Attempts to understand the psychology of learning has led to a variety of perspectives of cognition. While learning and activities have been common place in classrooms, Winn (2003) suggests that cognition is deeply tied to learning and the activities used for learning. Traditionally, the approach to cognition and adaptation of technology use, namely that it had to do with connecting knowledge with its representation as symbols in the mind. However, this approach removed the environmental context from the individual’s unique process of understanding. Instead, cognition is, Winn argues, embodied in physical activities, with the activities embedded in the environment. Learning then is a result of the connection of the learner between their cognition and the environment via their external body, the process which Winn terms embodiment.
This concept is support by Novack, Congdon, Hemani-Lopez, & Goldin-Meadow (2014) who explored embodied learning with third graders learning math by separating a group of students and providing each group a different learning method: one with physical actions with objects, one with concrete gestures, and one with abstract gestures. While all three groups learned to solve the problems they were presented with, they found that acting with objects only provided students with a shallow understanding of the math concept, quantified through pre- and post-testing of student knowledge. By contrast, the abstract gestures allowed students to develop a more generalised understanding that allowed them to solve more complex problems as well. This supports the Winn’s notion that learning cannot simply be a structured representation of one approach, it must be contextually relevant to the student’s environment and, more importantly, be relevant to their individual perception of said environment.
Both Winn and Novack et al. support the notion that an individualised learning experience is more effective and leads to a more generalised and better understanding, and embodied learning is more able to cater to this type of learning. Thus, technology use in the classroom should focus no only on connecting ideas to symbols, but to enhance the embodiment of learning. Bujak, Radu, Catrambone, MacIntyre, Zheng, and Golubski (2013) extends this further by suggesting augmented reality (AR) combines the strengths of virtual learning environments with the context of reality. Compared to virtual reality (VR) which seeks to replace the real environment, AR adds to the real environment which allows “the creation of embodied metaphors inspired by physical manipulatives, or new kinds of metaphors otherwise difficult to convey through concrete physical objects.”
In my STEM classrooms, this does serve to add an extra factor to consider when designing lessons and units. Activities that may seem to be open and allow for constructivist learning may not accomplish that task if the connections that students make are not unique to themselves. Instead, activities need to balance focus on a specific topic while still allowing the freedom for students to engage with the activities and embody their learning.
Some questions for consideration:
1. Winn notes that a virtual reality learning environment is inherently limited because the interactions and responses between user and environment are pre-programmed, and thus not unique to the user. If virtual reality, as Bujak et al. argues, cannot accurately simulate the tactility of real-life, do VR and simulations still have a place in learning? How worthwhile would any learning be?
2. Science in elementary and high school focuses primarily on “playing catch up” with the vast amount of scientific knowledge currently available, so that students can eventually move to the forefront and discover new scientific knowledge. If that statement is true and science learning leading up to that point is about competence in scientific facts, then how does embodied learning fit into that goal? Does specifying a specific, focused assessment of a lab experiment rob not students the opportunity to learn within their own context? Should there be concern with students constructing their own knowledge that is deeper and more personal, but counter to commonly accepted scientific understanding?