For Years We’ve Been Telling Kids to Sit Still and Pay Attention. That’s All Wrong.

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July 10 2014 7:56 AM

The Body Learns

For years we’ve been telling kids to sit still and pay attention. That’s all wrong. 

SMART Board.
Sam Herman, 7, draws on the SMART Board 885, an interactive whiteboard system that uses multitouch technology, at the Macworld 2011 showroom in San Francisco on Jan. 29, 2011. Incorporating bodily movements—even subtle ones—can improve learning.

Photo by Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty Images

Today’s educational technology often presents itself as a radical departure from the tired practices of traditional instruction. But in one way, at least, it faithfully follows the conventions of the chalk-and-blackboard era: EdTech addresses only the student’s head, leaving the rest of the body out.

Treating mind and body as separate is an old and powerful idea in Western culture. But this venerable trope is facing down a challenge from a generation of researchers—in cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, even philosophy—who claim that we think with and through our bodies. Even the most abstract mathematical or literary concepts, these researchers maintain, are understood in terms of the experience of our senses and of moving ourselves through space.

This perspective, known as “embodied cognition,” is now becoming a lens through which to look at educational technology. Work in the field shows promising signs that incorporating bodily movements—even subtle ones—can improve the learning that’s done on computers.

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For example, Margaret Chan and John Black of Teachers College of Columbia University have shown that physically manipulating an animation of a roller coaster—by sliding the cars up and down the tracks and watching the resulting changes in kinetic and potential energy, as shown in a bar graph—helps students understand the workings of gravity and energy better than static on-screen images and text. This embodied approach to instruction, the authors found, is especially helpful to younger students and to those working on more difficult problems. In counterintuitive domains like physics, bodily rooted learning allows the learner to develop a “feel” for the concept being described, a physical sense that is more comprehensible and compelling than a concept that remains an abstract mental entity.

In similar experiments, led by Insook Han of Hanyang Cyber University in South Korea, students learn about the concept of force by using a joystick to move two gears shown on a computer screen. Han’s studies show that allowing users to physically manipulate the gears in this way improves their memory and problem-solving performance on force-related questions. The richer the perceptual experience provided by the computer program, the greater the students’ understanding and retention of the material.

One reason involving the body improves learning is that bodily movements provide the memory with additional cues with which to represent and retrieve the knowledge learned. Taking action in response to information, in addition to simply seeing or hearing it, creates a richer memory trace and supplies alternative avenues for recalling the memory later on. Movement may also allow users to shed some of their “cognitive load”—the burden imposed by the need to keep track of information. Instead of trying to imagine what the gears would do if moved, a mentally taxing activity, learners can allow their hands to do it and see what happens, freeing up mental resources to think more deeply about what’s happening. This is pretty much how we all learned to drive.

From an evolutionary perspective, our brains developed to help us solve problems in the real world, moving through space and manipulating actual objects. More abstract forms of thought, such as mathematics and written language, came later, and they repurposed older regions of the brain originally dedicated to processing input from the senses and from the motor system.

This repurposing is apparent in the frequency with which we use physically grounded metaphors to express abstract ideas: counting is like moving through space (“the countdown is approaching zero”); accommodating two different principles is like “balancing” them on a scale. Bringing the body back into the equation can provide learners with a useful way station between concrete referents and all-out abstraction. Physically acting out knowledge to be learned or problems to be solved makes the conceptual metaphors employed by our brains a literal reality.

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