This article is meant to be a brief intro which helps readers get their feet wet in the idea of the ecological approach to motor skill acquisition. There is no way that I can give this subject the proper treatment that it deserves in such a short time, but I think it’s necessary to have something like this to reference since so many of my future articles will relate to it. Sean Franklin has produced a more detailed series of articles on this subject on his SwordSTEM website, which is more comprehensive and gives a different perspective on the topic. There are also various books on the topic, some of which you can find in the “resources” section of this website (particularly How We Learn to Move by Rob Gray). This article is not meant to supplant or replace any of those resources, but I do feel that it’s important to write so that readers aren’t left entirely in the dark when the subject of “EA” (ecological approach) or “CLA” (constraints led approach) inevitably arise in this blog. This article will be a surface level explanation of the ecological approach for the purpose of defining the term and understanding what I mean when I reference it in other articles.
The Ecological Approach to skill acquisition is a model that attempts to explain how we perceive and act on the world around us, and by extension how we learn and acquire motor skills. Like all models, it is not perfect, and it is not a definition of how things work, it is a construct that fits observed behaviors. This model competes with the Information Processing Approach (abbreviated IPA), which most people have internalized as the model for how we perceive the world. Because it is commonly understood and generally accepted, I will start by defining and explaining the IPA model, then I will contrast it with the EA.
An explanation of the ecological approach would not be legitimate if I didn’t start with Bernstein’s Hammer. Nikolai Bernstein was a Soviet neuroscientist who was hired by the Moscow Central Institute of Labor in 1922 to study manual laborers in order to train them to be more efficient. In order to do this, he invented an early form of motion capture to measure the paths that the arm takes in beginner and experienced metal cutters when swinging the hammer at their chisel.
Bernstein’s hammer: the path is slightly different every time in order to achieve the same result
The expected result was that the path of the experienced cutter’s swing would be the same every time, IE one ideal movement. Surprisingly, the results showed that the swing path was actually different every time in order to achieve the same result. This is because even though they look the same, the conditions are always slightly different, so the action needs to be different in order to achieve a consistent result. He called this “repetition without repetition”, which is a major theme in the ecological approach. Fun fact: Nikolai Bernstein also coined the term “biomechanics”.
The basis of both the EA and IPA models is the method in which it explains how we perceive the world around us.
Information Processing Approach
According to IPA theory, when we are observing our environment, we pick up discrete clues through our senses, which we can call “physical cues”. Once a cue is perceived, the brain processes the physical cue, decides which action is best to take, and executes the action. The brain takes the role of the central processing unit of a computer; information comes in, is processed, and a pre-programmed action is returned.
The basis of the EA is that all of the information you need to act already exists in the environment, and we are constantly perceiving and acting based upon changing environmental conditions. Your perception of the environment informs the way you act, and your action in turn changes the conditions of the environment. To put it in a concise way, action and perception are always coupled. The idea of a physical cue does not align with this approach, because a cue is an attempt to distill the full ever-changing environmental situation into one discrete stimulus. If we are constantly perceiving and acting based upon our environment, then a cue will simply be either not enough information or incorrect information, and it will not represent the actual situation.
How it affects learning a skill
While both of these models can explain how we act based on our environment in a coherent and believable way, their effect on how motor skills are taught and learned is vastly different.
Information Processing Approach
The IPA model leads to the “traditional” approach, which anyone who has played a sport or practiced a martial art is probably familiar with. Because actions take the form of “motor programs” that are executed automatically when the brain decides it’s time to use it, the logical thing to do is practice your motor programs until you can perform them without thinking about it, that way you will be able to act faster in a live situation.
In order to do this, we can practice by repeating the motor program over and over again, but how do we know exactly what to repeat when practicing the motor program? This is where the idea of the “ideal technique” comes in. In order to practice the technique in isolation, there needs to be a platonic ideal of what you are practicing, so that you can strive to achieve it. While you are doing your isolated repetitions, the coach may offer critiques and corrections in order to get you closer to their opinion of the ideal.
People who teach and practice this way are not stupid, and they know that in a live situation, your technique is not always going to look like the platonic ideal, even if it works. Therefore there is a level of variation on the ideal added after the athlete has shown that they can do the ideal movement with a certain level of competency. Usually there is a progression, starting with the technique being done in solo isolation, then with a partner or coach providing a physical cue, then with added variation such as multiple choices or varying footwork.
In the ecological approach, the concept of the cue and motor program are not present. Instead of the brain processing the cue and deciding on a motor program, the body is constantly acting and adapting based on changing environmental conditions, and specific actions are self-organized by the body instead of commanded in a top-down manner. Because of this, when designing a methodology to learn a skill, we must take some things into account:
- Actions can’t be separated from their context (action and perception must remain coupled)
- It is not straightforward to separate actions into constituent parts and put them back together later (the principle of non-linear pedagogy)
- We can’t distill environmental information into a discrete cue
So given these constraints, how do we teach an action? Instead of providing a physical cue to elicit a specific response, we need to manipulate the environment to create the situation in which our target action can be used. The ecological counterpart to the physical cue is the “affordance”. An affordance is an invitation by the environment to take a certain action. For example, a bench invites us to sit down, a hand rail invites us to hold on for safety, a handle on a mug invites us to pick it up, and a handle on a door invites us to pull (even if the door must be pushed to open). We can choose to respond to these invitations any way we like, but we perceive the world based on what it allows us to do. Affordances also change based upon an individual’s physical abilities, for example the hand rail that invites most people to hold on for safety may invite a skateboarder to do dangerous tricks on.
So essentially, the job of a coach using the ecological approach is to create situations that have affordances that are similar to the main game of the sport or martial art that they are trying to teach, while also encouraging a variety of techniques and tactics. The way this tends to manifest itself is through competitive games with specific rules that encourage certain behaviors. The rules become constraints, and the athletes are free to explore their options and motor landscape within those constraints. This method is called the “Constraints Led Approach” (CLA), and it is what I have been using at my club Bucks Historical Longsword since 2021. A constraint does not have to be rules, it can also be other aspects of the environment such as playing area, and tools used.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that IPA and EA at their core are both models used to explain a theory of movement. As such, they themselves are not coaching or training methods. No specific training tool such as a drill or a game is inherently ecological or information processing, it all depends on how that tool is used by the coach. If a game is used to help the athlete explore their motor landscape, then it is being used in an ecological way, if it is used to help produce an ideal platonic motion from the athlete, then it is being used in an information processing way.
If you want a concise intro to EA as explained by Rob Gray himself, here is a video.
For a series going into deeper depth into the constraints led approach, here is the first video.
For a series of articles digging deeper into the ecological approach from a HEMA standpoint, here is the first in a series of articles by Sean Franklin on SwordSTEM.