Take a moment and imagine a well-behaved classroom. What is in the classroom? Where is the teacher? Where are the students? What are the students doing? Chances are pretty good that you’re imagining students working quietly at their desks while the teacher talks to the class from the front of the room. It’s quite likely that when you think of a “good student” you think of a student who is attentive, listens quietly, reads copiously, and dutifully does what the teacher requests. When imagining this “ideal classroom” and “ideal student” how involved is the student’s body? Besides raising their hand, writing, and (perhaps) drawing it’s unlikely that this student moves much at all other than to get from class to class. Now, I believe that there are times when it is important for students to focus intently in a more receptive state, but current brain research shows that this isn’t the most effective way for students to learn- particularly for extended periods of time. Students need opportunities to move and learn with their bodies as well as their minds.
In modern Western society we are often inculcated into believing that our identity is our mind, and our mind is defined as our brain or our consciousness. This is situated in relation to our bodies, which are often treated as necessary in so far as they can get us from one place to another. We are brought up to believe that the mind and body are separate— and that the mind needs to be the master of the body. This is in large part a result of “the masculine principle” that values “…mind over matter, intelligence over senses, logos over eros, head over heart, spirit over body, and man over nature.” (Knaster 24) Our mind and our body are defined as being separate and oftentimes as being at war with each other. The pertinent question for me is “Why do we obsess over or neglect our bodies instead of relate to them as sacred friends or equal partners?” (Knaster 23)
Likewise, in the learning process we often think only of teaching our students’ minds, while ignoring their bodies and their emotions. The truth is that the best and deepest learning occurs when students’ minds, emotions, social lives, and bodies are involved in the learning process. When we teach only to the mind we are leaving out a huge portion of who our students really are. Not only that, but we are teaching them to ignore and deny a large part of their identities because they are not generally valued in our schools.
Howard Gardner, through his theory of multiple intelligences, recognizes that intelligence can be described in many ways. One of the intelligences that he illustrates is the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Gardner describes the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence as “…the ability to use one’s body in highly differentiated and skilled ways, for expressive as well as goal-directed purposes…” (206) Bodily-kinesthetic students learn by expressing themselves and exploring the world through movement. For example, they learn through dance, gestures, and hands-on projects. By not incorporating movement in the learning process it is like asking painter to paint an image by writing an essay.
Unfortunately, much of the teaching that happens in our schools still ignores our bodies and our need to move. Yes, we have physical education, recess, and at least students move from room to room, but as teachers most of us haven’t really learned how to include our own bodies in our own personal ways of learning, much less in how we teach others.
I still have the tendency to think of “learning” as the act of consuming information by reading, listening, and watching, and then being able to regurgitate that information at a later point in time. Now, I believe very much in the power of reading, listening, and watching, but learning is so much more powerful when it is done through movement and hands-on activities and/or it’s applied to our personal lives and goals.
One of the biggest obstacles to using movement in the classroom is the feeling that we need to cover huge amounts of information. It can seem as though the fastest way to take in information is through reading, listening, and watching. This is an unfortunate reality in our current school systems and even in the information glut of contemporary life. I would argue that students will be able to learn more if there is greater depth and focus on a smaller amount of information.
For one, if there is greater focus on just a few major concepts it’s much more likely that students will be able to fully understand these concepts and apply them rather than just memorize them for the short term and then forget about them. The truth is that it takes a lot of time and practice for us to learn something deeply enough for it to become a part of us.
Secondly, we need a deep knowledge of key information to be able to understand the structure of a body of knowledge. I think of it like a tree. The key concepts of a body of knowledge are the roots, trunk, and major branches. The information that isn’t quite as important are the leaves and smaller branches that are added to the tree as it grows. If there isn’t a deep knowledge of core concepts then all you will have is a disorderly pile of leaves and branches that has no organization and makes no sense. Not only that, once a storm or a strong wind comes along it will simply be blown away. It just won’t stick.
Using our bodies and movement when we learn is one of the best ways to make sure that our learning will resemble a tree with strong roots, trunk, and branches. As teachers and as learners focus on a few key concepts deeply if you want to really take in and understand a body of knowledge. Don’t forget that if we are to pay attention to the “whole learner” then we need to include our bodies as well as our minds. In fact, the two work so much better when they’re working together rather than fighting each other and trying to do it on their own.
Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic, 1983. Print.
Knaster, Mirka. Discovering the Body’s Wisdom. New York: Bantam, 1996. Print.