“Most educational programs”, writes Manuela Macedonia in a recent paper, “follow theories that are mentalistic, i.e., they separate the mind from the body. At school, learners sit, watch, listen, and write” (all quotes are from the original article).
This approach to teaching and learning finds its roots deep in Western culture and philosophy (going back to Descartes’s dualism, and even Plato’s idealism), but has also been strengthened during the early days of cognitive science, when the mind came to be understood in the light of newly created computers. As a consequence, the way students are taught largely rests on a “mind versus body” assumption, according to which the latter is at best a necessary nuisance to our inner thinking machine. “Hence”, writes Macedonia, “when acquiring knowledge, we sit quietly and concentrate on our ‘mental’ task”.
However, more recent development in brain research clearly established the fact that the “mind” is not an abstract and isolated entity, but is highly integrated with both sensori- and mortor-systems in the brain. The human mind does not work like a computer processing symbols: all thinking is embodied and grounded in perception and action. Logically, Macedonia explains, this paradigm shift should lead educators to adapt their practice and harness the potential benefits of embodied learning.
Among others, the researcher cites the examples of foreign language acquisition and mathematics. The mentalist approach to language, perfectly represented by Noam Chomsky, describes it as an “innate phenomenon of the mind expressed by symbols.” On that basis, linguistic meaning is traditionally defined as a relationship between phrase components, and taught to students through vocabulary lists, grammatical rules, conjugation exercises, etc. However, neuroscience has established that language has just as much to do with the body as it has with the “intellect.” When Hauk et alia (2004) scanned the brains of their participants using an fMRI machine, they discovered that simply reading action words like “kick” or “pick”, activated portions of motor cortices controlling either leg or hand movements. This is, after all, just common sense: “if we observe how children acquire language, they perform a multitude of sensorimotor acts.” If we are to speak the brain’s language, “a word must be represented as a sensorimotor network that mirrors all experiences collected to the concept.” It thus stands to reason that “embodied learning” (which includes experiencing situations and performing actions related to the knowledge being acquired) would improve language acquisition as motor activit doubles declarative memory with procedural memory.
This opportunity, Macedonia claims, is not limited to language classes either, but exists even in a subject as abstract as mathematics. Sure enough, children learn how to manipulate numbers much in the same way they learn how to use words; but does it mean that theatrical enactment, VR immersion, and other creative teaching and learning methods have their place at more advanced and complex levels? Macedonia thinks so, referring to the efforts of Nathan an Walkington (20178) whose “theory of grounded and embodied mathematical cognition (...) proposes action and gesture as tools to understand properties of concepts related to STEM.
Importantly, the mobilization of the body in the learning process seems to be only effective when it is directly connected and relevant to the learning objective. Otherwise, it can be distracting and counterproductive. This constitutes an interesting challenge for educators: finding meaningful ways to actively engage their students' bodies and minds.
Reference: Macedonia (2019), “Embodied Learning: Why at School the Mind Needs the Body”, Frontiers in Psychology, October 2019