An ecological approach in inquiry learning environments

November 9, 2007

Some ideas from the paper i try to write. I am especially grateful to Anatole Fuksas for triggering me to think about embodied concepts rather than training for knowledge and competences in inquiry systems. It seems that this new approach is well in accordance with my previous ideas of the systems as emergent semiotic ones in which the learners are creating perceptionally translation borders between the artifacts in inquiry steps. This new idea relates well with this translation part where learners with perceptional translation problems are unsuccessful in performing certain actions of the inquiry process.


Recent findings in neuro-science enable to consider the interrelations of the components of learning environments, inquiry actions and knowledge construction, uniting all these into one ecologically defined perceptual-action system.

At traditional sensimotor schemes of information-processing, an action is often seen as the late step caused by stimulus processing (Prinz, 1997). This means that depending of input information from the environment (e.g. learning materials and problem statement), and learners‘ previous knowledge, the inquiry actions are planned to solve the problem (Hommel et al., 2001) (see fig. 1).

The traditional view to information-processing has assumed that people constantly process mediated representations of information from outside environment and information retrieved from the long-term memory, in their working memory in order construct dynamic mental models that mediate their awareness of themselves and phenomena, and trigger action performance.

inquiry learning environment eclkogy

Hommel (2003), however, assumes that action control to all behavioral acts is ecologically delegated to the environment – when planning actions in terms of anticipated goals, the sensory-motor assemblies needed to reach the goal are simultaneously selectively activated in the environment, and bind together into a coherent whole that serves as an action-plan, facilitating the execution of the goal-directed actions through the interaction between the environment and its embodied sensory-motor activations.

The former idea could be translated into what would happen in the learning environment: the learner has previous experiences with similar actions and situation elements, and this enables them to anticipate certain action goals and their sensory-motor correlates in the learning environment, which in turn would constrain and guide learners to embody certain sensory-motor activity patterns and perform appropriate inquiry actions in the system. Goals and proceeding actions are, thereby, not sequentially deduced from the input information and previous knowledge, but they are ecologically emergent from coupling between anticipated goal-directed action potentialities and the features perceived in the environment as affordances for these actions.

Discoveries in cognitive and neuroscience about the functioning of mirror-neuron systems (Gallese et al., 1996), claim, that cognition is embodied through grounding knowledge directly in sensory-motor experiences without the mediation of symbolic representations (Pecher & Zwaan, 2005). We perceptually activate certain multimodal action-potentialites of embodied symbols to mediate our purposful and goal-directed actions (see Gallese & Lakoff, 2005). These embodied dimensionalities of symbols are activations of neural representations located in sensory-motor areas in brain.

The embodied view to concepts as activity patterns makes learning in authenitc contexts even more meaningful – when activating information of objects, we have had direct emotional and action-related experiences with, the same neural areas are involved than when activating sensory-motor circuits of the brain on performing actions with their mediation (Gallese and Lakoff, 2005).

From the ecological viewpoint, complex multi-representational learning environments are built on the supposition that people should be constructing knowledge and inquiry competences in the process of moving from authentic and perceptually known narrative or visual settings through inquiry actions to the abstract narrative or visual settings, in which the objects and events are highly abstract and do not have direct perceptual correlates in sensory-motor system. When planning for inquiry actions, various artifacts embedded to the learning environment provide action potentials that the learner can embody. In the sequential or iterative process of inquiry, perceptually embodied concepts related to the problem will be coded through inquiry procedures into different semiotic registers (Duval, 2000), and tied with the arbitrary theoretical semantic knowledge.


That is so far abstract of my new ideas of complex multi-representational systems. I intend to use some example cases of showing how the wrong selection of affordances at narrative and visual artifacts in learning environment defined inquiry actions with the narratives.

In one paper we have collected evidence of changes of awareness of learning objects’ affordances in complex inquiry system, which could be used as evidence of learning environment as an ecologically defined system.


One comment

  1. […] & Sepp, 2007; Sepp, Pata, Pedaste, 2007).These studies have lead to the ideas related to ecological approach to learning environments […]

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