Last Thursday I went to a lecture by Guy Claxton at the University of Waikato entitled,
“Topsy Turvy Education: The Challenge of Embodied Cognition”.
To be honest, I didn’t really know what the title meant. I mean, what is “embodied cognition”?
However, I have read and enjoyed the ideas in Claxton’s book “New kinds of Smart“, and was interested in hearing what he had to say. He is an easy person to listen to, softly spoken, but clear, fluent and engaging. He seems down to earth and he speaks knowledgeably and convincingly. A small, discrete venue helped – there were maybe 40 people at most in the lecture theatre in the Education Faculty building – and so the discussion after his talk was dynamic and uninhibited.
The thrust of his idea is, put very simplistically, that there is a disjunct between school and the real world. That school does not prepare its learners for life beyond the four limiting walls of the classroom, that we are not equipping our children to be “lifelong learners”. That in school we still follow a Victorian, industrial model of education that focuses on content, learning “about” stuff, and that there is a natural order in which content should be “learned” (“elementitis”). The brain or the mind is seen in isolation from the body, the senses, our environment, our experiences, our culture, and we assess “intelligence” by how effectively students regurgitate content and disembodied “knowledge”. Claxton suggested that “Teaching is toxic for Learning” – I can’t quite remember who he referenced that quote to, but he referred to Sugata Mitra who said,
The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a [schooling] system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.
Claxton talked about “Interoceptive awareness“, the idea of neural connectedness, that the body is the brain, and that intelligence is dependent on more than just knowledge.
One of my favourite ideas was that of thoughts “unfurling” or “welling up” – they don’t just happen, they arrive as a gradual unfurling like a leaf. Emotions trigger responses, thoughts and ideas take time whilst we get on with other, often mundane, repetitive things. Then ideas or solutions to problems may pop into our heads “out of the blue” – like a bud bursting into flower. In reality, the process has actually been happening for a while but that “pop” is the culmination of the thought process – see Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind.
I also liked the idea that the skin is a constant site of trading, it is not a boundary – our knowledge is not something that can be picked up and put down somewhere else because it is part of our experiences which help shape what our knowledge is and who we are. Our knowledge is also dependent on the people we interact with, the ideas we interconnect with, the places we live and work and play. A great analogy was that “You can’t take a whirlpool home in a bucket” – it might look like an object but it is dependent on its situation, it is a part of things that are happening around it and they are a part of it – the repercussions, reactions, sparking of ideas bouncing around like a pinball game.
This made me wonder, as I was writing up my notes, whether knowledge can be taken home or into an examination hall? Or, if knowledge is connected with so much else, if it is contextual, experiential, dependent on understanding and if our understanding of concepts is dependent on the interconnections with our experiences, our culture, our senses, with how we percieve the world to be and with our instincts … where does that leave teachers who “impart knowledge”?
My notes are somewhat erratic but I have endeavoured, at least, to put them into some order. If you want to read more and access the links to the many references Guy suggested, here are my Evernotes.