Extended Mind: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

What is the extended mind and why is it important for teachers to consider?

Extended Mind: A teacher's guide

The extended cognition theory (Clark and Chalmers) states that we think not only with our brains, but with our bodies, the tools and technologies we use and the spaces in which we learn and work. Cognition is essentially shaped by action and experience. Our brain-centric culture, where intelligence is believed to be innate, individual, and internal, makes this theory particularly relevant for children. Children don't always conjure up new thoughts, action plays a central role in developing our cognitive processes. Extended cognition is something we all embrace. Whether it be using our fingers to count with or writing down our ideas onto paper, we are extending the bounds of cognition by using an external resource. Cognitive processes are complicated and human intelligence has become increasingly entangled in technology. This cognitive integration is at the very centre of the extended mind hypothesis. Where exactly does the mind finish?

What is The Extended Mind Thesis?

Andy Clark's extended mind thesis, originally published by Oxford University Press, in many ways was a hallmark paper. If you haven't watched one of his youtube interviews I thoroughly recommend you do so. His everyday examples of extended cognition capture the very essence of his philosophy. You'll hear many examples of how external resources are used to scaffold internal processes of the mind.

We cannot command the brain at will to learn, to pay attention, or to remember. It is instead a very specific and limited organ, one that evolved to perform tasks very distinct from those we ask of it today. It is not a matter of individual differences in intelligence, but of the limits of everyone's brain.
The biological brain excels at a number of things: sensing and moving the body, manipulating material objects, navigating through space, and interacting with others. By leveraging these natural strengths we will be able to facilitate and improve learning.
The brain isn't naturally adept at grasping abstract or counterintuitive ideas, ignoring distracting stimuli, or remembering information accurately and without error for a long period of time. As part of these functions, the brain needs "outside the brain" help, like the body, physical space, and tools, like social interactions.
When you're learning or studying, you don't want to sit in one spot, not moving, not talking, just pushing your brain to work harder. Distress and disappointment result from such an approach.

Practical ways of embracing extended minds in the classroom

1. Using our hands to extend our mind

Gesturing is an integral part of a cognitive loop in which our hand motions influence our thoughts, and vice versa. The more gestures we make, the more fluent our thinking and speaking will be; the greater nuance and sophistication of our understanding. Have you ever watched someone give directions (without being able to hear them)? It's an impossible task to do without pointing or tracing your fingers. Here are some ways you can encourage the making of gestures:

  • Research has shown that modeling leads to others following suit. Use your hands to explain your thinking; human cognition can be better understood when we add shape to our thoughts. 
  • Studies show that people are more likely to gesture when there’s a relevant artifact nearby. We use the Writer's Block scaffolding tool to help students explain their cognitive processes. A lot of the time, they are simply not aware of their own thinking. This is perfect example of extending the bounds of cognition.
  • Pupils must explain things impromptu in the classroom. When we improvise, we are mentally taxed, so we tend to gesture more to shift some of the cognitive burden to our hands.
  • Try saying: “Use your hands to explain your thinking” or "add shape to your thoughts".

Extended Mind in the Classroom

2. Mentally offloading the stuff in our head

In school, we do way too much “in our heads”; we would all be thinking more efficiently and effectively if we offloaded our cognitive processes more often. A quick look at the cognitive load theory would suggest that 'freeing up' our cognitive resources plays an active role in enabling us to learn more effectively. This is a skill that can be cultivated—here are some ways I try to do so:

  • Talk about cognitive load, and how the brain can only handle so much information. Children are fascinated by all things brain-related. The brain should not be burdened with remembering or keeping track of things, so it can be used for higher-level cognitive activities like reflection and analysis.
  • Use classroom strategies like graphic organisers and diagrams. This process encourages children to take their thoughts out of their head and into a shared space where they can work with them more effectively. The organisation of ideas is an act of human cognition.  

Structural Learning Mindmap for Extended Cognition

3. Modelling our cognitive processes

Experts who have difficulty teaching novices have "the curse of knowledge," which is when knowledge has become so automatic in their minds that they cannot explain it clearly to others. I am trying to keep in mind, as a teacher, that the curse of expertise applies to me. Chip and Dan Heath write about this topic in detail, once you are aware of the phenomenon, you'll immediately change your classroom practice.

  • Mastering one small step at a time helps build learner confidence. Using the Universal Thinking Framework is a practical way of guiding human intelligence. The internal processes of learning all have names and understanding what they mean is a sure way of becoming better at studying.
  • Think about a "cognitive apprenticeship." Traditionally, the expert would demonstrate the process to the novice. We must also make it possible to access the thinking processes as well as the physical actions we perform in our classrooms every day. Tell them what you're thinking when you edit your own work-for instance, explain to them just what your thinking.

Creating thought processes
Modelling cognitive processes using the Universal Thinking Framework

FAQ's about extended cognition 

What is the extended mind hypothesis?

According to the thesis of the extended mind (Andy Clark, Oxford University Press), under certain circumstances we should see the material vehicles that realize the human brain as encompassing not just human cognition, but also that of the body and external resources.

What is a cognitive system?

The human organism is linked to an external agent in two-way interactions, creating a coupled cognitive system in its own right.

Does cognitive function change when we remove the external component?

The system's behavioral competence will decline if the external component is removed, just as it would if part of its brain were removed. If you remove the a pen and notepad from a student, they become less able to think.

What are the implications of the extended mind thesis?

It is argued that proponents of the theory should also accept that the vehicles of emotions, moods, sentiments, temperaments, and character traits can extend beyond skull and skin.

Further Reading about extended cognition

Adams, F., and Aizawa, K. (2001). The bounds of cognition. Philos. Psychol. 14, 43–64. doi: 10.1080/09515080120033571 CrossRef Full Text Adams, F., and Aizawa, K. (2008). The Bounds of Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. (dx.doi.org)

Colombetti, G., Roberts, T. Extending the extended mind: the case for extended affectivity. Philos Stud 172, 1243–1263 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-014-0347-3 Download citation Published: