Blog texts by Haagahelians
Embodied knowledge in learning: In search of the lost cat!
Published : 23.01.2018

At the Slush 2017 event in Helsinki former Formula 1 driver Mika Häkkinen gave a very impressive presentation where he explained what it meant to drive a Formula 1 racing car. He explained that it took seven years before he won his first Grand Prix, and during these years he had to fight against himself. After every race he “looked at the mirror” and analysed in detail how he achieved the result he did in the race – we call this reflection.  

Häkkinen emphasized that he could always ask help from the team in making the analysis. This was how he learned to be a better driver. Through this story he got close to the idea that is essential to the flexible education path, in which action and theory are interweaved with a certain kind of rhythm. This rhythm is adapted individually, and the reflection is guided by mentors. 

According to the philosopher Hannah Arendt the concept of “theory” is derived from the old Greek word pertaining to spectators, “theatai. In ancient Greece spectators were the people who looked on and interpreted the actors’ deeds and actions. The roles of the actors and interpreters were divided up and allocated to different people. In a present-day society, we can conceive the actors as the practical workers and spectators as the theoreticians and planners.  

This ancient set-up depicts nicely the act of reflection in learning, except everybody in the ancient world had only one role. In any event, it is very important in the learning process that both roles – the role of the actor and the spectator – are available to the learner. The essence of role taking is in the timing and rhythm. The lost cat is hiding in this role taking. 

The well-timed rhythm in the reflection made by oneself or together with others (spectators/mentors) has to be practiced. During acting, the actor is enhancing embodied cognition, knowledge that is largely subconscious but highly meaningful for learning. If the timing for reflection is optimal, it’s possible to use recently gained embodied knowledge in constructing new knowledge that converge with the existing one, and in this way the cognitive “skeleton” (structure) will be fleshed out.  

By looking into seperate acts and by reflection the individual is able to see the entity that comprises the details. To recap, the human being is able to get a clearer view of whole through its parts. It is important both for the learner and for the mentor to figure out when it is the right moment to take one of these two roles – the actor or the spectator. This means to recognize when it makes sense to continue acting and when it is more reasonable to reflect. 

The distinction between doing and understanding was clear-cut in the ancient time. Unfortunately, the tradition to separate these two equally important aspects still has a strong effect on our understanding of learning and how we organize learning environments.  

Along this separation of these two roles we have lost the holistic approach to learning. The theoretical cognitive part is valued in education, while practical work is underestimated. However, if we want to strengthen and reinforce the enthusiasm of the young students’ learning experience, we should let them avail themselves of both these roles – the actor and the spectator – evenhandedly. In addition, we need the competence to find the right rhythm in assuming these roles.  

The text was written by lecturer Virve Vainio from Haaga-Helia School of Vocational Teacher Education and education management professional Kari Viinisalo from Oppisopimuskummit ry.