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Aesthetics and Pedagogics

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In my recent article On Beauty I described the experience of beauty as being situated at the border between boredom and confusion. Between these two states of mind there is a “beauty zone” where we experience what we see or hear as beautiful, interesting or fascinating.

I see here a possible connection to pedagogics. As I have already hinted at in Falling off the Ridge, I think that children in their playing try to keep a balance between these two poles. They will try to avoid boredom and they will try to avoid complexity that is beyond their ability. They walk on a path of interestingness, a path that must not be too straight and even and not too stony and challenging.

Playing children give themselves tasks, trying instead to get experiences of success. If the task is too simple, a child can solve it using only knowledge it does already have. There is no challenge and no novelty. The result is boredom and frustration. If the task is too complex, on the other hand, the child would become confused and, as a result, frustrated again.

So children will give themselves tasks that are manageable with the knowledge they have already, but are novel at the same time, creating challenges that require the creation of new knowledge by means of creativity. Solving these tasks creates feelings of achievement and success. There is a reward mechanism here that will steer the activity of the child automatically towards a stepwise extension of knowledge. This is very similar to the reward mechanism of beauty that steers the development of perceptive knowledge towards higher complexity and that is actually a special case of this more general principle of learning.

These processes are not restricted to children. For example, scientists discovering a theory unifying several phenomena into one or describing a special instance in terms of a known theory, i.e. understanding it, know the rewarding feeling connected to such “aha” or “eureka” moments. And there is a connection to aesthetics here as well: scientists report that they perceive their theories as beautiful.

So the part of aesthetics concerned with a theory of what beauty is may be extended into a more general theory of reward mechanisms in learning and cognition. There is, therefore, a connection between aesthetics on one side and learning psychology on the other. As a result, there is also a connection with pedagogics.

I am neither a psychologist nor a pedagogue or educator. I don’t know the state of scientific research into these matters. I would be astonished if theories in this direction don’t exist already and I am probably reinventing the wheel here, to an extent. However, I find the connection of these disciplines to aesthetics interesting.

Teachers and also writers or filmmakers will be most successful if they understand how to guide people on a path of insights that creates these feelings of interestingness, fascination and beauty. A lot can be learnt from the works or teachings of these people. The art seems to be in understanding where the audience is standing, and presenting new information in small enough steps to be understandable but with small challenges as to avoid boredom and create a sequence of aha-experiences.

The ability of some to perceive the path between boredom and confusion in their audience and to lead people on this path might actually be a large part of what we experience as charisma in some people. To an extent, it might be possible to learn this.

However, there is a danger here. Fascination and charisma can be misused. The new knowledge that is presented bit by bit in a way creating rewarding feeling of interestingness and fascination might be wrong or ideological and it is possible to manipulate people this way. It is therefore of crucial importance to pair this way of teaching with a teaching of reflection and criticism.

In the end, children must be induced (or: never stopped) to climb that path of interestingness by themselves. They need to be guided on this path until they become “self-propelling”, so the teacher should be a coach and educator, not just a source of facts. In his essay “On Listening” the author and philosopher Plurarch wrote:

For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbours for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his innate flame, his own intellect,

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7 thoughts on “Aesthetics and Pedagogics

  1. The rule of thumb in Montessori when it comes to what to present to a child is that it should be within grasp with a ‘slight stretching of the mind’ …. the golden mean … not too difficult that it is unattainable and leads to frustration nor too easy that it holds no interest. Of course the ‘golden mean’ is different from child to child and this is where observation of the individual child comes in.
    Csíkszentmihályi’s flow theory also takes this golden mean into account. There is an interesting diagram depicting the interaction of skill and challenge and the different mental states that arise from it.
    I enjoyed reading about the connection with aesthetics.Thanks for another great post!

    • Thank you for this interesting information. As I suspected, I was reinventing the wheel here, but this shows I am stretching my mind into the right direction :-).

    • Can you maybe give me a reference on Montesori. In which of her works is the golden mean discussed? This would be very interesting. It is not urgent, though. Thank you.

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  3. Thank you, a great read I believe children need to use boredom to create imaginary play. When they say they are bored I do not panic and try and find something for them to do, I remember being bored made for some pretty awesome games with my siblings.

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