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.

5 thoughts on “Embodied Learning

  1. Howard April 5, 2012 / 6:04 pm

    Hi Jenny;
    Excellent points relating to the psychology of learning. Embodiment in psychology is something I have been wrestling with in different ways since the late 90s. I usually turn to John Shotter’s thoughts when trying to sort things out and search for a deeper understanding.
    First, ignoring the body’s involvement in psychology is a problem with the unit of analysis in the following way Vygotsky first pointed out:

    “As Vygotsky (1987; Thinking and Speech) remarks . . . “… the decomposition of the complex mental whole into its elements… [gives rise to] products [that] are of a different nature than the whole from which they are derived… they are of a different character because, in ignoring the already inter-related nature of the aspects of the process under study, the internal, living relationships of the unified whole are replaced with external, mechanical relationships between heterogeneous processes.”
    From John Shotter’s paper on Gergen, available at: http://www.johnshotter.com/mypapers/Gergen%20and%20Confluence.pdf

    But Shotter goes beyond the embodied individual as the final unit of analysis to look at each person’s psychological experience as a sort of distributed cognitive process where we are both embodied selves that are also relationally responsive to each other in a dialogical way. Understanding an individual’s embodied expressions is like listening to only half of a phone conversation. Full understanding can only occur with both halves of the conversation as well as an understanding social conventions involving phone use. As Shotter explains in a much better way:
    “Expressions are living bodily movements (physiognomic changes within our bodies as a whole rather than simple a change of the position of our bodies in space) which, in working as elaborations of our natural, spontaneously expressed responses to events occurring around us, work to communicate in a gestural fashion. Parents make use such expressions, and their children’s spontaneous responses to them, in teaching them the practices instituted in their society, so that they become trained into spontaneously responding to the expressions of those around us in a con(withness)-scientia(knowing) manner, in shared or sharable ways. Such bodily expressions are connected with bodily feelings in such a way that all ‘feelings’ (unless one has learned to suppress them) have their characteristic expressions. Having been trained into responding to other’s expressions con-scientia, i.e., in ways which can be witnessably known by others, we can go on, as 1st-persons, to express our own unique feelings in non-rule-governed ways that the others around us can begin to respond to – the beginnings of new and unique language-games, within which we can express our own ‘inner lives’ to each other”.
    From the abstract to Shotter’s draft paper on Conscoiusness which is available here: http://www.johnshotter.com/mypapers/Consciousness.pdf

  2. scottx5 April 6, 2012 / 5:43 am

    Thanks Jenny,

    This sounds like a very interesting paper–look forward to reading beyond the abstract. And thanks Howard for the John Shotter links. Need to read more on “embodied learning” and “enactive-perception” as learning understandings. Am I correct to sense a connection here with art, music and dance as a participative form of multi media? That a person interacts with a learning object at many levels beyond viewing text or image? And those levels are not properly engaged by surface-only presentations? These points seem important in a world where “multi-media” is understood as an enhancement to learning by simply adding a dimension like text to a picture to increase learner entry points. Maybe adding a wider surface of possibilities distracts and dilutes learning. Something that can be “done” to the learners perception as another non-participative sensory intrusion that might help them were it not for the vanity that we know all paths to learning and shouldn’t allow the student to waste too much time learning their own.

    My head gets muddled at this level so I’m sorry if I’m being unclear. From what I’ve read of causality in systems it does make sense that there isn’t a sharp divide between the learner and that to be learned. That there is a fuller explanation for the process of “learning” that can’t be reduced to “essentials” as seems the preferred tactic these days. An example is the logic of cutting music to increase math, as if math were a pure object to be known only by itself and not the world it “lives” in–which importantly includes math.

    As Shotter is quoted above I know my experience in studio art courses included

    “the beginnings of new and unique language-games, within which we can express our own ‘inner lives’ to each other”.

    Allowing yourself to understand things in many ways including being defeated by some projects. To do it in public through display of imagery or performance of any kind (except power point :-). And then learn the language of critiquing the work of others that that doesn’t criticize or diminish seems a useful way to be educated.

    Connection to Connectivesm here?

  3. jennymackness April 6, 2012 / 6:00 pm

    Hi Howard and Scott – Many thanks to you both for your interest and comments, and for the links Howard. I have had a quick look but I am a slow reader and even slower digester, so I will need more time to read and reflect.

    We have no answers in our paper. We are just intrigued by the examples of embodied learning that we have come across, particularly in relation to children and children on the autism spectrum and the idea that these children and synaesthetes might have ‘gifts’ rather than difficulties, i.e. the gift of being able to work easily in multi-modal and/or cross modal ways, which perhaps those of us who can’t do this can learn from.

    I agree Scott that we can often see examples of this in art, music and dance, but it’s not only in these areas. For me, it helps to look at how nursery children are taught. Yes they do lots of art, music and dance, but they also learn to count in embodied ways, and lots of their language is developed through embodied learning. I think, as adults, we have forgotten how powerful embodied learning can be, which is why I was so struck by the tight-rope walking example from the BBC2 Horizon programme. And I was particularly struck by the fact that it was only by singing at the same time that the presenter finally learned to walk the tightrope.

    Nursery teachers do all this as a matter of course, e.g. children learn the words (language) of songs (sound) through physical actions (embodiment) and copying their teacher’s actions (sight). This is a very common way of working, but I doubt that nursery teachers on the whole even think about words like multi-modal and cross-modal, embodiment or enactive perception, when they are teaching like this. I didn’t when I taught young children.

    Perhaps as adults we should also, maybe particularly when we get stuck, allow our bodies to take the lead? Just thinking out loud here 🙂 Thanks to you both for your interest in our paper.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s