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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Active Learning Means Using the Body

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Good morning students! We are going to learn how to make multiplication problems. Today we have traveled back in time to the age of the dinosaurs. Dinosaurs reproduce by laying.....? Right! Eggs. The dinosaurs lay their eggs in ...? Correct again. Nests. In your baggy, you will find several paper nests and two colors of eggs.

I would be excited to learn what multiplication was if I was in this class!

This teacher set up a real, active, learning environment in which the students had to use their bodies to figure things out. That is what I want to talk about. I have lots of questions that are related to this concept: When was it that the schools separated the brain from the body? Why do students have to sit, and sit, and sit all day (especially secondary students)? Why is a pencil a tool to think with? How is it possible to type without looking at my fingers, or drive without looking at my feet?

In the Classroom

Now back to the lesson I observed. The teacher gave each student a baggy that contained several paper dinosaur nests and candies that looked like eggs. There were white ones and blue ones. The students were excited to learn, not only because of the enticement of candies, but because of the interest generated by the dinosaur nests. The teacher then verbally gave the students different scenarios of eggs. In some she described nests without regard to color, while with other scenarios, color was integral.

"One stegosaurus laid three blue eggs and one white one in one nest, and three blue ones and one white one in another. How many eggs total did she lay? How many white eggs did she lay? How many blue ones?" "This brontosaurus laid nine eggs total in three nests. She thinks that each nest had about the same amount of eggs. Can you show me what that might look like?" "A triceratops set a goal to lay 12 eggs. She built three nests. How many eggs would she need in each nest to make them all equal?" The teacher then took the time to connect the number of nests times how many eggs in each to multiplication. The kids "got it" right off the bat!

Compare this with what many teachers do -- "Here is a gridded piece of paper. Write the numbers one to ten going down, and then write them again going across. Now fill in the table with these numbers." After years of doing this, many students still don't get their times tables. What makes the difference? The answer is simple. The body is an extension of the brain.

Mind and Body Connection

You have heard of muscle memory, but what I am talking about the body increasing the brain's memory. That is how I can type without looking at my fingers and drive without looking at my feet. The idea is really simple. In order for the body to move, the brain usually has to tell it to move. So if the body is active, so is the brain. Repeated motions are learned by the brain and the body. Connect motions with concepts and the body becomes a literal extension of the brain. In a classroom where the students are asked to use their bodies as learning tools, the teacher can see if the student's "get it" just by watching what their bodies are doing.

Students who struggle can get a clue by simply looking around and seeing what other students are doing. Discipline is diminished because few students will want to be singled out by refusing to participate in the fun activity.

Points to Ponder

I witnessed a teacher teaching high school seniors how to improve their writing. I observed compliant behavior with undertones of resentment from most of the students as they obediently wrote a descriptive paragraph. Then, magically, I witnessed a total transformation in their attitudes when the teacher explained that they were going to publish a newsletter for the school. They did not know that in writing the newsletter, they will be doing much more writing than if they sat in class responding to teacher prompts. But they were so excited about it.

Writing is an active behavior; the brain has to tell the hands and fingers what to do (low on Bloom's). But writing with purpose is a learning behavior; the brain has to decide what to write and why to write it and then determine if it is the best thing to write (way up there on Bloom's Taxonomy).

A teacher can easily observe the learning going on by watching how the student's pencils fly over the pages. What makes the difference? It's simple. The body is an extension of the brain.

Maybe the brain got disconnected from the body because the teachers believe that the body moving all the time will take away vital energy resources from the brain, which will diminish thinking power. Perhaps, the students have to sit all the time because of the ink bottles often spilled when the students got out of their seats to participate in collaborative groups. I believe I know how a pencil can be a tool to "think-with": The student writes something down, and then thinks that the teacher won't like it, so the student turns the pencil upside down and erases, ponders something new and better to write, and then writes it down. Now we know everything!

I look forward to finding out how you help your students use their bodies to extend their learning power.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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