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Educating the Embodied Mind

Posted on: August 2, 2021

Written by Mitchell J Nathan, PhD author of Foundations of Embodied Learning: A Paradigm for Education (Routledge, 2021)

Educating the embodied mind experiment

Consider the role your body plays in thinking the next time you find yourself gesturing to explain a complex idea or rotating your wrist before you pick up a wrench to remove a bolt. Our bodies are obviously instrumental in performing actions and getting things done. They are also essential in how we think, learn, teach, and express what we know to others. 

I wrote Foundations of Embodied Learning: A Paradigm for Education to share the large body of evidence showing that the way we move in the world--and even the ways we imagine how we move--shape our cognitive processes. As examples:

  • Neural imaging data show that simply reading words with strong motor associations--such as kick, lick, and pick—selectively activate areas of the brain that are used when people move their feet, tongue, and fingers, respectively.
  • Teethers that occupy infants’ mouths and tongues and can also impair their ability to auditorily discriminate between novel speech sounds. This is because learning to hear unfamiliar speech depends on infants’ abilities to make speech-like oral actions consistent with the specific speech sounds, and this can be degraded when using teethers and pacifiers.
  • Preschool children benefit more from learning common second language words (e.g., scissors, swim) with gestures than with pictures.
  • Physical interactions with motion tracking sensors that give positive feedback to elementary students when they move one hand in proportion to another enhances their conceptual understanding of ratio and proportion.  
  • Teachers can learn to use instructional gestures, and when they do, their students show increased learning gains.

The goal of formal education should be to ground learning of academic and scientific ideas and representations to things that are meaningful to learners. Thus, I also wrote this book to raise an alarm: Despite a well-established body of research in support of embodied learning to foster meaning making, our current education systems are not designed to educate embodied minds. In fact, the ways we structure classrooms, learning activities, and assessments of learners’ knowledge often directly contradict principles of embodied learning. This is not the fault of teachers, who are rarely given this information to inform their classroom practices. Consider that schools typically:

  • Restrict student movement in the classroom throughout the day, with less movement during instruction time as students progress to more advanced grades, even as the content becomes more conceptual and abstract.
  • Focus on mastery with symbols, such as equations, over practical problem solving.
  • Reward verbal explanations but offer fewer strategies for cultivating students’ nonverbal ways of knowing and knowledge expression.
  • Shut down peer collaboration and access to the internet, especially--aghast!--during a test.

Line drawing of teacher and student at desk

My aim is to inform teachers and teacher educators, educational researchers, parents, and other interested readers about the 4 types of embodiment that have been shown to foster learning of school content:

  1. Movement and perception work in concert, in a kind of perception-action loop that provides the body-based experiences learners need to ground the meaning of new ideas and abstract symbolic representations into familiar experiences. For example, body-based metaphors help learners to understand complex arguments (e.g., “On the one hand…”) and conceptualize abstract ideas (such as regarding infinity as being like a never-ending physical process).
  2. Gestures are vital for expressing what we know to others and is often used by teachers to convey new concepts, and to establish common ground with their students. Acts as simple as pointing to a common referent are used strategically during instruction. Teachers may also “become” a balance scale to show how algebraic equations maintain equal sides even as mathematical operations are applied (“Do the same thing to both sides.”)
  3. Mentally simulating actions activates the neural regions used for movement and perception to support complex reasoning about abstract ideas, such as drawing inferences and producing mathematically valid proofs.
  4. People literally use material objects to think with, as when relying on scale models and prototype designs. These objects extend one’s cognitive processes beyond their typical confines and enable people to reason about phenomena that might otherwise greatly exceed their memory, and spatial or causal reasoning capacities.

Building upon a rich foundation of learning theory and rigorous, empirical evidence, I believe that embodied learning is essential for educating the next generation, and that schools can and must do better to design educational experiences for embodied minds.