Embodied Learning and AR vs VR

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?


  1. Hi Lawrence!

    I enjoyed your post because you summarized and integrated the articles you have read extremely succinctly. I would like to address the second question about embodied learning. With new emphasis on inquiry-based learning, I feel that science education is moving towards more discovery-based student learning. Embodied learning will become the norm in the near future. At the same time, students should learn existing knowledge on a science concept before being able to explore new scientific knowledge. Perhaps in the case of a lab, students can later plan and execute their own follow up lab experiment to use the prior knowledge to discover new information!

  2. Hi Lawrence,
    I enjoyed your response! I did not read the Bujak, et al., article, but it sounds like one I should tag for later!
    Your questions are great and really make me consider the role of augmented reality/virtual reality simulations in the classroom. I do agree there are limits to virtual environments due to the fact that they are pre-programmed according to the ideas and experiences of the programmers who developed the simulation. For me, this is especially important in relation to the experiences of different cultural groups when interacting with a simulation. I took a course, ETEC 521 with Dr. Marker, which looked the fact that the vast knowledges of minority groups (in the case of the course, the emphasis was on Indigenous peoples) are often not represented within digital technology-based programs, which I would assume extends to AR and VR learning environments. Having said that, I do believe that simulations will generally enhance student understanding when they are used to support curricular content in the classroom. When I think about using virtual simulations in a science lab, I think of the fact that a virtual lab can provide opportunities for students that would not be available to them otherwise. Experiments can be performed that might otherwise be considered too dangerous or costly, experiments can be repeated, allowing students to adapt their hypotheses as they go, concept understand checks can be built in, and so on. While I am a strong proponent of continuing to use hands-on activities in the classroom, I do feel that despite limitations, AR and VR environments still provide students with opportunities they would not have otherwise.

  3. Hi Lawrence!

    Through question 1 you raise a good point on virtual reality (VR) and its affordance for learning. I’m inclined to agree that VR has educational value while it may be pre-programmed. VR brings an immersive experience to the user that they otherwise may not have the chance to experience. Think museum tours, flying through the grand canyon, or exploring an excavation site. Although, not unique or catered to the end user, these experiences still provide a different view point into the real world. As an avenue to bring parts of the world closer to students while in their classrooms, VR scores highly and may be deemed valuable for learning.

    Thanks for sharing,

  4. Hi Lawrence,

    The study you selected is especially interesting given the wide-spread use of manipulatives in math. Can you expand on this finding that you noted for the class: the ones with abstract gestures outperformed those who used physical actions with objects and those who concrete gestures? What were the differences between abstract and concrete gestures and physical actions with objects? These findings may serve as an interesting way to help us inform the design of a targeted math activity with our students.

    Thank you for your input,

  5. Hi Lawrence,
    With respect to your second question, I do agree that elementary and secondary sciences involve students ‘playing catch up’ in regards to scientific knowledge and concepts. When reading over Winn (2003), I interpreted embodied learning as another learning tool that teachers can incorporate into their lessons to support and strengthen the competency of scientific facts. While students are likely constructing a ‘deeper and more personal’ knowledge, I think it’s up to educators to steer them in the right direction. As Gloria mentioned above, perhaps a follow-up activity or further exploration is required to ensure the correct concepts are being constructed.

    Thanks for the post!

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