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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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Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher
Blogger 2014

Incorporating movement into lessons does so much more than just attract student interest. Movement is the pathway to learning. Actively doing a task yields a greater degree of diverse brain activity than reading about the very same task.

The Montessori approach to learning phonic sounds involves inviting the child to use a finger tip to trace a lower case letter made from sandpaper while saying the sound the letter makes. The child learns to pair the sound and the shape by feeling the shape and moving it all around the learning area. The child must cross the midline in order to complete the task. Because the task is presented with reverence, children often repeat it even after having learned the sounds, just cuz it feels good to them.

Even with my 9-12 year olds, I never miss a chance to get them out of their chairs. They love to work in a prone position and so we often use the floor as a learning space. I demonstrate many concepts using manipulatives and I encourage students to use them when they work independently. I would love to learn about more ways to include movement in the upper elementary curriculum!

MK

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Peggy:

I think it is awesome that someone is finally creating classrooms that promote active learning focusing on the students, rather than classrooms that promote the teacher at center stage in front of the classroom.

Thanks for sharing!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]he new Science Teaching and Student Services building at the University of Minnesota will have 10 Active Learning Classrooms. Active Learning Classrooms allow for students to experience a more interactive and conversational educational environment. With round tables for discussion and high-tech accessories for interactivity, these classrooms will service more than 125 class sections this fall.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Mary Kate:

I recently did a staff development training with a group of high school charter school teachers about asking questions. On the comments about the training, instead of detailing the wonderful content of the workshops, they were more excited about the activities we did that got them out of their chairs.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to shadow students from first through 9th grade. I went to all of their classes and did what they did. You know the hardest thing about those days? It was having to sit down so long. It was quite uncomfortable.

Thanks for the comments!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Incorporating movement into lessons does so much more than just attract student interest. Movement is the pathway to learning. Actively doing a task yields a greater degree of diverse brain activity than reading about the very same task.

The Montessori approach to learning phonic sounds involves inviting the child to use a finger tip to trace a lower case letter made from sandpaper while saying the sound the letter makes. The child learns to pair the sound and the shape by feeling the shape and moving it all around the learning area. The child must cross the midline in order to complete the task. Because the task is presented with reverence, children often repeat it even after having learned the sounds, just cuz it feels good to them.

Even with my 9-12 year olds, I never miss a chance to get them out of their chairs. They love to work in a prone position and so we often use the floor as a learning space. I demonstrate many concepts using manipulatives and I encourage students to use them when they work independently. I would love to learn about more ways to include movement in the upper elementary curriculum!

MK[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Heidi:

I am also very interested in the connection between the body and the brain. I would love to read the study you referred to. In schools, more and more students are rightly or wrongly being diagnosed with ADHD and teachers are not given any tools to deal with this.

Thanks for sharing.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]As a former dancer and elementary reading specialist turned publisher, I'm very interested in the links between movement and learning. A few research pieces from the early childhood world:

- Kindermusik's ABC Music & Me program, which engages young Pre-K children in music and movement along with early literacy, produced gains in self-control in a George Mason University study.

- At last summer's NICHD-sponsored conference on executive function, Dr. Betty Hoza of the University of VT, described a high-quality research study underway to engage young children with ADHD in an aerobic physical activity intervention.

The evidence for a link between movement and learning is emerging from the researchers focusing on young children... very exciting![/quote]

Leah Yarborough's picture
Leah Yarborough
Early Childhood Teacher

I LOVE this idea to aid in teaching multiplication! Wonderful way to integrate subjects as well! Anytime the students have that "hands-on" experience, the more in depth their learning appears to be. I love how the teacher chose dinosaurs because most girls and boys are interested in these amazing creatures.

I can easily relate to the idea of "The body is active, the brain is active."! When I am up moving or working on a project that requires movement, I feel more successful, less sleepy, and able to focus more than when I am simple sitting and working! Great blog and wonderful connections to aid in student achievement.

Lindsay Musser's picture

I can remember feeling sluggish in school after sitting, sitting, sitting. I still feel that way after a day of professional development meetings and training. Too much sitting!! I teach kindergarten and I wonder how many of our behavior issues could be resolved by adding more movement into our days? This year I plan to teach the letters of the alphabet by using a body movement for each letter. Wish me luck!

Stephanie's picture
Stephanie
ESL Teacher

Ben - Thank you for the excellent multiplication idea. I will definitely use this dinosaur example when teaching my English Learners (EL) multiplication this school year.

I recall a day last year when I was co-teaching regularly during math in a 3rd grade classroom. A student asked the other teacher if she could switch groups and come with my small group. She reasoned it was because she learned math easier in my group. Interestingly enough, we were using manipulatives, drawing pictures, and turning the math problems into real life examples.

I'm always looking for strategies to share with the mainstream teachers I work with. Lessons involving music, movement, and manipulatives are always high on the list. Does anyone have successful strategies to share that would work well with small groups of English Learners?

Thanks!
Stephanie

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