Tuesday 12pm, 2 April 2019


Learning is moving in new ways: Designing for the emergence of proto-mathematical sensorimotor perceptual structures

Dor Abrahamson

Professor - UC Berkeley


The embodied turn in the cognitive sciences poses that human reasoning is perceptuomotor activity. For mathematics educators, this, in turn, poses the design problem of how we might foster students’ development of sensorimotor perceptions that would ground targeted curricular content. What might it even mean to speak of the sensorimotor perception of a ratio, parabola, or Cartesian coordinate system? At Berkeley’s Embodied Design Research Laboratory, in collaboration with Utrecht University’s Freudenthal Institute, we have been engineering, implementing, and evaluating a novel embodied-interaction activity architecture, in which students learn to move in new ways before formalizing these movement forms (“conceptual choreographies”) as mathematical notions. I will report on results from eye-tracking studies that have enabled us to witness the micro-process of students inventing new perceptual structures as their spontaneous pragmatic solution to the sensorimotor problem of coordinating the bimanual enactment of a challenging movement.


Abrahamson (PhD, Learning Sciences, 2004, Northwestern University) is Professor of Cognition & Development at the Graduate School of Education, University of California Berkeley, where he directs the Embodied Design Research Laboratory. Abrahamson is a design-based researcher, who develops theoretical models of mathematics cognition, learning, and teaching by analyzing empirical data collected in evaluation studies of his innovative educational design. At the core of Abrahamson’s practice are sociocognitive domain re-analyses of foundational mathematical content with an eye on improving learning materials and activities. This research program also informs the development of “embodied design,” Abrahamson’s pedagogical methodology for creating task-based activities, in which students first develop sensorimotor perceptions to tackle problematic situations and then adopt complementary mathematical formulations of the tasks. Abrahamson has worked mostly on the concepts of proportion, probability, and algebra, and his artifacts include both traditional media, such as a tubful of marbles, and recent technologies, such as remote-control and multi-touch platforms, agent-based simulations of stochastic phenomena from a complexity perspective, and artificially intelligent virtual teachers who speak and gesture naturalistically.

Abrahamson received a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship for Seeing Chance, a design-based research project investigating how students build personal meaning for probability concepts. He has published dozens of peer-reviewed articles in leading educational research journals, including Cognition and Instruction, Educational Studies in Mathematics, Journal of the Learning Sciences, Mathematical Thinking and Learning, and Technology, Knowledge, and Learning. He is co-author of a chapter on “Embodiment and Embodied Design” in the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences and is recipient of National Science Foundation awards for several collaborative projects. For the past decade, Abrahamson has played leadership roles in introducing perspectives from movement sciences and complex dynamic systems into mathematics education research in collaboration with the leading US coordination-dynamics scientists. Dor is an avid cellist, biker, reader, and dad.