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How I use... Embodied Learning

Originally posted on the Norfolk Research School blog.

What is Embodied Learning?
Strategies that engage and make use of movement and the body to support effective learning.

What does the evidence say?
The evidence in this area is consistently positive. Studies comparing embodied cognition approaches were found to have larger impacts on learning than normal curriculum delivery.

However, there are a number of limitations to the evidence base, and almost all of the studies took place in primary schools, and in Maths, Science and Language lessons.

Case study 1: 

How I use embodied learning to reinforce learning around relative clauses – Harriet Griffiths, Notre Dame High School, Norwich

Subject: English
Age: Year 8
Unit of Work: Creative Writing (building on skills developed in Year 7).

Context: This lesson covered relative clauses, formed by the use of a relative pronoun at the start of a clause. This built on the work done in a previous lesson on simple sentences and main clauses. Examples of relative pronouns had been covered, including the crucial point that a relative clause adds extra information and cannot stand on its own as a sentence.

How I use embodied learning: To reinforce the idea that a relative clause cannot stand on its own as a sentence, I ask the class to stand and then form a relative clause: this means standing on one leg with arms outstretched and crucially, leaning on another classmate.

I then yell ​“Main!”, which means standing on both legs with arms down as there is no need for them to support themselves on another.

I display some sentences on the board and tell the class that they will need to identify whether they contain a relative clause or not using their bodies to do so.

At various points in the lesson I then call out ​‘Relative’ or ​‘Main’ and they have to stand and assume whichever stance is correct. This soon wakes them up!

(We also teach subordinate clauses, which are slightly different in format but also cannot stand alone in a sentence and I use the same technique for this.)

Why I use embodied learning: I find that this strategy works on two levels: the physicality breaks up what is otherwise a fairly dry but incredibly useful point. I hope that the process of doing it also reminds them to actually use the technique in their own writing going forwards.

Reflections: I note from the research that most embodied learning techniques are carried out at Primary level. This example is from my year 8 group, and I do feel it would be harder to persuade an older age group to do this.

Case study 2: 

How I use embodied learning to explore changes in Macbeth’s character – Sally Oliver, Notre Dame High School, Norwich.

Subject: English
Age: KS4
Unit of Work: Macbeth

Context: We are tracking how the character of Macbeth changes throughout the play.

How I use embodied learning: To explore how a character changes or is presented in a text: in pairs, I get the students to decide who’s A and who’s B (more confident students always elect themselves As so it seems to self differentiate: if one task is trickier I allocate it to As!). As are given the role of Sculptures/​Directors. Bs are Playdough/​models.

As direct Bs how to portray Macbeth at the start of the play: eg, ​‘hold up your sword’, ​‘look like you’re charging into battle by putting one foot forward’ ​‘pretend you’re holding a bloodied head in your hand’

Then I pause the class and we look around the room. Students justify what they’ve done, either by using quotations (‘carved out his passage’) or by evidence from the play (‘characters talk about what a great soldier he is’)

Next, I will suggest they swap roles, and they create a ​‘model’ of Macbeth at a later point in the play. For example, after he has killed King Duncan (spoiler alert!). Students will say ​‘put your hands out in front of you and look at them’ or ​‘turn behind you and look afraid’ and we do the same again- justifying with quotations or other evidence.

I will then get the students to stand side by side and look at the two ​‘models’ of Macbeth and talk about how he’s changing in the play.

Why I use embodied learning: When students can see it, it helps. And they take their bodies into the exam halls so they can ​‘remember’ the poses.

Reflections: I will model it first. ​‘Direct me to show Lady Macbeth when she reads the letter’ etc. I have to make sure I’m willing to embarrass myself before asking them to take a risk. It is a good opportunity to talk about consent too – I often say ​‘remember to ask your partner before you manhandle them. Say ​‘is it ok if I move your arm?’ or ask if they mind being touched. You can give clear instructions without touching your partner ​‘Lift your arm higher’ etc.