Race Car Games, Affordances and Learning

Video race car game with one car catching and passing another

Do you like race car games? I was never a big fan. I find it does serve as a good analogy for discussing ecological psychology and its connection to learning. As a video game race car driver I would have a number of knowledge-based protocols and models in place that I could apply to the successful driving of my car around the track (and hopefully faster than anyone else too). However, I cannot simply input one of those models and expect to get the exact same output in my driving every time.

So, maybe a cognitive approach alone to driving a race car falls a bit short?

However, I do use the knowledge in those models to make decisions based on what emerges over the horizon. I cannot implement a protocol until I see what’s coming around the next corner. I may know the course I’m racing inside out but I still need to wait for what comes next because maybe there’s an accident up ahead or an oil slick — something that isn’t always there on that race track. Now I need to perceive (make a decision) and act (solve the problem).

So, the racing environment I find myself in at that very moment affords me various actions. Those actions are all the possibilities available to me at that time. And affordances change as my environment — which is very organic — changes.

With respect to the act of learning, we could call affordances the dimensions of the learning space[1]. You might say that affordances — physical possibilities — are all good and well if the task to be learned has a psychomotor component where decision and action are inextricably linked. That is, for every action there is a decision and every decision drives the next action. However, you may argue that it doesn’t apply to learning that is purely cognitive in nature.

What about collaborative or group work? I — me — my body and my mind interacts with those other learners. We respond not only to what each other says or how it sounds but we respond to how each other looks and acts as we say what we’re saying.

Normak and colleagues further define affordances in a more cognitive-oriented learning environment as:

“something that learners with certain learning goals belonging to a community culture, perceive when they interact with the components of the learning situation (e.g., human and material resources, tools) in certain particular learning environments.”

A learner amongst a community of learners, like in a course or training session, can use the affordances available to the entire group as guidance for interacting with her learning environment and therefore achieve her learning intentions. That is, she can realize her reasons or motives for being in that course or training session in the first place. “Affordances provide the cognitive basis for “Normak and his colleagues’ approach “because they convey the idea of cognition that enables an individualized approach in goal-directed action.”

Affordances in a more cognitively oriented learning environment could look like assembling, managing, creating, reading, changing, collaborating, sharing, exchanging, searching, filtering/mashing, collecting, storing, tagging, reflecting, monitoring, supporting, asking/feedback and evaluation[1].

For many of us involved in teaching and learning I feel this idea of learning affordances provides a fresh new perspective on the notion of active learning, learner engagement and learning retention. It’s an interesting assertion that arises out of the philosophical mind-body problem that continues to drive learning theories and learning today. One worth talking about some more next time.

[1] An Ecological Approach to Learning Dynamics. Normak, P., Pata, K. and M. Kaipanen. Educational Technology & Society. 15(3): 262–274. 2012.