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Towards holistic, contemporary pedagogies: Focusing on the body and the senses

Authors: Eeva Anttila Published:

Eeva Anttila reviews Mira-Lisa Katz's (Ed.) Moving Ideas: Multimodality and Embodied Learning in Communities and Schools.

Mira-Lisa Katz (Ed.)

Moving Ideas: Multimodality and Embodied Learning in Communities and Schools

Peter Lang (2013), 261 p.

It is exciting to find out that not only dancers and arts educators advocate embodied learning. This new collection, edited by Mira-Lisa Katz, opens wide horizons into the many possibilities that embodied pedagogies offer for learners of any age. A diverse range of practitioners and scholars, working in various contexts and representing distinct fields have contributed to this book. It is obvious that as the editor, Katz has had a clear vision: It is about time to make a difference in how learning is understood and enhanced. Too much time and effort is wasted sitting motionless and practicing mindless pedagogical drills.

In her introduction, Katz takes a clear stance against traditional classroom practices by stating that “sitting in chairs is not only tedious and painful, but also counter-productive to learning” (p. 2). As a dance educator and scholar, having a strong interest in developing holistic and embodied pedagogical approaches, I welcome this book as an inspiring introduction of embodied, multimodal pedagogies. These approaches have their roots in cultural history of mankind, and have been revitalized by 20th century philosophers. Not until very recently, however, empirical science has provided sound evidence for holistic approaches to learning, and thus, these approaches can be considered as most contemporary pedagogies.

The collection, as a whole, leans compellingly on recent findings from neuroscience, especially on mirror neuron research. One of the themes that stand out across the chapters is the significance of gesture in human communication. Some authors, most markedly Catherine Kroll, tie the philosophical notion of intentionality with non-verbal communication, most often embodied through gestures. This connection creates an intriguing view on how humans read and predict each other’s intentions without conscious deliberation. Kroll writes that, “our students read our movements as goal-intentions, and they experience these movements not just through the visual sensory system, but through the mirror neuron system, which enables an understanding of the movements’ meanings or goals on an immediate physical level” (p. 55).

The immediacy of communication through gesture and movement is one key idea when articulating what embodied learning means. Face-to-face encounters and physical activity in social contexts instigate multimodal learning processes that engage the human being as a whole. Immediacy, embodiment and multimodality make learning a holistic affair. Educators who understand learning as an embodied phenomenon also see the meaning of familiar concepts, like literacy, in a new light.

A vivid example of this is Cory Holding’s and Hannah Bellwoar’s chapter on “Literacies of Touch” where they discuss massage therapy as a way of composing the body. Holding and Bellwoar are writing teachers and researchers, and draw readers’ attention to the tactile dimensions of literacy. Concretely, they refer to physical touch between bodies as composing, and they apply this notion to composing text. They write that the points of contact that constitute literate activity are “where the skin meets (reads and writes) the physical world, tracing the interface between the composition and sensory activity of composing” (p. 230). They consider writing always an embodied practice, and in sync with the themes of the book, also introduce the notions of multimodality and gesture into writing practices.

Other contributions tackle the question of literacy from the viewpoints of theatre (chapters by Eliot Fintushel and Tori Truss, with Katz), dance (Katz and Jill Homan Randall), and pasture pedagogy. The latter term refers to education that takes place outdoors. In their chapter titled “Pasture Pedagogy: Field and Classroom Reflections on Embodied Teaching” Erica Tom with Katz connect two apparently different learning contexts in an ingenious way. Here, Tom’s experience in communicating with horses informs and becomes mingled with her work as English language teacher, and the notion of reading becomes redefined as the authors connect equine and academic contexts. She writes that “those who consciously read body language can use their observations to become more aware of how they themselves embody communication … working with horses can provide opportunities to recognize, and take advantage of the power of the body to make meaning” (p. 112).

The power of the body is most clearly illuminated in a chapter by Keli Yerian where she discusses “The Communicative Body in Women’s Self-Defense Courses.” With illustrations and excerpts of dialogue that also contain non-verbal cues, she points out how women can learn to match words and body consciously, and thus, construct coherent stances that communicate confidence in situations where they face aggression. In addition to matching vocal and non-vocal means, the author discusses the significance of intonation and refers to it as an element of a multimodal stance. She connects this practical information with gender roles and complex processes of socialization into these roles, and presents a critical and highly illuminative case for social transformation: “As more women learn to credit what their bodies can know and do, societal perceptions of what ‘women’ can know and do may follow suit” (p. 106).

The question of gender is, indeed, another central topic that the book addresses. As a dance educator and scholar I find Nina Haft’s chapter “36 Jewish Gestures” most captivating from both an artistic and academic viewpoints. Haft actually merges these discourses beautifully, an undertaking that a few writers on dance have succeeded with. This chapter is a persuasive account for dance as an embodied literacy, and for expanding cultural understanding through practicing art where embodied and verbal literacies interconnect and inform each other.  Another engaging and touching contribution from the field of dance is David Leventhal’s chapter entitled “All the World’s a Stage: Musings on Teaching Dance to People with Parkinson’s.” Here, the author illuminates new visions for thinking about teaching and learning. When professional dancers learn about movement, dance and art from persons with a serious physical condition, an insightful pedagogy becomes created, where “the best class creates teachers out of learners, helping people to lead themselves into action” (p. 78).

The book consists of twelve chapters. An equal focus to each would easily turn the review into a summary of contents. Since Katz has written a rather detailed summary of chapters in the introduction, I encourage interested readers to use the summary in finding out more about the fascinating topics and contexts where embodied learning can be practiced, and about the many ways of articulating its meanings. I will sum up my review by a few critical comments about the structure of the book which may make searching for specific content a little bit difficult.

All chapters are arranged in a sequence without sections or a map that would help understanding the logic of succession. This logic is described in the introduction, as three sections: first six chapters are theory-to-practice examples of multimodal teaching and learning in both community and school contexts. The next three chapters describe a wide array of embodied learning activities, and the final three chapters “also offer rich theoretical analyses of multimodality and embodied learning” (p. 19). In addition to Holding’s and Bellwoar’s chapter that I read as practice-based rather than a theoretical analysis, the last section includes contributions by Matt Rahaim and Julie Cheville. Rahaim gives yet another viewpoint on the significance of gesture in transmitting traditional Indian Music, and Cheville revisits recent neuroscientific discoveries and discusses their implications from, for example, a sociocultural perspective on teaching and learning. Here, the signifying potential of the human body comes to focus.

The outline that Katz offers for readers does not give much support in grasping the succession of the book. The responsibility for evaluation, for example, whether or not the chapter represents formal research is left to the reader. Arranging the chapters in separate sections would have made it also easier to appreciate how theory, empirical research and practice are interwoven in this book. At times it is difficult to choose an approach on reading the chapters: should this be read as research, theory, or a practical contribution? Another interesting question related to literacy, I think!

This book offers new insights for all teachers who are willing to widen their pedagogy through applying embodied practices in their classrooms. Embodied learning may transform traditional classroom practices and enhance learning for all students, in all subjects. An important step in this kind of transformation is teachers’ appreciation of their own embodied experiences. “Moving Ideas” is about taking these experiences as a springboard in developing classroom practices, and instead of “checking our bodies at the door”, citing Kroll (p. 47), making full use of our faculties as human beings, as learners and teachers.

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Eeva Anttila Eeva Anttila is Professor of Dance Pedagogy at the Theatre Academy, Helsinki, Finland. Her current research interests include somatic approaches to dance pedagogy, embodied knowledge and embodied learning. Contact: Show all articles by Eeva Anttila
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