Sunday, January 26, 2014

Embodied Cognition: Learning by Making

"We have much to learn from research in embodied cognition—an area of cognitive science (and philosophy) that explores how cognition is enacted through bodily experiences, and how knowledge emerges through physical engagement with the environment... Classical concepts of cognition emphasize the importance of mental representation and symbol systems, and it’s easy to default to the view that mental representation comes first, and doing second: We conjure up thoughts in our minds and then carry out those thoughts with the body. But the concept of embodied cognition challenges this dualism. As the AbD project moves forward in its investigation of thinking through making, we need to avoid construing the activities of making simply as outcomes of thought, and instead learn to understand them as instances of thought. Perhaps eventually we’ll be able to reformulate the idea of thinking dispositions with the vocabulary of the body in mind."
From Making Thinking Happen-Agency By Design's blog (

The bolding is mine. But this is SO true and I've never seen it written so eloquently. I learn this way and so do my students! When I or my students interact with materials and investigate the way they react, bend, tear, etc..., this is learning by doing. I see it now with my students as they make sculptures out of pantyhose and wire. They have no idea how the pantyhose will change the shape of the wire, how the pantyhose will change as they put gesso on it to harden it, but they have to react to it and reiterate and let their ideas be malleable and adaptable, otherwise they are so frustrated that it "didn't turn out the way" they thought it would. 

I learn this way as well. When I am making, I sometimes start with an idea of using a certain material. I am curious about how it will react when I do something to it. But often, I just begin by picking something up-a material, a tool, a writing implement, and start using it. If I am drawing, I have to recognize and react to the sensation of the implement as it moves across the drawing surface. I can press harder, more softly, change the type of mark I am making, etc... There are a myriad of reactions that I could have, but they are not  thought through cognitively. My body is reacting to the sensation. I am learning by feeling the mark making tool as it moves across the surface and reacting to it. Sometimes I consciously name this as "playing" in my mind, because this gives me the freedom to react without making it count as a "real" piece of art. I know that the minute I begin to consider my playing a work of art, that my creativity and the joy I associate with making goes out the window. This is paralyzing for me and for many other creative minds. 

So now I know the term for this habit of mind: embodied cognition. It pleases me that someone is doing research into this and recognizing it as a valid way of learning. I know it is. It has worked for me and I see it working for my students: learning by making.