Covid-19 has shed light on the day-to-day life of teaching and learning. As parents began home-schooling and teachers adapted to innovative ways of connecting with students online, in our practices as experienced teachers some philosophical matters have not escaped us. As a yoga, meditation and contemplative practice teacher in higher education and a physical education (PE) teacher in secondary education, we have not failed to notice the irony that people have been forced to return to their bodies in this time of confinement. Never before have we seen such an emphasis on physical activity in mainstream media: even those less physically active have found they need it more than ever. From live PE with Joe Wicks to Vitality UK subscriptions to a host of Zoom classes promoted to address the missing piece of life in lockdown, when we are forced to return to our bodies it takes very little to realise that we have unknowingly been disconnected from them.
‘When we are forced to return to our bodies it takes very little to realise that we have unknowingly been disconnected from them.’
This is not merely a question of doing more sport activities to keep fit; although that is certainly part of it. Rather, when everything is ratcheted back in our lives and our attention towards the body becomes greater, it is a matter of beginning to notice things about ourselves that we previously missed.
In his popular TED Talk, Ken Robinson (2006) jests that academics merely use their bodies to carry around their brains, much to the agreement of the audience who likely recognise this attitude towards the body in themselves. Indeed, the academy has largely been concerned with educating students ‘from the neck up’ (Lelwica, 2009, p. 125). This dichotomy of mind and body as separate is to sever the rational and intellectual from the rest of the student.
Recognising the role of the body in learning is hardly new. There is an increased interest in the role of the body in unearthing and healing trauma, the science of wellbeing, somatics and movement, the holistic dimension to sport, embodied cognition and embodied knowledge across multiple fields of study. Yet the education sector has yet to catch up. For too long our work has been sidelined as peripheral activities to educational practices. Programmes of study oriented towards the body have tended to be seen as appendages or inferior to intellectual pursuits. Yet what is already known is that turning towards the body, in whatever capacity that may be, implicates all educational domains, because, simply put, students are their bodies and learning takes place from within them.
Research from various fields of study confirms a number of multidimensional phenomena. The first is that intense physical activity relaxes the default mode network (DMN) in the brain, inducing attention to the present moment rather than engaging in future thinking and past thinking patterns such as distraction and rumination (Garrison, Zeffiro, Scheinost, Constable, & Brewer , 2015). Moving the body increases overall energy, helping to reduce stress, release tension, and alleviate depression and anxiety. Additionally, physical activity acts as a counter-activity for seated cognitive work, which offers not only reprieve but also the time and space required for ideas to incubate and/or flourish (essentially, in non-thinking spaces). More typically face-to-face, physical activity provides social opportunities for teambuilding, camaraderie and connection. There is more: turning attention towards the physical body facilitates the learning of how to sense and feel rather than simply think. Here, the role of the physical body uncovers the affective domain of learning and knowing and is part and parcel of everyday cognition (Shapiro & Stolz, 2018). Finally, body-awareness is inevitably heightened, which supports awareness of one’s own wellbeing and thus supports self-regulation.
Respecting the role of the body in ourselves as teachers and in our students inevitably shifts the emphasis of teaching and supporting learning. Perhaps our vision can take root after we reassess the ways we teach and support learning in this new era of uncertainty. We conceive of an education that supports students in experiencing the multidimensional nature of their whole embodied selves, while in the throes of, well, real life.
Garrison, K. A., Zeffiro, T. A., Scheinost, D., Constable, T. R., & Brewer, J. A. (2015). Meditation leads to reduced default mode network activity beyond an active task. Cognitive Affect Behaviour Neuroscience, 15(3), 712–720. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-015-0358-3
Lelwica, M. M. (2009). Embodying learning: Post-Cartesian pedagogy and the academic study of religion. Teaching Theology and Religion, 12(2), 123–36.
TED Talks. (2006, February). Sir Ken Robinson – Do schools kill creativity? Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity
Shapiro, L., & Stolz, S. A. (2018). Embodied cognition and its significance for education. Theory and Research in Education, 1–21.