Broadly, my research is focused on the design of learning to support pre-professional students. I use 4E cognition as a lens to explore how pre-professional students learn, and how learning might be designed to better support these students to enter their field or profession. The 4E cognitive approach that I use has some interesting implications regarding the purpose and definition of learning in the first place.
My work also explores differing perspectives on expertise, enskillment, and skilled action. How do experts view their environments? How does a learner transition towards expertise? What does it mean to be an expert? Just as learning takes on new definitions from my perspectives, so too do our understandings of expertise. A valuable framework, the Skilled Intentionality Framework (Bruineberg & Rietveld, 2014; van Dijk & Rietveld, 2017), helps me to define "skilled action" as a research construct and can be applied in interesting ways to learning situations. This framework is rooted in 4E and ecological-enactive cognition (Rietveld et al., 2018).
Further, my work explores innovative and emerging technologies within learning contexts. Technologies can also be more than an educational method or platform; they are also essential content. Pre-professional students must be taught how to use the essential tools and resources of their discipline in authentic and explicit ways. This means exploring and integrating technologies and skills that will be essential for future practitioners. Again, 4E cognition provides theoretical support for this area of interest, as does connectivism (Downes, 2005; Siemens, 2005).

4E Cognition

4E Cognition is a developing branch of perspectives within cognitive science (Newen et al. 2018) that present new and exciting ideas about how cognition and related cognitive processes might work.

There are 4 major "branches" to 4E cognition: embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended. Importantly, while they are often discussed independently from each other, they all blend and relate together in complex and dynamic ways (Newen et al. 2018).

The 4E approach gives us some interesting ways to explore learning. If cognition is embodied, then how can we design learning to involve the body? If cognition is embedded within socio-cultural contexts, how can we design learning to teach within that context? If cognition is concerned with recognizing and acting upon opportunities, how can we design learning to explicitly showcase those opportunities? If cognition can involve technology tools, how do we design learning to teach our students the appropriate use of those tools?

Interestingly, there are foundational works within and adjacent to our field that align with the different branches of 4E cognition. Not all align with the branch by name, though some explicitly do.


  • Lakoff & Johnson (1999) Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought


  • Brown, Collins, & Duguid (1989) Situated cognition and the culture of learning
  • Lave & Wenger (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation
  • Young (1993) Instructional design for situated learning


  • Gibson (1972) A theory of direct visual perception
  • Young (2004) An ecological psychology of instructional design: Learning and thinking by perceiving-acting systems


  • Clark & Chalmers (1998) The extended mind
  • Downes (2005) An introduction to connective knowledge
  • Siemens (2005) Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age
  • A silhouette of a person standing, facing forward, with their arms extended to the left and right.

    Embodied cognition rejects the mind-body duality, and believes that cognitive information is stored modally. Cognition is inexplicably influenced by the body in which the mind inhabits.

  • Six circles are connected together with straight lines, forming a complex web. Some of the circles are larger than others, indicating they have more significance. Inside each circle is an icon of a person.

    Embedded cognition explains how cognition might be embedded within a larger socio-cultural or material ecosystem. In this branch, the individual is inseparably embedded in the environment and the context.

  • An icon illustration of a person's eye. The pupil and iris are shown facing directly forward.

    Enactive cognition deals with how a person sees affordances in their environment, and how they respond to those affordances. This branch suggests that we should explicitly teach both learner attentions and intentions.

  • A flat illustration of a smartphone. The screen shows an illustration of 3 circles connected together with straight lines. Inside each circle is an icon of a person.

    Extended cognition suggests that cognition involves tools and artifacts outside of the mind and body itself. This branch implies that teaching should address how to orchestrate and navigate essential external tools and resources.

The Skilled Intentionality Framework

My research seeks to inform the design of learning so that pre-professional students can be equipped to enter their chosen fields or professions with greater skill. I use a framework called the Skilled Intentionality Framework (Bruineberg & Rietveld, 2014; van Dijk & Rietveld, 20117) to define "skilled action" as a research construct. The Skilled Intentionality Framework defines skilled action with regard to a person's grip on the relative field of affordances within their ecological niche and their bodily readiness to take action upon those affordances (Rietveld et al., 2018).
The researchers who created this framework intend for it to be applied across a variety of cognitive tasks. "Grasping a glass, riding a bike, or improving an architectural design, for instance, can all be seen as a skilled individual's immediate responsiveness to affordances" (Rietveld et al., 2018, p. 42). They state that it "...dissolves the dichotomy between 'lower cognition' and 'higher cognition' by interpreting affordances for the latter types of skilled activities as just more affordances available in our human ecological niche..." (Rietveld et al., 2018, p. 43).
Crucially, if "skilled intentionality" can be used to explain how skilled individuals take appropriate actions at a cognitive level, then the same framework can be referenced to explore how novices can transition towards greater levels of expertise. I use Skilled Intentionality Framework to describe an end state or goal of learning: to increase a learner's potential to take skilled action. The application of this framework to learning situations, especially in this manner, has potential implications on the definition and purpose of learning as well as the definition of expertise.

What is Learning? What is Expertise?

There are myriad definitions of learning. Many widely accepted definitions consider learning to involve a lasting change in behavior. These more traditional definitions are rooted in learning theories like behaviorism and classical cognitivism. In the field of Learning, Design, and Technology, the information processing model of cognition has similarly influenced our understandings of learning as well as the models we use to design learning experiences.
I prefer a definition of learning that better incorporates some of these elements and perspectives. Ambrose et al. (2010) define learning as "...a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential of improved performance and future learning." I am drawn to this definition because of it points out that learning increases potential and is not just a change in behavior.
We also come to a different understanding of expertise from this perspective. Traditionally, experts are those who have memorized vast amounts of information, and who can recall that information quickly and accurately when it is needed. However, in my work an expert is one who can take "skilled action" as described by the Skilled Intentionality Framework. That is, they can recognize appropriate or effective affordances in their environment, and they can subsequently take appropriate or effective actions as a result. Ecologogical-enactive researchers call learning theories like these "mere change theories" (Jacobs & Michaels, 2007). Learning theories of this definition explain that learning is a literal change to learner, who becomes more "fit" for their environment by learning to identify more appropriate affordances and responding in more effective ways.

Specific Projects and Ideas


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Dipietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (1st ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.

Bruineberg, J., & Rietveld, E. (2014). Self-organization, free energy minimization, and optimal grip on a field of affordances. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(AUG).

Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The Extended Mind. Analysis, 58(1), 7–19.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1987). Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics. Technical Report No. 403.

Downes, S. (2005). An Introduction to Connective Knowledge.

Gibson, J.J. (1972). A theory of direct visual perception. In A. Noe & E. Thompson (eds.), Vision and Mind: Selected Readings in the Philosophy of Perception. 77–89. MIT Press.

Jacobs, D. M., & Michaels, C. R. (2007). Direct learning. Ecological Psychology, 19(4), 321–349.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic Books.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Situated Learning.

Newen, A., De Bruin, L.,& Gallagher, S. (2018). The Oxford Handbook of 4E Cognition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rietveld, E., Denys, D., and Van Westen, M. (2018). Ecological-Enactive Cognition as engaging with a field of relevant affordances: The Skilled Intentionality Framework (SIF), in A. Newen, L. De Bruin, and S. Gallagher (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of 4E Cognition. Oxford Library of Psychology.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), 3–10.

van Dijk, L., & Rietveld, E. (2017). Foregrounding sociomaterial practice in our understanding of affordances: The skilled intentionality framework. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(JAN).

Young, M. (1993). Instructional Design for Situated Learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 41(1), 43–58.

Young, M. (2004). An ecological psychology of instructional design: Learning and thinking by perceiving-acting systems. In D. Jonassen & M. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology (2nd ed., pp. 169–177). Routledge.