Embodied Learning and Metaphors

Embodied Learning is a new topic for me and one that took a lot of reading and re-reading to get a grasp of.  Winn (2003) describes a framework of learning consisting of three concepts: embodiment, embeddedness and adaption.  Embodiment can be described as “how our physical bodies serve to externalize the activities of our physical brains in order to connect cognitive activity to the environment” (Winn, 2003, p.7) while the interdependence of this cognition and the environment is referred to as embeddedness.  Winn (2003) goes on to describe some of the neuroscience that is known and should not be ignored by educators.  Further, we read that our interactions with the world are limited and thus our understanding of it is too; We cannot hear certain sounds, nor can we see certain light and we experience in the world in a certain space and time.  Winn (2003) states that artificial environments can create representations that can allow us to understand concepts that would otherwise lie outside of our experience.

One of the challenges that arises with artificial environments is determining an effective way to represent certain concepts; students could easily misread or misunderstand metaphorical representations.  Niebert (2012) argues that “not only teaching but also thinking about and understanding science without metaphors and analogies is not possible” (para. 1). An example that Winn (2003) provides is representing current flow of the ocean using vectors and using longer vectors to show faster current (something that was misread by the student to mean the opposite).  Niebert (2012) presents a very impressive paper where 199 metaphors were analysed for their effectiveness in students learning.  An interesting finding was that one reason that a metaphor can go wrong is if it is constructed and not embodied.  What is meant here is that many metaphors are used in the classroom but “students do not have an embodied experience with the metaphor’s source domain but need imaginative skills to understand it” (Niebert, 2012, para. 29).  This really stood out for me because I find that I often use metaphors in my lessons and lectures without really considering how familiar students are with the source domain; even though it may be something students are able to relate to very well, I haven’t considered if is embodied.   

Finally, I read an article by Barab and Dede (2007) where they explore the potential that video games can have to create immersive learning environments for science education.  They found that game-based simulations were able to promote collaboration and self reflection while engaging students in professional roles and scaffolding learning through multimodal representations (Barab & Dede, 2007).


Questions for further discussion:

  1. How would you compare and contrast embodied learning with a constructivists view of learning and do you believe we have moved too far away from traditional cognitive theory as Winn (2003) would suggest?
  2. Niebert (2012) states that science cannot be taught without metaphors.  Do you agree?  Also how can we ensure the metaphors we are using are embedded and not constructed?


Barab, S., & Dede, C. (2007). Games and Immersive Participatory Simulations for Science Education: An Emerging Type of Curricula. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16(1), 1-3. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/stable/40186766

Niebert, K. (09/01/2012). Science education (salem, mass.): Understanding needs embodiment: A theory‐guided reanalysis of the role of metaphors and analogies in understanding science John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Winn, W. (2003). Learning in artificial environments: Embodiment, embeddedness, and dynamic adaptation. Technology, Instruction, Cognition and Learning, 1(1), 87-114. Full-text document retrieved on January 17, 2013, from: http://www.hitl.washington.edu/people/tfurness/courses/inde543/READINGS-03/WINN/winnpaper2.pdf


  1. Hello Baljeet,

    I enjoyed reading your post. When comparing the two frameworks, I don’t see Embodied Learning and Constructivism as being at odds. I think both theories recognize that learning is complex and teachers are best to allow for diversity in their approach. They also both focus on environmental conditions that optimize learning. Winn (2003), for example, states that learning occurs when people “adapt” to their environment, which is the basis of constructivism, or seems the same as Piaget’s “accommodations”.

    If they differ at all, it is in deciding if we can predict how the learning mechanism works. It makes me think of the different approaches that a chemist and physicist might have to the problem of describing crystal formation. Is it a Gibbs free energy thing, or optimization of Coulomb’s force law? Both frameworks have their merits and enrich the description. Perhaps a next step is to find practical ways to leverage embodied learning in our PBL teaching. I’m in the planning stages for 2017-18, so lots to think about!

    Harlow, S., Cummings, R., Aberasturi S. M. (2007) Karl Popper and Jean Piaget: A Rationale for Constructivism, The Educational Forum, 71:1, 41-48

    Winn, W. (2003). Learning in artificial environments: Embodiment, embeddedness, and dynamic adaptation. Technology, Instruction, Cognition and Learning, 1(1), 87-114.

    1. Thanks for your comment Michael. I too kept thinking about the projects that I have created over the past couple of years and how they could be tweaked to really incorporate embodied learning. Your chemist/physicist example draws a good parallel between constructivism and embodied learning.

  2. Great post,

    After reading your statement, “…students do not have an embodied experience with the metaphor’s source domain but need imaginative skills to understand it.” I was left with a question. If students find it hard to grasp and understand metaphors, what about our ELL learners? What’s the next step here?

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