Embodiment and Learning

Educating for change requires opportunities for learners to embody and experience the principles and concepts that help to make sense of the world around them. We propose a symposium from experts in various areas of educational research, each to present work showing the impact that learning-by-doing has on knowledge acquisition, understanding, and transfer. The collection of these works highlights the advantages of complementing traditional, typically lecture-based, forms of education with active and authentic learning driven by the student. Below we briefly describe the work from our experts, with expanded abstracts following.

  • Work from embodied cognition suggests that even mathematical abstractions are ultimately grounded in sensorimotor experience; consequently, some aspects of mathematics may be better taught through embodied activities.
  • When children engage in real-world problem-solving activities in the classroom, knowledge in maintaining and promoting a sustainable environment can transfer beyond school, directly impacting their behaviors in their own communities.
  • Students draw rich intuitive knowledge from their lived experience of the world. With the support of instructional scaffolding, they can use their intuitions to make sense of physical phenomena and construct scientific knowledge.
  • Student understanding of suffering is enhanced when they directly encounter the experiences of suffering peoples. Real encounters lead students to make new connections between concepts such as poverty and justice, and inspire discussion around taking action in the world.

We will first present these four works, and then provide a consolidation that integrates them under the theme of embodied learning towards positive action. In our consolidation, we will address how learning-by-doing can be channeled into learning-for-doing, for positive change we hope to see in the world. Afterwards, we will open up the floor for audience questions and discussion.

Presentation #1

Embodied Learning and Mathematics

Dragan Trninic, ETH Zurich University, Switzerland

A pedagogical orientation shared by all the presenters in this symposium is that ideas must be experientially felt rather than merely talked about in order for learning to occur. This orientation is supported by the embodied cognition framework, which argues that an organism’s cognition is grounded in its sensorimotor capacities (Kiefer & Barsalou, 2013). In this talk, I argue for why and how theories of embodied cognition can be leveraged in educational design. Specifically, I focus on the neuroanatomical argument that human cognitive processes utilize the same systems that support perception and action. This hypothesis is called neural reuse (Anderson, 2010) and explains, for instance, why thinking about a hammer activates the same neurons used when actually using a hammer (Martin, 2007). Furthermore, the cognitive processing of even abstract ideas, such as those in mathematics, contains elements of kinesthetic sensations, the “sensations and experiences that are associated with . . . movement” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 161). Consequently, mathematics education may benefit from providing students with opportunities to ground abstract ideas in felt "sensations and experiences.” The overall argument is contextualized through a case of an educational design where students learn about the mathematical principle of proportion through initially engaging in overtly physical, bimanual movements.

Presentation #2

Embodied Learning and Sustainability

Rachel Lam, ETH Zurich University, Switzerland

“How would you convince your neighbor to recycle?” Singaporean children in the 4th year of primary school were posed this question during a lesson on the overproduction of waste in densely populated urban areas. After learning about low domestic recycling rates and being presented with various reasons why residents do not recycle, the students were then tasked to create the script for a YouTube show that would help encourage more people to recycle. Through peer collaboration and brainstorming, students “acted out” the YouTube show during the lesson, overall producing a wide variety of ideas in their scripts. Some children focused on practical solutions, for example, creating recycling chutes for all buildings, some addressed residents’ lack of environmental awareness, and others described punishments by law for not recycling. In the embodied experience of creating and acting out their YouTube shows, the students displayed several complex problem-solving behaviors, without being explicitly instructed how to collaborate or problem-solve. Our prior work has shown that students are capable of engaging in effective collaboration in complex problem-solving, generating innovative and creative solutions, and learning new concepts in environmental science after experiencing peer collaboration lessons (Lam & Low, 2016; Lam, Low, & Li, in press). In addition, a fieldtrip to a beach cleanup showed evidence of knowledge transfer as students engaged in positive actions around recycling.

Presentation #3

Embodied Learning and Physics

Hillary Swanson, Northwestern University, USA

Einstein (1936) once said, “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” Learning scientists have argued similarly, positing that the seeds of scientific reasoning lie in learners’ intuitive sense of mechanism (Hammer, 1997). Numerous intuitions for explaining physical phenomena have been documented, for example, “more effort begets more result,” and “force as a mover,” and it is posited that these are drawn from learners’ physical experience of the world (diSessa, 1993). This study extends this work by suggesting that there exist intuitions useful for explaining physical phenomena that are grounded in learners’ social and emotional experience of the world. I present evidence from a classroom discussion during which 8th grade students work on a theoretical explanation for why cold liquid warms quickly at first, and then more slowly as it approaches room temperature. The students draw on intuitions grounded in not only physical but also social and emotional experience to make sense of the phenomenon. Under the guidance of the teacher, they refine their intuitions over the course of the discussion and ultimately produce a conceptual version of Newton’s law of warming.

Presentation #4

Embodied Learning and Suffering

Jimmy Menkhaus, Gannon University, USA

The former Jesuit Superior General Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S. J. and Pope Francis both centralize the importance of encountering the poor as a form of education. Such encounters exemplify the application of embodiment towards learning concepts in theology. For a student to understand concepts such as “human dignity” and "suffering,” it is imperative that the students not merely hear about them, but genuinely encounter the experiences of them in the world. One way that students can engage in these experiences is through service learning and immersion trips. In this presentation, I share how students from a Catholic university in Pennsylvania, USA, travelled to Immakalee, Florida, and engaged with migrant farm workers in order to better understand how they live and how they suffer. These workers are denied basic dignity and human rights in their daily lives. As opposed to reading about migrant workers from a textbook, the encounters that the students experienced helped them to realize the interlinked notions of poverty and justice. They were able to reach new conclusions about the concept of suffering in ways that inspired further thought and consideration around taking action towards positive change for suffering peoples.

Read presenter biographies.

Posted by IAFOR