Abrahamson, D., & Bakker, A. (2016). Making sense of movement in embodied design for mathematics learning. 

In N. Newcombe & S. Weisberg (Eds), Embodied cognition and STEM learning [Special issue]. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications (CRPI), 1(1), 33. doi:10.1186/s41235-016-0034-3

Abstract: Embodiment perspectives from the cognitive sciences offer a rethinking of the role of sensorimotor activity in human learning, knowing, and reasoning. Educational researchers have been evaluating whether and how these perspectives might inform the theory and practice of STEM instruction. Some of these researchers have created technological systems, where students solve sensorimotor interaction problems as cognitive entry into curricular content. However, the field has yet to agree on a conceptually coherent and empirically validated design framework, inspired by embodiment perspectives, for developing these instructional resources. A stumbling block toward such consensus, we propose, is an implicit disagreement among educational researchers on the relation between physical movement and conceptual learning. This hypothesized disagreement could explain the contrasting choices we witness among current designs for learning with respect to instructional methodology for cultivating new physical actions: Whereas some researchers use an approach of direct instruction, such as explicit teaching of gestures, others use an indirect approach, where students must discover effective movements to solve a task. Prior to comparing these approaches, it may help first to clarify key constructs. In this theoretical essay we draw on embodiment and systems literature as well as findings from our design research so as to offer the following taxonomy that may facilitate discourse about movement in STEM learning: (a) distal movement is the technologically extended effect of physical movement on the environment; (b) proximal movement is the physical movements themselves; and (c) sensorimotor schemes are the routinized patterns of cognitive activity that becomes enacted through proximal movement by orienting on so-called attentional anchors. Attentional anchors are goal-oriented phenomenological objects or enactive perceptions (“sensori-”) that organize proximal movement to effect distal movement (“-motor”). All three facets of movement must be considered in analyzing embodied learning processes. We demonstrate that indirect movement instruction enables students to develop new sensorimotor schemes including attentional anchors as idiosyncratic solutions to physical interaction problems. These schemes are by necessity grounded in students’ own agentive relation to the world while also grounding target content, such as mathematical notions.

Significance: Engineering developments in computational technology have created unprecedented opportunities for industry to build and disseminate mathematics-education applications (“apps”). Thousands of these applications are now literally at the fingertips of any child who can access a tablet, smartphone, or personal computer with responsive touchscreen. Educational researchers could contribute to the quality of these ubiquitous consumer products by offering design frameworks informed by theories of learning. However, existing frameworks are derived from interaction theories drawing on epistemological assumptions that are no longer tenable, given the embodiment turn in the cognitive sciences. A proposed systemic reconceptualization of mathematical objects as grounded in sensorimotor schemes for material interaction offers educational designers heuristics for creating activities in which students learn by discovering motion patterns.