At school or at home, move to learn better?


In a remote classroom session with Zoom video conferencing software last year, my son’s teachers gave the following instructions to their little kindergarten students: “Your eyes watch, your ears listen, your voices stay. silent, your bodies do not move. However, I noticed that my 6 year old kept manipulating all kinds of objects found at home, making constructions of Legos, kneading plasticine, scribbling with his pencils.

If some might say by seeing him that he has no mind in class, the research invites us to understand the situation differently: the manipulation of materials was in fact for him a means of awakening his attention, helping him to focus on the task required.

As a parent of two school-aged children, and a researcher in the field of technology-based learning, I find our current models of distance education to be ineffective.

Indeed, remaining seated in front of a computer screen weakens, even completely detaches us from a large part of the body’s perceptions . To learn as effectively as possible, our mind depends on the movement of our body , on the use of a variety of tools , on being part of the dynamics of the place and on the presence of collaborators around us.

The role of the body in thinking

In the distance learning system, it is often assumed, implicitly, that as long as their mind is engaged, it is not a problem if the child remains still. But this argument no longer holds up today .

Research into embodied cognition – the study of the body’s role in thinking – shows that the body must first interact with the world for the mind to be open to learning .

Therefore, students who work with a wide variety of tools and materials in a learning activity are better able to understand abstract concepts such as gravitational acceleration or fractions.

Asking students to remain seated while doing their work actually increases their mental load . It requires them to focus on staying still and that task that keeps them at their desks or in front of their screens.

As Christine Langhanns and Hermann Müller have put forward from work carried out around people solving math problems, “sitting quietly is not necessarily the best condition for good learning at school”.

Learn from our environment

The thoughts of humans are extensions of the world around them. The technologies or tools they use , the people they work with, the paths they take to go to school or to work, all of this awakens impressions in their bodies. Their mind then assembles these sensations through interpretations or ideas that draw on past experiences.

In this sense, thoughts are iterative . People explore new paths day by day while making the most of the learning inscribed in their body memory . Learning to cross a road, for example, takes practice. Over time, the brain organizes the perceptions collected in different situations which makes it possible to identify the auspicious moments.

The gesture is essential for thinking and learning . Not only do hand movements, head movements, and shrugs allow listeners to add nuance and emphasis to speeches, gestures also help speakers articulate their ideas better.

Research shows that in mathematics, students’ actions indicate that they have understood a problem even before they can speak the solutions. Thus, teachers able to spot these signs can closely follow their progress in understanding the concepts.

In addition, gestures are a way for educators to accompany the translation of a concept so that the explanations are more effective. Seeing each other therefore facilitates learning – which is in total contrast to videoconferencing situations where the child only sees the faces of his classmates and teachers or, at worst, an empty box.

Get in motion

Whether the courses take place face-to-face or remotely, it is possible to better integrate the body into the learning. Here are some avenues to explore as a teacher when teaching online, knowing that parents of course also have a role to play in encouraging students to stay in an active attitude:

  • Do not restrict movement to breaks and instead integrate it into classes, for example by making a walk in the neighborhood the introduction to the science lesson of the day;
  • Notebooks, pads or notebooks, pens or pencils, take a moment at the start of class to ask the students to collect their material and clearly visualize the tools at their disposal;
  • Encourage students to make gestures;
  • Allow time to encourage students to listen to their emotions;
  • Repeat the same task at different times during the course, using different materials;
  • Consider the classroom environment , from school to neighborhood. Rediscovering a familiar place from a new perspective can help students open up their perspectives for reflection.

It is generally a question of changing the representations that we have of what it is to “be in a position to study, to do one’s homework”. Although walking, running or dancing may seem unrelated to the task given to the student, these activities often help to think better .

Author Bio: Katie Headrick Taylor is Associate Professor of Learning Sciences and Human Development at the University of Washington