Steve Volk, March 6, 2017
We went to hear Tafelmusik in concert at Finney on Tuesday night. We arrived early, but ran into so many friends that we didn’t get a chance to glance at the program before the musicians took to the stage, all 17 or so of them. Which partly explains how surprised I was when the ensemble (except for the cellists, double bass player, and harpsichordist) started to play while still very much upright. They moved around the stage, forming into and retreating from small clusters, bending in to the counterpoint, musically conversing with each other by their body language. At one point, a violinist bowed her way from the entrance doors of Finney to the stage. And boy, did they deliver! The music, which highlighted J.S. Bach’s time in Leipzig, was marvelous, even more so as it was complemented by an intriguing slide show projected behind them and a well-voiced narrator who put Bach’s music into context. The narration not only illuminated Leipzig as a central crossroads of early 18th century Europe, but explored everything that went into a Bach composition: how the paper he wrote on, the ink he wrote with, the instruments his players used were crafted into existence; what clothing he and his fellow Leipzigers (is that the term?) were permitted to wear, sumptuary laws being what they were; where his musicians performed, and on and on. It was wonderful. And having the ensemble on their feet and in motion seemed to elevate their music making to an even higher level.
And so I wondered: To what extent did the kinetic performance enhance its overall musical quality? (I should add that there was one violinist who remained seated. My guess is that she was stationary because of a mobility issue and that Tafelmusik had nonetheless been able to make her a full participant in the concert, neither excluding her nor drawing attention her way.) The concert made me think about movement and learning and the fact that, unlike these Tafelmusicians, in most of our classrooms, students enter, find a chair, and remain seated for 50 or 75 minutes at a stretch.
Mind and Body
There is a large body of literature on the relationship between mind and body, cognition and movement, generally finding that people of all ages learn better when they have been or are active. The research is quite clear that activity is essential in early childhood education, which is why it’s appalling that teachers, under legislative burdens to make their 5- and 6-year olds “college and career ready,” are taking away recess time in favor of paper-and-pencil tasks at a desk. And what’s the punishment meted out to fidgety kids: no recess for you!
I reported earlier on an elementary school in Owensboro, KY, where the kindergarten teacher won a grant to purchase “pedal-desks.” Because motion increases learning and there’s no time for recess, why not have students pedal at their desks while they are learning math! I’m waiting until they figure a way to connect the desks to the school’s power grid and use kid-power to reduce their utility bills. Think of the possibilities!
More seriously, the problem here is not that it’s silly to consider the impact of motion on learning, but that what needs to be studied is the way that motion itself can be a part of pedagogy rather than a mindless, hamster-on-a-treadmill activity. Of course, the dancers and theater people among us have argued this point forever, but do we listen? Rarely. My guess (raise your hand if I’m wrong) is that the vast majority of instructors operate in traditional classrooms where students come in, sit down and remain seated for the whole period, excepting their move to a new seat when discussion groups are formed. Science labs would be different, as would studio art, and, certainly, theater and dance classes and all athletics. But most of us engage in teaching and learning with our students firmly planted on their bums. And yet, as Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, argued in How the Body Knows Its Mind (Atria Books, 2015): “Moving the body can alter the mind by unconsciously putting ideas in our head before we are able to consciously contemplate them on our own. People use their body all the time when problem solving, without even knowing it” (p. 69). These movements literally can be as slight as moving our eyes or as large as moving our limbs. Perhaps that is why, I would guess, that most of us are up and about when we teach, either standing at a lectern or, more likely, wandering. (Beilock jokes that one of the best things about becoming a faculty member is that faculty don’t have to remain in their seats during class.)
The Neuroscience of it All
Here’s a bit of the neuroscience behind this (although, caveat emptor, this is not my field so colleagues who actually know what they’re talking about should correct anything that is flat-out wrong or misleading). So, the brain passes information from one part to another, while eliminating unnecessary data and storing valuable data, via neurons (See, for example, Colcombe et al., 2006). Say you’re reading a book: your brain’s frontal lobe is figuring out if the material is new or old, something it can dispose of or information that needs to be stored. If new, the brain encodes the data for storage which will then allow it to be retrieved when necessary (Medina, 2008). How much is absorbed and stored depends on a lot of factors including whether there is a proper balance of neurochemicals and growth factors to bind the neurons together long enough for them to communicate.
Something called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps neurons “converse” with one another while building and maintaining cell circuitry, i.e. the kind of system of interconnections that allows the brain to function. So, and hopefully I haven’t made too much of a hash of it, the more BDNF, the greater the amount brains exchange and retain information. And this gets to the crux of the matter: BDNF is elevated with neural activity which then enhances signal capabilities with synaptic transmissions; this causes an increase in protein synthesis promoting structural integrity, all of which is essential for the long-term storage of information. And what elevates neural activity and, hence, BDNF? Would you guess, movement? Probably, if you’re a dancer or a tennis coach.
As I noted before, researchers have carried out substantial research on the relationship between exercise and cognition. To cite just two examples, a small-scale 2007 study by German researchers found that “people learn[ed] vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise than they did before exercise” [J.J. Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008), p. 45]. And, at the other end, a comprehensive review by Tomporowski, Davis, Miller and Naglieri published in 2008 reported that “gains in children’s mental functioning due to exercise training are seen most clearly on tasks that involve executive functions. Executive functions are involved in performing goal-directed actions in complex stimulus environments, especially novel ones, in which elements are constantly changing. Behaviors such as these have long been seen as important for children’s adaptive functioning.”
Of course, this is hardly new: Mens sana in corpore sano and all that. The question is not necessarily whether a regular exercise regimen is good for the mind as well as the heart, but whether movement undertaken as part of the act of learning is valuable. Or, to turn it inside out: are students losing something by remaining seated during most of their class time? As John Medina, a development molecular biologist affiliated with the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, cautioned, “If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.”
Well, what if someone actually studied whether intentional physical activity carried out during a college lecture class could increase a student’s achievement level? We’re in luck, because Michala Paige Patterson did just that for her dissertation at the University of Missouri’s School of Education (“Movement and Learning in Lecture Classrooms,” 2011). I’ll only briefly describe this study since I’m not competent to judge the reliability of its design. And even though her conclusions were modest, the research is important to consider when we think about how to scaffold student learning and when we take into consideration the remarkable fact that students have bodies as well as minds.
Patterson worked with four faculty members who offered standard lecture classes. During class, the “treatment” group of students would activate their circulatory systems by performing a “low-impact and/or low intensity movement activity.” Patterson reported mixed findings among the 4 professors whose classes she used in her study. Two showed a statistically significant gain in student achievement when exercises were interspersed in a lecture class; two showed no difference. I was most interested in her conclusions: “By combining the data and different attributes of the professors, there appears to be a manner of incorporating the movement activities technique most effectively to achieve the greatest outcome. Therefore, this researcher encourages and recommends further development and use of the techniques used in this project.” While she thought that something in the research protocol itself was limiting the impact of the activity, I would argue that the key is in “incorporating the movement activities technique most effectively to achieve the greatest outcome.”
We already know that students have a limited attention span (some say as low as 7 minutes, others as high as 20 minutes), but they’re not going to make it through a 50-minute lecture without losing attention. So scheduling some movement with a break in the delivery is not a bad way to go. Is it time for the pedal-desks? Noooooooo!
Movement in Service of Learning
Let’s go back to the Tafelmusik concert: what if we were to use movement to further content learning or pedagogic approaches the way that movement improved the musicians understanding (and performance) of Bach? Leaving all this neurosciency stuff behind, I’m pretty sure that the players on stage understood Bach’s use of counterpoint and harmony more deeply by physically moving as they interacted with the other musicians. So how can we use movement in class to further specific learning goals? Here are two examples.
The first comes from Naomi Roswell, a junior environmental studies major who is currently participating in the Student-Faculty Partnership program and brought up this example during a recent meeting.
Movement, stasis, independence, dependence
Everyone stands in a circle. Ask each person to select two others (without telling them) to use as reference points. Each person’s task is to remain equidistant from the two others (i.e., in an equilateral triangle) as everyone moves around the room without anyone knowing who has chosen them as reference points. What happens if you move quickly? Slowly? As some point, and this often happens quickly, the room reaches stasis. Then the facilitator, who is observing rather than moving, can ask one person to take three steps, and watch as everyone else adjusts to maintain an equidistant posture.
Can you tell if someone is dependent on you? Much of the time, people are so focused on their own reference points that they don’t realize they are are a reference point for someone else. The lessons derived from this movement exercise can increase understanding about how one’s actions impact others without our even being aware of it. This is a theme that can easily fit into many social science and humanities courses, from sociology to environmental science.
Run it a second time: now each person picks two reference points, but one of them must have two specific qualities (e.g. be wearing glasses and have a striped shirt). Does the room come to stasis more quickly, or more slowly? The facilitator can again ask one person to move and see what changes that action brings about. This time the underlying lesson is that there are two independent systems at play. The exercise can be about an ecosystem with the glasses/stripes individual as a “keystone species” a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically; or the facilitator (generally no one picks them as a reference point) is an insect that occupies such a small niche that if it moves, it hardly impacts the habitat.
Or the lesson can be about relationships and dependency. What does it feel like to always be responding to the movements (requirements/demands) of others and have no autonomy yourself? So, for example: Your child can’t enroll in school without proof of vaccination, but you will lose your job if you take time out to bring her to a clinic which is a 2-hour trip because you have no car? And what if you are able to take the time out to go to the clinic only to find that it’s closed on Tuesdays, the day you arrived, because its funding was reduced and you don’t have a phone to confirm the opening hours? All these “movements” impact you, but you have little ability to respond effectively. What would “stasis” look like in this context? Comprehensive care?
Slowing it Down
I’ve written before about “slow pedagogy,” the importance of helping students develop an ability to engage in tasks that require “deep attention” by slowing down the pace. This is increasingly important as students (and we, ourselves) are constantly involved in activity that requires very short, little attention bursts: hyper-attention. Checking texts, answering the phone, listening to a snatch of music. In contrast, close readings of texts, deliberate time spent observing art in the museum, extended research projects are all ways to build capacity for deeper levels of attention that are an essential part of learning.
With this in mind, are there ways to help a class “slow down” in order to better engage? I’ve thought of using a meditation (clear-your-mind) approach, but since it rarely works for me during my yoga practice (when I’m either thinking about what I’ll have for lunch, some article I’m working on, or whether I’ll go to Drug Mart right after class or later in the week), I don’t imagine that it will work on 30 students sitting at their desks and thinking many other thoughts. But physical activity can serve this purpose, and here’s one exercise developed by a colleague at Oberlin. How this is carried out depends on the configuration of the classroom, where desks and chairs are located. Have students line up at the beginning of class in order to walk as slowly as possible from one end of the room to the other. While there can be a bit of silliness involved the first time the exercise is carried out, the physical act of moving slowly can make a difference in how students approach the class. The exercise can work as a kind of border crossing movement: we are leaving the outside world behind and entering a new space of engagement and learning; as a tempo regulator: we are going to slow down and focus; or as an opportunity to break up a class in which students have been sitting for a long time and just need a change of pace to clear their heads.
In these exercises or others that you develop, you’ll want to think about how they will impact students with mobility issues, visual limitations, or other conditions that might impair their ability to participate, and plan accordingly. But whether or not you have differently abled students in your class, you can increase everyone’s learning by asking your students how they would redesign the exercise with such students in mind.
Movement increases our brain’s ability to “learn”; intentional movement can help students learn what it is we are teaching. Do you have physical exercises, movements that you use in class? Care to share them?