Enactivist Theory

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This page originally authored by Stacey Bernier (2011) This page edited by Neil Busby (2013)

Definition

Enactivism, a combination of Constructivism and Embodied Cognition, is a theory wherein cognition and environment are inseparable, and learning is drawn from the interaction between learner and environment. It is rooted in the phenomenological work of Merleau-Ponty and Bateson’s biological perspective work. Enactivism is underpinned by the thought that actions are not simply a display of understanding, but they are themselves understandings. This makes it possible to observe how humans learn alone and in groups, and how participation in any shared actions contribute to an overall sense of identity. For the enactivist, what is imagined, what is fantasized, what is guessed at, and what is intuited, are understood as being extremely important to meaning making and contributing to knowledge and what is learned. [1] Cognition is an evolving interaction between systems; the cognitive system is a producer of meaning rather than a processor of information, as in constructivism. [2] Learning is not about gaining information; instead, it is seen as an ongoing process of exploration about consciousness, self, context, and interactions of complex systems in order to adapt to the evolving world. Action and mental process are inseparable; action is knowledge. Applied to an educational context, enactivism stresses that reality and mind are interlinked and cannot be separated; as a result, learning should never occur as isolated events in a classroom.

Theoretical Framework[3]

Enactivist tree.jpg

Research on embodied cognition and the theory of enactivism have found that sensory behavior and cognition are connected, if not inseparable[4][5][6]. The implications of this research have been well explored in other fields such as cognitive science, linguistics, human-computer interaction, developmental psychology, mathematics, biology, artificial intelligence, history, and even philosophy and law.

Constructivism

Constructivism, as espoused by such researchers and theorists as Jean Piaget and Ernst von Glasersfeld, has dominated educational research and practice for over 20 years. In this theory, learning is considered an active process in which a learner constructs his or her own subjective knowledge. Learners accommodate and assimilate new knowledge into their existing knowledge base. Some of the new ideas, positive contributions, and implications of the constructivist worldview for education include:

  • Teaching and learning become more student-centered. Learning does not automatically happen when information is presented to a student. Education becomes more humanized.
  • “If we assume that students have to build up their own knowledge, we have to consider that they are not 'blank slates'”[7]
  • Students are rational beings: “Whatever a student says in answer to a question (or “problem”) is what makes sense to the student at that moment”[8]
  • “If teachers want to modify a student’s concepts and conceptual structures, they have to try and build up a model of the particular student’s own thinking”[9].
  • “Asking students how they got to the answer they gave”[10] is useful for pedagogical purposes.
  • Let students struggle with problems of their own choice, helping them only when they ask for help”[11].

Major differences with Constructivism

Enactivism differs from constructivism in several ways.

  • Constructivism maintains a separation of mental thought from physical action, where the two are combined in enactivism.
  • Knowledge, according to constructivism, is an object that occupies space and must be built by the learner with facilitation from a teacher, whereas in enactivism knowledge is present in all things and in all actions, and the teacher and students discover the knowledge together as it co-evolves with the actions they take.
  • Constructivism is concerned only with cognitive knowledge, and does not consider subconscious knowledge or the role of emotions in learning.
  • Making connections is an important part of constructivism. Gaining knowledge is a focus of constructivism, and knowing about interconnections in the environment is the focus of enactivism.

Enactivism

In enactivism, thinking and cognition are grounded in bodily actions. As Reid notes in distinguishing constructivism from enactivism, “It is not a matter of an individual having a cognitive structure, which determines how the individual can think, or of there being conceptual structures which determine what new concepts can development. The organism as a whole is its continually changing structure which determines its own actions on itself and its world”[12].

Potential Benefits and Contributions of an Enactivist, Embodied Worldview on Education.

  • Enactivism and embodied cognition research provide a theoretical grounding as well as a more solid, concrete, empirical foundation for some of the concepts to come out of cognitive science and constructivism[13].
  • Considerations of embodiment perhaps humanize students and learning even more than constructivism – for example, the embodied notion of empathy and its role in learning and understanding[14]
  • “What is called teaching, therefore, involves not only the words and sentences a teacher utters and writes on the board during a lesson, but also all the hands/arms gestures, body movements, and facial expressions a teacher performs in the classroom”[15]
  • One cannot ignore the the embodied nature of teaching and learning, including in online learning contexts[16]
  • “It is a mistake to treat knowledge and ideas as if they are detached from embodied encounters with the world”[17]
  • “Teaching and learning practices that attend directly to sense making could assist in the learning process”[18].
  • “Learning must attend ultimately not only to the intellect but the whole person, and therefore, to transforming who we are as people” [19].
  • “Our present education may transform into the education of how to become a human being, instead of only a citizen”[20]
  • Educational technology: With a better understanding of the constraints of embodiment, one can better evaluate the pedagogical implications and limitations of new technologies, such as 3D multiuser worlds (Second Life), tablet computers (such as the iPad), smart phones (iPhone, Android phones), and so forth.
  • Educators considering embodiment have also taken the lead in designing new enactive and embodied interfaces for instruction, such as microcomputer-based labs and sensors, rather than always being in a reactive, consumer mode with respect to new technologies.

Potential Criticisms, Limitations of, or Constraints on Enactivism and Embodied Cognition for Education.

  • There are many notions and examples that stretch the notion of “embodiment” - including 3D avatars, physical actions, presence, social embodiment, and issues of gender and identity. Wilson[21] discusses several related but differing views on embodied cognition, and many lump together situated cognition and distributed or extended cognition with embodied cognition, as well.
  • One must be careful of oversimplifying applications of embodied cognition or enactivism to the design of learning environments.

Implications for Design

To design a learning environment from an enactivist approach, instruction and design cannot be independent. Instructional goals should not be predetermined; as students act in the instructional environment, the goals should be set and modified with the teacher and students during the instruction. Enough freedom should be given with the goals so students have enough freedom to learn their own way. This way, the instruction is adapted to each learner’s inclinations. Design should concentrate on the creation of a variety of stimulating learning conditions whose purpose is not completely prescribed. This encourages learning “on the fly” and allows students to respond in their own ways. Emotion, intuition, instinct and mindfulness need to be present in learning environments so students can learn through action.

Although there are no predetermined goals, there should be enough constraints so that students’ attention is guided toward the co-evolving patterns. Technology will be essential in constructing an enactivist learning environment. Learners would create their own learning worlds to act and gain knowledge. The interaction of the biological systems of the students and the digital systems of the computer are another differentiation between enactivism and constructivism. Web 2.0 is critical in designing the enactivist learning environment: students can create games to teach others about content; they could use programs like Inspiration or Prezi to build mental models; and they could use applications like Google docs (see Google Products in the Classroom) to interact with one another and co-evolve their knowledge.

Implications of Embodied Cognition and Enactivism for Instructional Design Slideshow by Doug Holton

Further Resources

Videos

Enactivism Simply Explained Through a Sample P.E. Lesson.

YouTube Video

What it means to be an Enactivist teacher.

http://teachertube.com/viewVideo.php?video_id=51256

Readings[22]

Bateson, G. (1987). Men are grass: Metaphor and the world of mental process. In W. Thompson (Ed.), Gaia: A way of knowing. (pp. 37-47). Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press.

Maturana H. & Varela, F. (1980) Autopoesis and cognition: The realization of the living. (Boston: D. Reidel.

Maturana, H. & Varela, F. (1992). The Tree of Knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. (revised edition) Boston & London: Shamabala.

Maturana, H. (1987). Everything said is said by an observer. In W. Thompson (Ed.), Gaia: A way of knowing. (pp. 65-82). Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press.

Varela, F. (1987). Laying down a path in walking. In W. Thompson (Ed.), Gaia: A way of knowing. (pp. 48-64). Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press.

Varela, F., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Stop Motion Video

Enactivism by David Loti

References

  1. Sumara, D. & Davis, B. (1997). Enactivist theory and community learning: toward acomplexified understanding of actoion research. Education Action Research, 5, (3), 403-422.
  2. Sumara, D. & Davis, B. (1997). Enactivist theory and community learning: toward acomplexified understanding of actoion research. Education Action Research, 5, (3), 405.
  3. Holton, Doug. Constructivism + Embodied Cognition = Enactivism: Theoretical and Practical Implications for Conceptual Change. 2010. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/232847/Constructivism_Embodied_Cognition_Enactivism_Theoretical_and_Practical_Implications_for_Conceptual_Change
  4. Gibbs, R. (2005). Embodiment and Cognitive Science. Cambridge University Press.
  5. Kiverstein, J., & Clark, A. (2009). Introduction: Mind embodied, embedded, enacted: One church or many? Topoi, 28 (1), 1-7.
  6. Gangopadhyay, N., & Kiverstein, J. (2009). Enactivism and the unity of perception and action.Topoi,28 (1), 63–73.
  7. von Glasersfeld, E. (1991). Questions and Answers about Radical Constructivism . In M. K. Pearsall(Ed.),Scope, sequence, and coordination of secondary school science, Vol. II: Relevant research, p178.
  8. von Glasersfeld, E. (1991). Questions and Answers about Radical Constructivism . In M. K. Pearsall(Ed.),Scope, sequence, and coordination of secondary school science, Vol. II: Relevant research, p. 179.
  9. von Glasersfeld, E. (1991). Questions and Answers about Radical Constructivism . In M. K. Pearsall(Ed.),Scope, sequence, and coordination of secondary school science, Vol. II: Relevant research, p. 179.
  10. von Glasersfeld, E. (1991). Questions and Answers about Radical Constructivism . In M. K. Pearsall(Ed.),Scope, sequence, and coordination of secondary school science, Vol. II: Relevant research, p. 179.
  11. von Glasersfeld, E. (1991). Questions and Answers about Radical Constructivism . In M. K. Pearsall(Ed.), Scope, sequence, and coordination of secondary school science, Vol. II: Relevant research, p. 179.
  12. Reid, D. (1996). Enactivism as a methodology. In L. Puig & A. Gutierrez (Eds.), Proceedings of the Twentieth Annual Conference of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education, (Vol. 4, pp. 203-210). Valencia, Spain.
  13. Pecher, D., & Zwaan, R.A. (2005). Grounding Cognition: The Role of Perception and Action in Memory, Language, and Thinking. Cambridge University Press.
  14. Cunningham, D.L. (2009). An empirical framework for understanding how teachers conceptualize andcultivate historical empathy in students. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 41 (5), 679-709.
  15. Pozzer-Ardenghi, L., & Roth, W. (2006). On performing concepts during science lectures. Science Education, 91(1), 96-114.
  16. McWilliam, E., & Taylor, P.G. (1998). Teaching im/material: Challenging the new pedagogies of instructional design. Educational Researcher,29-35.
  17. Yates, L. (2007). Embodying education. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 39(7), 772-776.
  18. Barnacle, R. (2009). Gut instinct: The body and learning. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 41 (1),22-33.
  19. Barnacle, R. (2009). Gut instinct: The body and learning. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 41 (1),22-33.
  20. Jörg, T. (2009). Thinking in Complexity about Learning and Education: A Programmatic View .Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 6 (1), 1-22.
  21. Wilson, M. (2002). Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 9 (4), 625-636.
  22. Readings List by David A. Reid. http://www.acadiau.ca/~dreid/enactivism/ERGreadlist.html