Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Learning without a Body

My third-grade daughter goes to a school where they have a whole hour for lunch. Not only that, although lunch time is monitored, children are free to move around both inside and outside of the school within boundaries determined by their grade level. From the reports my daughter gives me about this time of day it seems like lunch is not just for eating (as evidenced by half-eaten sandwiches in the lunch box at the end of the day).  Lunch is for making up skits, finding interesting properties in the rocks you are pounding, for having arguments and making up, for exploring the narrow (but long) strip of trees that line one side of the school's property, called 'the woods', and for creating clubs.  At a school with a no-exclusion rule, a club can be pretty much any combination of kids at any one time.

One day, my daughter told me the club had made a fort in the woods. At first glance it looked rather like a wall:

A very well constructed, sturdy wall, a wall built with a lot of thought and insight. There is a base of bricks and concrete and then a layer of sticks.

And, there is also a latch (the wire) which is lifted by the "door" (the stick), "Although we don't usually go in this way because it's not sturdy.  We usually just go in over the low wall."

The space to the left side of the photo is the, I guess, living space of the fort.

Hearing about and seeing this fort I immediately thought about the article Ophelia's Fort by fourth grade teacher and artist David Rufo which I edited last year for the Teaching Artist Journal's online writing community ALT/space. In it he writes:
"During our conversations it became evident that Ophelia was focused on making for herself a “special place” [4] rather than a special structure with four walls, a roof, and a door. As David Sobel emphasized in his book Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood: 'Through making special places, children are experiencing themselves as shapers and makers of small worlds. This experience contributes to making them active shapers of the world in their adult lives.'" 
In sharing this story about my daughter's lunchtime adventures, I am aware that it is not about math learning, per se, but it does relate to a book I am writing about the body learning math. In past writings I have focused very closely in on the specifics of the Math in Your Feet program; this new book is a chance to step back and look at the broader issues involved in making math and dance at the same time.  

One of the ideas coming into view as I zoom out is the necessity of agency in learning, and it is clear that issues of learner agency begin with the body.  As I was finishing up a chapter today, it became clear to me that when thinking about using dance or movement as a partner in learning we must start by identifying how the body has historically been employed during school hours.  That is to say, how the body has not been employed (bolding emphasis mine):
“The embodied experience of traditional schooling is often, as educational philosopher John Dewey might suggest, an anaesthetic experience, devoid of any heightened sensory experience or perception. In school, our bodies are still, serving primarily a utilitarian function.  We learn to from an early age not to squirm or leave our desk chairs in classrooms. We learn to sit up straight, raise our hands to be called upon, or walk single file to lunch.  By the time we reach high school our bodies are often reserved for gym class…or for moving from one class to another. In a sense, we educate from the neck up, leaving the rest of the body to act largely as physical support rather than as actively involved in our quest for knowledge, thinking, and understanding … implicated in this analysis is the importance of agency in relation to activity. Providing curricular opportunities that are experience-based, that encourage the use of the body and engage the senses in learning could create a different kind of [structure] for schooling if learners are encouraged to explore connections between learning, self and the broader social and cultural frameworks of meaning in which they are situated.” 
Source: Powell, K. The apprenticeship of embodied knowledge in a taiko drumming ensemble. In L. Bresler (Ed.), Knowing bodies, moving minds: Embodied knowledge in education (pp. 183-195). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Klewar Press.
The body is not simply a vehicle toward realizing the perceived pinnacle of abstracted knowledge housed in the mind.  The body is where learning originates. Living in a body is also the way children learn personal agency as they make decisions about how their bodies will move and act and how that power can influence and shape their world. And, in the process, learning that there are obvious consequences and responses in relation to their actions. This is literally and viscerally democracy in action. 

Perhaps most importantly, despite the incredible change of pace and screen-focused activity in modern life, children still have brains that learn best by moving and pulling sensory input in through all parts of the body.  Hundreds of years of thoughtful analysis, research, and observation of children learning and growing has shown this to be true and yet the body is still being marginalized in favor of knowledge as something gold and shiny to be won and placed on a high shelf for viewing, far removed from any experience and personal understanding. 

What is a body without agency?  What is learning without a body? Thinking about these questions is the important first step in understanding the inherent worth of children using their bodies to make math and dance at the same time.  Onward!


  1. Onward indeed!
    Thanks for sharing your daughter's fort story. It's so fascinating to read our parallel experiences: how a stand of trees becomes "the woods," how wires are used as latches, how rocks are pounded, etc.
    Today at school, it was cold, wet, and muddy. However, as happens everyday before recess, when the kids asked, "Can we do forts today?" I had to say "Yes."
    45 minutes later I trudged back into the classroom, boots caked and pants splattered with mud. It was awesome :)

  2. There is a book you would love, if you read Russian: "The secret world of children in the space of the adult world." It is an ethnography of childhood. It has a whole big chapter analyzing forts, their role in the development from toddlers to teens, and of course how they fit into the space of the adult world.

    Making forts is one of human universals - a game kids play all over the world, in all cultures!

    Your work is very ethnographic, Malke. Ethnography is such a promising tool for holistic understanding!

  3. There is some interesting research that seems relevant to me here.

    1. When someone else moves, and we watch them, the neurons that we would use to make similar movements usually fire as well, suggesting that just watching someone make movements helps us practice those movements ourselves, at least to some degree.

    2. More interesting and related research: If I have a simulation, and I show you the simulation and move all the buttons, you learn less than if I give you access to the simulation and you move the buttons yourself, even if you basically do the same thing I did. In other words, access to even minor amounts of movement of an object improves learning.

    My son, who is nearly 21 months old, is now saying words to mean things and to communicate with us. He's been babbling a lot recently, and trying to form sentences. For example: "Mama, bababa dab ababa? Daeey? Mama, ahawa aba, whooaa!" His communication with his body though has been more than sufficient for many, many months before this.

    All three of these things suggest to me that "thinking with our body" is almost certainly something we do, depending on how we define thinking. Educating people while ignoring their body seems a bit foolish then!

  4. Hi David -- These are all great points. For children, I advocate for the whole-body kind of movement opportunities. Even if not directly related to the thinking related to abstract mental constructs, the sensory integration process between the body and the brain is well documented. Without movement opportunities we get a rise in attention "disorders" in children. Some say that the hyper-focus on academics in preschool and elementary school is connected to higher levels of ADD and ADHD in children. This relates to the kind of body agency I was speaking of above. Children move, children learn.

    In terms of learning and thinking specific to math, there's a ton of interesting research of the body learning/expressing math. Mostly gesture based, but also some on arm movements -- this research is being done at all levels of math learning. :-)


Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


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