his view, 'computers form an accessible ontological reality' and an essential task of computer science education is to explicitly teach students an effective model of a computer.

The idea that precise objective knowledge of the computer is an essential basis for understanding computer science is at odds with the fact that much computing activity has to be conducted with a partial understanding of computational agents in their context. EM sets out to demonstrate that, in accounting for computing-in-the wild, the notion of 'an effective model' can be broader than traditional computer science recognises. For instance, my personal construal of the UNIX vi editor is imperfect, yet proves to be quite adequate for practical use.

To explore this issue more deeply, read and reflect on EM paper 108: Web Eden: support for computing as construction? and examine the construal of the modes in the vi editor available via Web EDEN at and the accompanying account of its construction at

For more related resources, consult the companion paper: EM paper 107: Constructivist Computer Science Education Reconstructed and the various Web EDEN construals that are linked from the webpage, all of which give some insight into the relationship between EM and a formalist outlook.