Body and mind

We think with both our body and our mind.   Daniel Kahneman outlines the experiment where individuals are made to smile or frown through putting a pencil in their mouth.   They are asked to either put a pencil length ways in their mouth or pointing forward from their mouth, however not explanation is given for this.  They are then asked about how they feel.   Those with the pencil length ways indicate a greater tendency towards happiness whereas those with the pencil pointing outwards tend towards unhappiness.   No explanation is given to participants as to the reasoning for pencil.  The actual reasoning for the pencil is to cause participants to either smile, as a pencil lengthwise in your mouth will cause, or frown as a pencil pointing outwards and therefore held in place by pursed lips will cause.    This suggests that physical attributes or events can result in mental changes, in this case changes in emotional state.    If we take this idea and consider how we might make use of it in education it seems to suggest that the physical position, etc of students could have an impact on their learning.    This could have implications for students being seated for periods of time. or for classroom movement.   It seems to link to the use of brain gym in class which although evidence suggests it doesn’t have a direct impact on learning, it does energize students and in my experience puts them in a better frame of mind ahead of or during learning.   Basically the physical activity changes the mental conditions which impact on learning including emotional state.

Linked to this is cognitive loading and its impact on simple activities such as movement.   We might make students move round a classroom doing group activities however where cognitive load is high, such as where students are having to engage in critical thinking on a topic, they will find the simple activity such as movement difficult.    Kahneman discussed how, if you ask someone a complex maths question while walking, there is a high likelihood the person will stop at least momentarily in order to think through the problem prior to answering.    This raises some questions with regards higher order thinking activities combined with movement.

Cognitive loading very much relies on what Kahneman described as Agent 2 or the analytical part of the mind as opposed to Agent 1 which is the intuitive part of the mind.    This again could have interesting implications within education especially with regards to examinations as the mind will often present what appear to be intuitively correct answers in an effort to avoid the effort of having to analyse the problem in hand.   In some cases these intuitive answers will be correct however they can also be misleading.    As teachers we therefore have a duty to prepare students to deal with these intuitive answers such that the avoid being mislead.

As teachers we also need to look at how we can use mental priming to best effect.   Priming is where a visual, auditory or other cue has a direct mental of physical effect.   As I mentioned earlier a smile can result in feelings of happiness.    We could use images in our classroom to try to encourage students to smile.  Maybe a picture of a smile or a picture of a class of students working together will all participants smiling.   This second example might also serve to set the tone and have an impact on the ability to get students to work collaboratively within class.

Students are human beings and as human beings they think as other human beings do.   As we strive to make better education systems I think a key step is to encourage teachers to dive into the rich texts that exist with regards how humans think and behave.   The more I read from different authors on the brain, thinking, creativity, etc the more I realize how much I don’t know about learning and the more I want to know.   Through such reading we can generate ideas, test them in class and draw conclusions as to the potential for such ideas to impact on the quality of learning;  We can become better teachers of the small thinking human beings which join us every day in our classrooms.


Author: garyhenderson2014

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. This has led him to present at a number of educational conferences in the UK and Middle East.

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