Extended Skill Learning

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Frontiers in Psychology



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Within the ecological and enactive approaches in cognitive science, a tension exists in how the process of skill learning is understood. Skill learning can be understood in a narrow sense, as a process of bodily change over time, or in an extended sense, as a change in the structure of the animal–environment system. We propose to resolve this tension by rejecting the first understanding in favor of the second. We thus defend an extended approach to skill learning. An extended understanding of skill learning views bodily changes as being embedded in a larger process of interaction between the organism and specific structures in the environment. Such an extended approach is committed to the claims that (1) the appropriate unit of analysis for understanding skill learning is not the body but the activity and (2) learning consists in the establishment and adaptive organization of enabling constraints on that activity. We focus on two example cases: maintaining upright posture and walking. In both cases, environmental structures play a constitutive role in the activity throughout learning, but the specific environmental structures that are involved in the activity change over time. At an early stage, the child makes use of an environmental “support”—for example, holding onto furniture to maintain upright posture. Later, once further constraints have been established, the child is able to let go of the furniture and remain upright. We argue that adopting an extended understanding of skill learning offers a promising strategy for unifying ecological and enactive approaches and can also potentially ground a radically embodied approach to higher cognition.