Learning through mind and body

Imagine you are walking outdoors. It´s bitterly cold, and there’s a fierce storming with hard rain blowing straight into your face. You can see and hear it, but the experience is most acutely felt on your skin. Our skin and the whole body have this most amazing memory. Every single experience builds up in the so-called embodied mind, but it´s difficult to describe, because it is tacit knowledge.

It is hard to start to work merely on the basis of theoretical concepts. If you haven’t got any idea of what a certain word means or how it feels to do the actual work in question, you will be stuck. For example, an apprentice may have difficulties to distinguish between the words “to cut” and “to split” or “to slice” and “to dice” without any experience of what these words mean in practice.

From this point of view, our school environment focuses too much on listening and watching overlooking the fact that using our body and especially our hands to sense objects are important in learning, too. We also know that we use our hands in making simulations of our thoughts. One nice example of this is when sportsmen rehearse their upcoming performance in advance by using mental images concomitant with relevant bodily movements. Here we surely are facing one of the most captivating phenomenon concerning human behaviour: what is the relationship between mind and body.

Below we open up how important it is to understand the relationship between these two aspects on equal terms.  But it´s not enough to only understand the relationship of this concepts, we should also make it work in reality in education.

Learning by doing at a disadvantage

Constructivist learning theory, which today is the mainstream within pedagogical trend, emphasises student’s own activity in constructing the knowledge of the world. Student’s previous ideas and experience would form the basis to the new knowledge and understanding. In principle this sounds reasonable. Nevertheless, a big deal of school lessons is carried out in a class room by working with theoretical exercises and problem solving as well. In the classroom there is hardly anything that could create a learning experience through the body, but the teacher guides the learning process as if the student had such an experience.

Teachers may also try to make the theory more concrete by giving real-life examples arising from their own experiences. But it is misunderstanding that these illustrative examples could compensate for learning through hands-on practice. The embodied mind is missing. By keeping school lessons teachers unintentionally ignores the significant part of bodily experience in cognition.

The tradition to separate theory and practice – and just in this particular order – can be seen in vocational education and at the undergraduate level too: the practical on-the-job-periods are placed after the theoretical classroom modules. Learning by doing seems to be at a disadvantage compared with the theoretical learning. Anyhow on-the-job-learning or apprenticeships do not in themselves resolve this problem, if they are carried out without the understanding of the embodied mind. Students feedback reveals namely that learning in the school does not link with on-the-job-learning. Therefore, it is important to move towards the pedagogy where the work can properly be exposed to thinking and the mind. The construction of knowledge should take place so close to the bodily experience as possible. That´s why we need more profound research of the embodied learning.

The phenomenon between our mind and body is the lost cat of pedagogy

The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty was one of the few who recognized the importance of multisensory information in the process of perception and knowing. Recent research especially in the field of neurosciense (Damasio, Varela), the behavioral science that is intrested in embodied cognition (Johnson, Glenberg) and within the philosophy (Clark, extended mind; Thompson, enaction; Gallagher, phenomenological mind) stimulates interest into the theme of the embodied learning. All these above-mentioned researchers have highlighted the role of the bodily experience in learning.

Let us assume, that using our body contribute thinking, and that the sense of touch is an important factor influencing our mind. If we suppose that with the mind we are able to reflect on the experience consisting in the sense of touch. Then it is crucial to recognise both the bodily experience and the interrelated intellectual pursuit (thinking) in the learning process. This leads us to conclude that it is not reasonable to disconnect the reflection from the practical work.

The teacher´s important task is to plan the learning in such a way that a proper rhythm exists between doing and reflection. When this is done successfully the student will feel that on-the-job learning and theoretical studies are interlinked with each other. This will also significantly facilitate learning.

To recap, it would be conducive to learning to make embodiment the focus of research in our efforts to improve our pedagogical systems. The unexplored phenomenon between our mind and body is the lost cat to be rediscovered within pedagogics.

 The text was written by lecturer Virve Vainio from Haaga-Helia School of Vocational Teacher Education and education management professional Kari Viinisalo from Oppisopimuskummit ry.