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PERSPECTIVE article

Front. Educ., 02 December 2021
Sec. Educational Psychology
https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2021.712626

Translating Embodied Cognition for Embodied Learning in the Classroom

  • 1Department of STEM Education and Teacher Development, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Dartmouth, MA, United States
  • 2Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Dartmouth, MA, United States

In this perspective piece, we briefly review embodied cognition and embodied learning. We then present a translational research model based on this research to inform teachers, educational psychologists, and practitioners on the benefits of embodied cognition and embodied learning for classroom applications. While many teachers already employ the body in teaching, especially in early schooling, many teachers’ understandings of the science and benefits of sensorimotor engagement or embodied cognition across grades levels and the content areas is little understood. Here, we outline seven goals in our model and four major “action” steps. To address steps 1 and 2, we recap previously published reviews of the experimental evidence of embodied cognition (and embodied learning) research across multiple learning fields, with a focus on how both simple embodied learning activities—as well as those based on more sophisticated technologies of AR, VR, and mixed reality—are being vetted in the classroom. Step 3 of our model outlines how researchers, teachers, policy makers, and designers can work together to help translate this knowledge in support of these goals. In the final step (step 4), we extract generalized, practical embodied learning principles, which can be easily adopted by teachers in the classroom without extensive training. We end with a call for educators and policy makers to use these principles to identify learning objectives and outcomes, as well as track outcomes to assess whether program objectives and competency requirements are met.

Minding the (Brain) Gap

Currently, there is paradox in education: a focus on evidence-based research but an abandonment of the theories (Matsushita, 2017). For example, effective performance in clinical settings requires the integration between theory and practice. Yet there is a gap between theoretical knowledge as taught in the classroom and what K-12 students experience and learn (Hashemiparast et al., 2019). Furthermore, teachers’ action-based classroom research, while often promoting student achievement, is often absent of robust links to theory and is liable to neglect the application of a deductive, empirical framework. One reason for this dearth of informed practice is a lack of a framework for translating theory to practice, and in this instance, linking embodied cognition and embodied learning to effective teaching.

To promote informed research-based decisions in education, the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) mandated “scientifically based” research, which was replaced by Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) calling for “evidence-based” interventions. Still, few educators are privy to the research advances in the science of learning (Weinstein et al., 2018). Further, the limited awareness of recent theoretical and empirical evidence in cognitive science constrains the dissemination and adoption of research findings. There is a need for collaborative models that emphasize a bidirectional flow from researchers to practitioners (Nutley et al., 2009). Indeed, McKenney (2018) notes: “Although many studies in the learning sciences describe potential implications of policy or practice, few elaborate on how recommendations can be implemented” (p. 1).

Specifically, as Wilcox et al. (2021) point out there continues to be a significant “research to practice gap”. For example, Roediger (2013) writes:

We cannot point to a well-developed translational educational science in which research about learning and memory, thinking and reasoning, and related topics is moved from the lab into controlled field trials (like clinical trials in medicine) and the tested techniques … are introduced into broad educational practice. We are just not there yet … (p. 1).

Furthermore, one of the nation’s foremost education researchers and policy analysts, Linda Darling-Hammond, argues that the rapid pace of our knowledge of human development and learning has impacted the emerging consensus about the science of learning and increased our opportunities to shape more effective educational practices (Darling-Hammond et al., 2020). Yet, she adds, to take advantage of these advances requires integrating insights across multiple fields and connecting them to our knowledge of successful approaches.

In this perspective piece, we adapted a translational research model for the learning sciences to inform teachers, educational psychologists, and practitioners on benefits of Embodied Cognition (EC) and Embodied Learning (EL) applications for the classroom.

Translational Science: The Need for a Bridge

Translational science research emphasizes a need for appropriate professional development that fosters interdisciplinary approaches (Gilliland et al., 2017) for quickly turning biomedical findings from the laboratory, clinic, and community into interventions to improve the health of individuals and the public (NCATS-NIH, 2020). That said, to meet the challenges of collecting and disseminating the latest cognitive-science empirical research on learning, we adapted a model of translational science (Rubio et al., 2010). We call our model the Translational Learning Sciences Research for Embodied Cognition and Embodied Learning1. Our model leverages the empirical findings on EC from psychology and learning theory to provide an overarching theory for why embodied-based learning works. The call for translational research for the benefit of education is not new, although the term translational has only recently been applied in fields other than the natural sciences2. Here, we provide a framework for why these examples work and what generalized learning principles can be derived from these examples to impart educators with useful practice. Our model curates EC research across multiple learning fields (e.g., STEM, reading/language, social-emotional learning) while focusing on how researchers are beginning to implement both low-stakes embodied learning activities in the classroom and also those based on sophisticated technologies of AR, VR, and mixed reality (step 1 and 2 of our model). Our model then extracts generalized EL principles that can be easily used in the classroom as a starting point for researchers, teachers, policy makers, and designers to work together (step 3) to help translate and disseminate the latest research and create validated learning platforms and activities based on EC principles (step 4). The goal is to accelerate the process of transforming laboratory discoveries into new pedagogical approaches to improve learning outcomes. Before we discuss the details of our model, however, we present a quick history of EC and EL and why it matters to education.

Rethinking Thinking

Over the last forty years there has been a paradigm shift in Psychology, in which human thinking is now viewed as inseparably linked with the body and the environment (e.g., Varela et al., 1991; Wilson, 2002; Abrahamson, 2004; Hutto, 2007; Chemero, 2009; Fugate et al., 2018). Embodied views of thinking suggest that it is deeply dependent on features of the physical body of the learner, where the body plays a significant causal or constitutive role in cognitive processing (Kumar, et al., 2018; Wilson and Foglia, 2011). Such embodied views of cognition are based on bodily and neural processes of perception, action, and emotion (e.g., Hauk et al., 2004; James, 2010; Vinci-Booher and James, 2020, to name a few). For example, research also shows that simply observing another’s gestures and movements can activate the mirror neuron system in the learner’s brain to aid in learning through imitation (Rizzolatti et al., 1996). This finding has led to the suggestion that the mirror neuron system may be the mechanism for imitative EC (Rizzolatti et al., 1996; Iacoboni et al., 2005; Iacoboni, 2009).

We owe a great deal to developmental psychologists whose theoretical insights are affirmed by the latest neuroscientific evidence (e.g., Piaget and Cook, 1952; Piaget, 1968; Montessori, 1969; Vygotsky, 1978; Kolb, 1984; Dewey, 1989; Rogoff, 1990). Indeed, Vygotsky (1926/1997) wrote: “Thought is action … your capacity to enact the concept as perceptuomotor activity” (pp. 161–163). Philosophically, Merleau-Ponty (1962) posited that people perceive the world first and foremost through their bodies, a type of inter-corporeality which he referred to as “enfleshment.”

Although there are many theories of EC, all are united in their emphasis on the body and draw upon two common themes. First, the body and the world (environment) are integral to forming, integrating, and retrieving knowledge. To that end, knowledge is grounded or situated in the interactions between the individual and the environment. Grounding might occur when words or linguistic metaphors bind together individual, heterogenous instances underlying abstract concepts (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Mazzuca and Borghi, 2019)3. Second, knowledge is simulated: Thinking, or the use of knowledge, is re-experiencing the bodily states that were activated at the initial time of encoding, as experienced by a person’s individualized interactions with the world (Barsalou, 1999; Barsalou, 2008; Gallese, 2009).

Recently, EC has expanded its reach into “4E cognition”, which suggests people’s cognitive activity is not only embodied, but also “extended, enacted, and embedded” in the perceptual and interactive richness of their environment (see Gallagher in Rowlands, 2010). Abrahamson et al. (2021) advanced Enactivism (Varela et al., 1991) as a philosophical framework that captures “thinking as situated doing” for classroom learning. The emphasis is placed on studentsexperience as their source knowledge rather than on the teacher transmitting content (Petitmengin, 2007). For example, a learner and their surrounding environment constitute a system, in which the learner’s thoughts, actions, and metacognitive awareness/verbalizations (Flavell, 1979; Bernstein, 1996) may promote the discovery of new relations between their body and environment (Suwa, 2006).

Both Teaching and Learning Need to Be Re-examined

Our current educational delivery systems (i.e., teacher education, pedagogy, curriculum) and approaches can be traced back to “disembodied” views of human thinking. Specifically, much of teaching pedagogy/curriculum continue to view learning as abstracted and separate from the body (Macrine, 2002) and fails to understand the latest psychological and neuroscientific evidence from EC. Similarly, teacher training/pedagogy, while emphasizing constructivist’s approaches, tends to devolve-in-practice to positivist’s skills in preparation for standardized tests (Klein et al., 2019). According to Nathan (2012), teaching continues to focus on foundational knowledge or “formalism first”. Specifically, formalism first “incorrectly advocates the teaching/mastery of formalisms often considered prerequisite to applied knowledge” [that] “privileges formal, scientific knowledge over applied knowledge” (Nathan, 2012, p.126). Further, Nathan asserts that formalisms only gain their meaning with embodied experiences through real-world interaction and therefore the experiences are what ground formalisms, not the other way around. Similarly, Wertsch (1985) noted that a construct is shared when the action and affordances are experienced with the adult and contextualized in the real world.

Rethinking Learning

Derived from EC principles, EL constitutes a contemporary pedagogical theory that emphasizes the use of the body in educational practice, as well as student-teacher interaction both in and outside the classroom (Smyrnaiou and Sotiriou, 2016; Kosmas and Zaphiris, 2018; Georgiou and Ioannou, 2019). EL posits that a person’s own actions (and the observation of others’ actions) interact with environmental affordances, and together scaffold the process of learning.

While EC uses similar approaches to active learning, EL includes a variety of body-based techniques (i.e., gestures, imitations, simulations, sketching, and analogical mapping) (Alibali and Nathan, 2007; Weisberg and Newcombe, 2017) that hold promise for understanding the role of action and experience in early development, as well as to scaffold learning in more formal educational settings (Kontra et al., 2012). Following suit, embodied design is a pedagogical framework that “seeks to promote grounded learning by creating situations in which students can be guided to negotiate tacit and cultural perspectives on phenomena under inquiry” (Abrahamson, 2013, p. 224).

Our Model: Translational Learning Sciences Research for Embodied Cognition and Embodied Learning

In light of recent empirical demonstrations of how EC/EL works, our model of Translation Learning Sciences Research for Embodied Cognition and Embodied Learning has seven goals: 1) making sense of and disseminating clinical and empirical research findings; 2) closing the gap between research and application; 3) combining cognitive science and pedagogy to share pertinent information; 4) improving teaching and learning through embodied applications; 5) confirming or debunking current trends, (i.e., neuromyths); 6) elucidating conceptual frameworks for sensorimotor and body-based learning; and 7) recommending curriculum, designs, taxonomies, technology, and development to inform policy.

From these goals, we outline the following four action steps: 1) Promote the multidirectional and multidisciplinary integration of basic embodied research to elucidate or to debunk current trends in teaching and learning; 2) Compile the embodied research to be analyzed, translated, and make connections to improve pedagogical approaches, with the long-term aim of improving teaching and learning; 3) Develop and disseminate resources and tools to help individuals at all levels of expertise develop a better understanding of EL; 4) Focus on the creation of appropriate embodied curriculum and the development of taxonomies to identify objectives, and track outcomes that will assess whether program objectives and competency requirements are being met. We believe that our model can serve as an expeditious way to systematically collate, translate, and disseminate the latest embodied research geared towards improved learning outcomes. In other words, this is where science meets the real world of schooling.

In a larger research project, we have addressed steps 1 and 2 by carefully curating examples from leading experts to show how EC can be integrated into classroom practice (Macrine and Fugate, 2020). Such research examples are based on behavioral and neuroimaging experimentation in the fields of language and reading comprehension, STEM, and social-emotional knowledge. By way of a few noteworthy examples, Kiefer et al. (2015) found that young students who relied on physically writing (compared to typing) had improved word reading and word writing. James (2010) found that four-to-five year-old participants, who had practiced writing letters through handwriting (but not other ways), showed adult-like brain activation when subsequently viewing letters. Further, college students demonstrated better recall of handwritten notes vs. typed notes (Mangen et al., 2015). In addition, Glenberg and colleagues (Glenberg and Kaschak, 2002; Glenberg et al., 2008; Glenberg and Gallese, 2012) showed how vocabulary acquisition can be enhanced by shared communication and physical pantomime, both which allow for the grounding of information to concrete objects. In another example, Boaler and colleagues (Boaler et al., 2016) demonstrated how finger perception predicted learning math all the way through college, and that young children with good finger-based numerical representations showed better arithmetic skills. In addition, the panoply of motion-based technologies and interactive-user gaming platforms have allowed VR and AR designers to create technology-enabled EL experiences. Such technologies range from gesture-based to full-body interactive technologies, with the latter making up fewer options and focusing mainly on VR and AR technologies (Trninic and Abrahamson, 2012; Johnson-Glenberg, 2018; Georgiou and Ioannou, 2019).

Several of these researchers, and numerous others working within the field of learning design and practice, have turned such research findings into EL technologies for the classroom. As an example, the Moved by Reading approach uses simulation or “acting-out” in two stages to enhance reading (Glenberg et al., 2004). In the first stage, called physical manipulation, children manipulate toys to simulate the story that they are reading. The second stage is called imagined manipulation, where children are taught how to mentally simulate or imagine doing the actions. The authors found that physical and imagined manipulations contributed to larger gains in memory and comprehension than dis-embodied reading approaches. Gomez and Glenberg (2022) demonstrated the importance of pantomiming while reading new physics content. Abrahamson and colleagues designed multiple, successful embodied instruction design applications, called Mathematical Imagery Trainers (MITs). In one high technology-based project known as the Kinemathics project (Abrahamson et al., 2011), students move their arms in proportional distances to measurements of similar magnitude displayed on a screen. Using a trial-and-error approach, correct answers turn the screen green and incorrect ones turn it red, which reinforces the rules underlying the relationship (i.e., a 1:2 rule). And, in another specialized application, Abrahamson and Lindgren (2014) developed MEteor, an interactive MR simulation that uses a laser and floor-projected imagery. In this application, students use their bodies to simulate an orbit around a virtual planet to learn about formal concepts such as gravitational acceleration and mass.

Perhaps just as important is that many of these applications can be adapted to students with learning disabilities. Indeed, advances in EL have been utilized with students with ASD (De Jaegher, 2013; Eigsti, 2013; Eigsti, 2015), deaf students, and students with motor impairment (Kosmas et al., 2019; Tancredi et al., 2022).

In the remainder of this perspective, we focus on steps 3 and 4 of our model. Step 3 advocates for a coordinated effort - a type of interactive educational/cognitive-science consortium - among researchers, educational psychologists, teachers, school psychologists, policy makers, and textbook publishers to translate and disseminate/share the latest findings, applications, and implementation of the latest developments. These include bringing such issues to the attention of: 1) university-affiliated design-based research laboratories; 2) school personnel–primarily teachers but also technology experts and principals; 3) parents—as individuals and via various organized bodies–invested in school policy on infrastructure, resources, and pedagogy; 4) non-profit education-promoting groups, who are hampered neither by publication nor sales constraints; 5) commercial educational-technology companies with forward-thinking strategies; and 6) reporters, bloggers, etc. who cover the educational beat and can bring these issues to the attention of the wider public, including city, state, and federal policymakers. These many—and in rare occasions collaborations among them—could hasten the experimental application of cutting-edge research in the form of convivial instructional resources. For example, a national database of open-science materials and data could be coordinated to allow any teacher to use the materials and to contribute to “open science”, which has become popular already in psychology4.

To begin to address step 4, we have extracted the following key appropriate embodied principles (Table 1) for future practitioners, researchers, and teachers to guide the research-to-practice transition.

TABLE 1
www.frontiersin.org

TABLE 1. Key Principles for Translational Learning Sciences Research for Embodied Cognition and Embodied Learning.

The final step will be for educators and policy makers to use these principles to develop taxonomies of embodied curriculum, identify learning objectives and outcomes, and track outcomes to assess whether program objectives and competency requirements are met. Specifically, “in situ” assessments will be needed, as retrospective measures of learning (e.g., written tests, etc.) are at odds with the very nature of EL (Georgiou and Ioannou, 2019). As Roschelle et al. (2011) point out: “Meaningful educational change almost always involves coordinating and aligning related changes (e.g., in curriculum, technology use, pedagogy, assessment, and school leadership)” (p. 33).

Summary and Future Directions

Our Translational Learning Sciences Research for Embodied Cognition and Embodied Learning came about because there is a need for an expeditious pipeline to get the latest cognitive science and empirically validated educational applications out to the public. Our model provides a bi-directional conduit in which research findings and applications can flow quickly. We are advancing our model as a vehicle to continue to collate vetted examples of EL as they relate to EC theory. Our model is aimed at informing EL in an earnest way through a translational science approach5. We hope that it encourages cognitive science and educational researchers to offer and make their research available across the fields of educational psychology, educational policy, and teacher education to improve student outcomes and classroom pedagogy. We want to improve communication between scientists and practitioners and to avoid the occurrence of misconceptions, such as neuromyths to shape their pedagogies (Tan and Amiel, 2019). Our model was developed to reimagine how educators can access reliable research to inform their own pedagogy to create a more equitable and just schooling for all.

While we applied this new education-based translational research model to embodied cognition for teaching and learning, we believe that our model can also be used in different educational research contexts. Thus, this approach could provide a vehicle for the dissemination of theory-driven empirical findings translated into evidence-based classroom practice and enable bi-directional suggestions for future research, best practice, and theory development. Ultimately, the continued development of such pathways will lead to the advancement of—and efficient translation of—the latest cognitive science and educational psychology research findings for the educational community.

Author Contributions

SM and JF contributed to all aspects of the article including model development and writing, as well as approved the submitted version.

Funding

A Subvention Grant was awarded by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth's Office of the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Professor Dor Abrahamson for his advise on this paper.

Footnotes

1Steps adapted from the National Institutes of Health NCATS (2020) and Rubio et al. (2010).

2For example, in 2015 APA launched a new journal called Translational Issues in Psychological Science. In 2015, Kaslow identified “Translating Psychological Science for the Public” as one of her APA presidential initiatives, and appointed a task force to develop new strategies to communicate psychology to the public, with the idea that psychology can one day resemble the public’s knowledge of—and demand for—medical information.

3Other theories suggest that there is no grounding necessary because there are no mental representations (Gallagher, 2005; Hutto, 2005; Thompson, 2007; Chemero, 2009; Hutto and Myin, 2012; Hutto and Myin, 2017).

4see https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2019/02/open-science.

5Such a “translation” of psychology research to classroom-practice has, however, been done for research on metacognition (Flavell, 1979) (e.g. Tanner, 2012; Beach et al., 2020). Beach and colleagues have an entire manual on the role of metacognition in teaching and learning, highlighting four key findings that are similar in effect to our extracted teaching principles for embodied cognition.

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Keywords: translational science, embodied cognition, teaching—learning, pedagogy, learning sciences

Citation: Macrine SL and Fugate JMB (2021) Translating Embodied Cognition for Embodied Learning in the Classroom. Front. Educ. 6:712626. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2021.712626

Received: 20 May 2021; Accepted: 18 August 2021;
Published: 02 December 2021.

Edited by:

MarÃ-a Teresa MartÃ-n-Aragoneses, National University of Distance Education (UNED), Spain

Reviewed by:

Linda Baker, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, United States
Carlos Santoyo, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico

Copyright © 2021 Macrine and Fugate. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Sheila L. Macrine, smacrine@umassd.edu

These authors have contributed equally to this work

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