The enactive roots of STEM: rethinking educational design in mathematics



Publication Details

Hutto, D. D., Kirchhoff, M. D. and Abrahamson, D. (2015). The enactive roots of STEM: rethinking educational design in mathematics. Educational Psychology Review, 27 (3), 371-389.


New and radically reformative thinking about the enactive and embodied basis of cognition holds out the promise of moving forward age-old debates about whether we learn and how we learn. The radical enactive, embodied view of cognition (REC) poses a direct, and unmitigated, challenge to the trademark assumptions of traditional cognitivist theories of mind— those that characterize cognition as always and everywhere grounded in the manipulation of contentful representations of some kind. REC has had some success in understanding how sports skills and expertise are acquired. But, REC approaches appear to encounter a natural obstacle when it comes to understanding skill acquisition in knowledge-rich, conceptually based domains like the hard sciences and mathematics. This paper offers a proof of concept that REC’s reach can be usefully extended into the domain of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning, especially when it comes to understanding the deep roots of such learning. In making this case, this paper has five main parts. The section “Ancient Intellectualism and the REC Challenge” briefly introduces REC and situates it with respect to rival views about the cognitive basis of learning. The “Learning REConceived: from Sports to STEM?” section outlines the substantive contribution REC makes to understanding skill acquisition in the domain of sports and identifies reasons for doubting that it will be possible to apply the same approach to knowledge-rich STEM domains. The “Mathematics as Embodied Practice” section gives the general layout for how to understand mathematics as an embodied practice. The section “The Importance of Attentional Anchors” introduces the concept “attentional anchor” and establishes why attentional anchors are important to educational design in STEM domains like mathematics. Finally, drawing on some exciting new empirical studies, the section “Seeing Attentional Anchors” demonstrates how REC can contribute to understanding the roots of STEM learning and inform its learning design, focusing on the case of mathematics.

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