Embodied Learning

At what point do we forget or cease to think about intelligence as being embodied and think of it only in terms of our brains and minds. Little children naturally use their bodies for learning. Most children in nursery schools do not read and write. They learn through their bodies in the sand and water tray, on the climbing equipment, with bricks, Lego and so on. They learn by doing and acting on their environment using all their senses.

There was a fascinating programme on the Horizon Programme on BBC2 last night – The Hunt for AI, which explored the relationship between mind and body and the extent to which the body is ‘intelligent’.

The question asked by the programme was whether it is possible to build a machine (robot), which can mimic human intelligence. Is it possible to make a machine that can think?  Is it possible to capture the wonderful versatility of the human brain, human imagination and creativity?

The programme showed that there have been amazing developments in artificial intelligence and robotics since the days of Alan Turing’s work on the Enigma Machine. Most recently among these developments there has been the realization that in order to mimic the nature of human intelligence, robots or machines would need to have embodied intelligence, intelligence conditioned by the body. So artificial intelligence is now trying to replicate the human body.

Once you start thinking about the role of the body in learning – as we did in the paper we have just submitted to the Stirling Conference in June (see Abstract here – Theorising Education 2012 Abstract), then it is possible to think of many examples of embodied learning.

The example in the BBC2 programme was of the presenter trying to learn how to walk the tightrope. His instructor tells him to ‘turn his brain off and let his muscles do it’; she tells him that he is ‘thinking too much’.

As he said, learning to walk on a tightrope is similar to how a child learns to walk. It is instinctive. Ultimately everything we learn to do becomes automatic with practice.

But perhaps what was most intriguing about this example was that the presenter only learned to walk the tightrope when his instructor suggested that he sing at the same time. This very much relates to the discussion we have in our paper about multi-modal and cross-modal ways of working.

This was a fascinating programme and couldn’t have been more timely in relation to the work I have been doing with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau on our paper – Synaesthesia and Embodied Learning.