Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Embodied learning"

I'm finding it hard to keep up with the bandwagon of breathless articles on the unproven virtues of technology in the classroom--and with Edweek in particular, which has been championing unproven fad-driven reform like there's no tomorrow. One of its latest articles opens as follows:

Zachary Benedek usually can't wait for science class to be over. But when he learns about concepts like light and gravity in a 15-square-foot digitally enhanced laboratory called the SMALLab, he doesn't want the period to end.

Waving a wand in front of colors and circles projected on the floor of the lab, he and his classmates worked together recently to blend colors in a unit on the electromagnetic spectrum for science class.
Zachary's school is Elizabeth Forward Middle School in Elizabeth, Pa:
Last month, the school built one of the nation's first "embodied learning" labs, a technological platform that combines learning sciences and human-computer interaction by incorporating students' body movements into the lesson. For example, a student learning about chemistry would be able to grab and combine molecules in a virtual flask projected on a floor mat through the use of motion-capture cameras that sense movement and body position.
The concept is "Embodied Learning," and it appears to owe something to Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, in particular, the Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence and the Inter-Personal Intelligence:
The basic idea behind embodied learning is that students who fully use their bodies to learn are more engaged in the lesson than they would be simply sitting at a desk or computer.
The article cites David Birchfield, one of SMALLab's creators, as saying that "by combining concepts like kinetic learning and collaborative learning, students are able to absorb information more effectively."

The academic possibilities, apparently, are endless:
While many of the lessons deal with learning in the stem subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—Mr. Birchfield cited a scenario that involves students' bodies symbolically filling in for a character in a novel. If they want to access information about their characters' thought processes, for example, students tap their own heads, or for content about characters' emotions, they touch their own hearts.
"Some content seems to lend itself more to embodiment, but just about everything can be taught in an embodied way," said Mina Johnson-Glenberg, an ASU professor of psychology and the co-founder of SMALLab Learning LLC, a for-profit company based in Los Angeles that creates and disseminates embodied-learning models for middle and high schools.
And, while the software isn't free, one can always get grants from cash-strapped, technology-obsessed departments of education:
With a cost of $35,000, the SMALLab isn't exactly cheap, but Forward Middle School had some help. The school received a $20,000 grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a branch of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, as part of a STEM initiative. The 2,600-student Elizabeth Forward school district paid the remaining $15,000.
It's good to know that Pennsylvania's limited funds for education--which have resulted in cuts to special education and increases in class size overall--are going somewhere so promising:
Christopher Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said embodied learning has potential, but there is little academic evidence to suggest the results are conclusively worth the cost, as the field has not yet been thoroughly researched.
After all, there's been some "positive feedback" from students and teachers at Elizabeth Forward:
Since the lab at Elizabeth Forward Middle School was completed just a few months ago, there is no clear indication of its effectiveness in improving students' test scores. But Principal Michael Routh said he has received positive feedback on the SMALLab from students and teachers, and he believes physical activity could help boost engagement among students.

"When you give students a chance to get out of their seats, they really seem to enjoy the lessons," he said.
It occurs to me that one can take all this one step further. Perhaps some day we can replace virtual reality with Reality. Instead of waving wands in front of projected images to explore gravity and blend colors, students could pick up and drop objects in 3D space and manipulate actual 3D light-emitting devices and prisms! Instead of grabbing and combining molecules in a virtual flask projected on a floor mat, students could use actual chemicals and actual flasks! And instead of accessing information about their characters' thought processes by tapping their own heads, or about characters' emotions by touching their own hearts, they could pick up an actual 3D book and read it!

I admit, this may be going a bit far. But sometimes it's interesting to take one of these revolutionary ideas and run with it to its logical conclusion.


C T said...

And perhaps someday, we could even figure out a way to get children out of their seats...perhaps even out of the classroom, outside where they could release pent-up energy...and view something called "nature"...We could call this experiential learning aid "recess".
Ah, but I am indulging in dreams today. ;)

Anonymous said...

After lengthy conversations with our school principal about the lack of adequate education for gifted students in math, she finally admitted that the math program is designed to be "egalitarian" and meet the math needs of the majority of kids who will go into liberal arts fields and will not need advanced problem solving abilities. She said that for the STEM oriented kids the school has purchased SmartLab, which is an elaborate series of computers with advanced graphics and movie making software and robotics equipment that cost around 300K, for kids to play with. Some bright shinny techie things instead of math education.

David Foster said...

Good post. Apparently a lot of schools have been replacing actual lab science with computer simulations of lab addition to the point that this approach doesn't work as well in terms of getting kids out of their seats and making the learning truly hands-on, it also kind of misses the whole point of science, which is that *you can always, at least in principle, see for yourself* don't have to trust an "authority."

And a black-box computer model is every bit as much an authority today as Aristotle's books were during the Middle Ages.

David Foster said...

Anon..."some bright shinny techie things instead of math education"

Some thoughts on this from Michael Schrage, which I excerpted several years ago: SPARKLY TOOLS

ChemProf said...

It is also driven by a desire for safety. Even fairly dull chemistry labs are potentially hazardous, and watching hydrogen bubbled into soap to make flammable bubbles (which cost my high school chemistry teacher his arm hair) is right out. But it would sure get more boys interested!