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Learning design in ecological dynamics

This is an excerpt from Dynamics of Skill Acquisition-2nd Edition by Chris Button,Ludovic Seifert,Jia Yi Chow,Duarte Araujo & Keith Davids.

Ecological dynamics focuses on a relevant scale of analysis for understanding learning and performance: the person-environment relationship. Using the term organismic asymmetry, Dunwoody (2007) argued that the role of the environment was being neglected by a biased tendency toward seeking to explain human behaviors through internalized referents, schema, programs, and plans. This bias in thinking has influenced models of learning for decades, skewing practice task design in sport as Davids and Araújo (2010) highlighted. This weakness was more recently acknowledged in motor behavior research (Zelaznik, 2014).

In ecological dynamics, the acquisition of skill in individual and team-based sports is based on the continuous information-based interactions between each athlete and a specific performance environment (Davids et al., 2013). Athlete-environment interactions result in the coupling of goal-directed movements to available information sources during performance. This is a fundamental principle of learning design in individual and team sports. Coupling information and movement in practice emerges when athletes continuously interact with key objects (objects to avoid or intercept in ball games), surfaces (properties of a rock surface to climb or scramble over or an icy surface to ski or skate across), events (the sudden acceleration of a lead athlete in a marathon or the emergence of a three-person block in a volleyball attack), terrain dimensions (driving to greens on different golf courses or coping with different field width and length dimensions in soccer) and features (markings on an orienteering course and dealing with a crosswind on an archery course), and significant others (changes in positioning and movements of teammates and coping with alterations to tactical patterns of opponents). To prepare for these interactions, coaches could design adaptive zones in practice contexts for athletes to explore.

Key Concept

The Performer-Environment Scale of Analysis

In 2014, Howard Zelaznik argued, in an address as a fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Kinesiology, that previous research had been too focused on understanding how nervous systems control movements. He proposed the following (p. 41):

  • “Motor control and learning in kinesiology should move away from believing the brain holds the key to action and move out to examine the movement of people within their environment . . .future [kinesiologists] need to become a set of scholars using either the Newell framework or a Gibsonian approach.”
  • “We want to understand skills from the perspective of a person moving within an environment that provides affordances and challenges. We need to stress that the proper level of analysis is a whole person interacting with tasks and the environmental affordances.”
  • “Understanding the relations between these three factors and how individuals structure movement within this framework will lead to important understandings about the learning, performance, teaching, and rehabilitation of motor skills.”

What Is an Adaptive Zone and How Can It Be Designed in Practice Programs?

An adaptive zone is the practice time between the planned repetition of action in rehearsal and the unstructured exploration and discovery of performance solutions. In the adaptive zone, performers cannot become completely dependent on the information available in a performance environment to regulate their actions. This control strategy would result in them merely reacting to information from events. Nor can athletes perform completely independently of their surrounding environment (through a shared plan or performance model or by strictly adhering to previous coaching instructions) (Davids et al., 2015). With skilled performance analysis, opponents can understand and disrupt the best-prepared plans during competition. In the adaptive zone, actions of an individual athlete or sports team need to combine intentions, perception, and action in an emergent manner to take advantage of the information that emerges in performance and learning environments. In the adaptive zone, athletes can be encouraged to anticipate events and outcomes and attune to information that is most relevant for their task goals.

This type of adaptive capacity needs to be practiced in training and cannot simply be turned on and off at will.Practice designs need to place athletes into an adaptive zone during preparation for competition. For example, small-sided and conditioned games provide adaptive zones for learners to explore the relationships between key sources of information, and actions can be exploited by developing athletes. Data from existing research studies in ecological dynamics suggest that information variables emerging during ongoing interpersonal interactions of athletes (e.g., gap widths, angular relations, relative velocities, and interpersonal distances in team games) provide affordances (they invite certain opportunities for action) that can be used by players and explored during practice. Adaptive zones should provide rich and varied fields of affordances from the available landscape (Davids, Renshaw, Pinder, Greenwood, and Barris, 2016).