New Perspective for Your Classroom: Implementing the 4E’s of Cognition- Embodied, Embedded, Enactive, and Extended

Have you ever observed children at the playground? They endlessly run, jump, climb, slide and then repeat the process again and again. At all ages, they are using their bodies to take in information about their world and their bodies in space. Piaget taught us about assimilation and accommodation. In the playground, it is clear to see how movement informs cognition and motor memory is created in the repeated gross and fine motor experiences. However a new comer to interdisciplinary research is the notion of 4E’s of cognition: embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended. Once understood, it is actually common sense for all teachers and clinicians. The basic premise is that cognition is impacted by the many interactions between the brain, the body and the social and physical environments that children actively experience every day as they grow and develop. The centuries old mind/body connection!
The immersive painting experiences currently found in some museums offer a great analogy for what real life is like in a classroom or recess playground. There are the stimuli offered by the visual surroundings the teacher has designed in the classroom, the sounds intended and those of vents and outdoor noises, the feel of the equipment like the pen or the pencil, the audio-visual tools and even the temperature of the class or the weather outside. All of these impact each child. But actually each child reacts to them differently according to their prior experiences and their own internal personality, well-being and health. Every teacher knows hungry children can’t concentrate on academics. Working in schools serving students that experienced early trauma in their lives clearly demonstrates a sharpened sense of perusing the environment for danger, often with a hair like trigger to react, and less interest in academics or tasks that take away attention from maintaining security and protection of self.
In examining the many dynamic interactions between the body, brain and environments, researchers are evolving a theory in four cognitive processes that help us explain and explore reaching our students as they seek to make sense of their world and their place in the world. Like any theory about human functions, it is not simple or straightforward. However, as our increasingly digital landscape evolves, so must our understanding of how to reach our students effectively and help them become lifelong learners.
Here is a brief synopsis of each of the 4 E’s offered by Schiavio & van der Schyff (2018):

  • Embodied: Cognition cannot be fully described in terms of abstract mental processes (i.e., in terms of representations). Rather, it involves the entire body of the living system (brain and body).
Here is the constant flow of information collected from the entire body and senses to the brain and then changing what the brain makes of it. Think of a child touching a cold ball of snow. It will alter the way they think about snow in more than words. It is a sensation that registers in the brain from their body as well as their visual input. Just looking at snow through a window inside a building will not create the “snow” they really need their brain to understand
  • Embedded: Cognition is not an isolated event separated from the (child’s) agent’s ecological niche. Instead, it displays layers of co-determination with physical, social, and cultural aspects of the world.
Think about that immersive museum art exhibit. Think of going on vacation in a different part of the country or world and feeling the air, smelling the fauna, eating different food and meeting new people. It is a total experience. One that can be remembered as a total gestalt.
  • Extended: Cognition is often offloaded into biological beings and non-biological devices to serve a variety of functions that would be impossible (or too difficult) to be achieved by only relying on the agent’s own mental processes.
Have you ever lost your cell phone and panicked trying to remember all the phone numbers. We are now to the point where we actually depend on our devices to store information and perform tasks.
  • Enactive: Cognition is conceived of as the set of meaningful relationshipsdetermined by an adaptive two-way exchange between the biological and phenomenological complexity of living creatures and the environments they inhabit and actively shape.
So every child and every person is constantly changing as a result of the exchanges they make in their world. Each teacher can bring new worlds to their students. Each child already brings their personality and previous interactions to each new experience making individuals completely different. Their approach and willingness to engage and experience is unique.

Keeping in mind these four processes makes a more thoughtful classroom environment :

  • Teachers can bring white or brown noise to their class to drown out outside sounds or noisy mechanical interference. (find on You tube)
  • Arousing pictures of their studies displayed around the room enhances learning.
  • Classical music and audio-visual video field trips supply senses with different stimuli.
  • At times, a teacher will decide to mitigate an over stimulating environment and for example, shut the florescent lights, adding only natural light.
  • Take nature walks with “I spy” lists. Just experience smells, sounds and temperature.
  • Bringing out the class as you read aloud story in a different environment – indoors or out.
  • Asking for input from the class in the room arrangement- critiquing the results together.

Intentionally implementing changes to your classroom environment with attention to all the senses captures the knowledge we gain from the 4 E’s of Cognition. Experiment with the total environmental input you can control and see if that improves the functioning in your classroom. Operating with the 4E perspective in mind could inspire some significant improvements in your educational, and even your home environment.

If you want more information about the 4 E’s theory you can watch a short video featuring Dr. Shaun Gallagher, professor at the University of Memphis.

Dr. Gallagher is a philosopher working on embodied cognition. He explains these concepts in understandable and approachable format. Implementing these in your life and your classroom requires rethinking the relationship between mind and body, a centuries old quest. Again, how you approach it depends on what you as an individual bring to these concepts!


Schiavio, A. & van der Schyff, D. (2018). 4E music pedagogy and the principles of self-organization. Behavioral Sciences, 8(8), 72.

Note: The author, Dr. Christine Casey, Ed.D. consults with Kinems, a company that creates educational games based on 4E theoretical foundations.

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