Why the body is as vital as the brain when it comes to learning

The emphasis on getting children to sit still and work in silence, coupled with the pressure to timetable subjects perceived as ‘academic’ at the expense of those that require movement or hand skills, threatens the interplay between brain and body that is vital for knowledge acquisition, finds Kester Brewin
12th April 2019, 12:03am
Brain Vs Body? Practical Vs Academic? There's Need For Both


Why the body is as vital as the brain when it comes to learning


Jamie was pulling disco moves. Arms crossing, pointing to the sky, she nodded her head slightly before returning her attention to her test paper. I looked down the row of desks and smiled to myself. “Yes,” I thought happily, “it looks like she’s remembered how to add fractions.”

Around her, others were holding fingers, making shapes with fists, miming gradients with forearms.

Some might have seen this gathered throng and concluded that they were engaged in a kind of prayer, silently genuflecting, complex movements of limbs drawing things into their minds. And in a way they were: as they thought about the mathematical problems in front of them, they were beseeching forms to return, resurrecting ideas lain in dark caves of memory. They were thinking hard, and doing so required not just the power of their minds but the agency of all of their bodies.

In an age when so much has moved from the real to the virtual, when we hear stories of the return of near-Victorian school regimes that valorise rows of straight-backed automatons, I fear we are at risk of sabotaging this physical dance of learning and remembering. By over-emphasising “academic” skills and assuming that they are best learned in stiff silence - or digitally sedating children and failing to pay heed to the vital role that movement plays in knowledge acquisition and assimilation - we risk failing a generation by pruning opportunities for them to engage their whole bodies in the educative process.

More fundamentally, as pressures on finances force further drives for efficiency, the roll-out of online digital learning platforms risks the wholesale removal of the body from education.

This, I’d argue, would be a catastrophe for our children.

What was happening in the test I was invigilating? In order to communicate their thoughts, the pupils were using hands to manipulate pens, forming complex layers of symbols - alloys of mathematical language and bullet-point English, mixed with arrows and underlinings.

But this flow from brain to hand is not just one way: the movement of the hand is actually helping the brain to think. Indeed, in his book on the development of human intelligence, The Hand, neurologist and writer Dr Frank Wilson makes the striking claim that “brain is hand and hand is brain”. What he means by this is that complex dexterity demands complex neurological activity and, thus, intricate manual work strengthens our mental powers. To slightly shift the meaning of “muscle memory”, when we engage ourselves physically we create stronger memory structures that improve retention.

The cultural historian Dr Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle elaborates on this in Senses of Touch (1998): “Aristotle erred in asserting that humans had hands because they were intelligent; Anaxagoras was perhaps more correct in stating that humans were intelligent because they had hands.”

In a sense, we know this intuitively. As a baby grows, one of the first things we do is sit them on the floor with a pile of building blocks to play with. Before speech, before writing, before logical thought, there is this: working with our hands.

Indeed, as architect Yevgen Gozhenko elaborates in his 2007 thesis Thinking Through Drawing: “Contrary to the common belief that the vast capabilities of the hands are a result of the evolutionary development of the human brain capacity, a more accurate belief would be that the evolution of the human brain is a result of the evolution of the hand.”

Total recall

Expanding this thesis beyond the hand and into the body more generally, the more of our body we engage as we focus on a task, the more our mind can create strong memory structures that aid recall. While admitting that more comprehensive research is needed, physically active learning programmes such as Tagtiv8 (tagtiv8.com) suggest that this retention effect could be amplified by the endorphin release that physical movement gives. This is not to diminish the idea of attentiveness in lessons but rather to counter the idea that concentration is about motionless silence.

The implication of Gozhenko’s thesis is that if hand(i)work is denigrated as menial, if we fail to understand this vital interplay between the body moving and the brain thinking, we are in danger of undernourishment of our students’ development as learners.

The 2015 Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Values reported a 50 per cent drop in GCSE entries for design and technology between 2003 and 2013, and a reduction by a quarter for drama and other craft-related subjects. The number of teachers of art had dropped by more than 10 per cent since 2010, and teaching hours for these subjects had similarly fallen.

We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic and are only just facing up to the ways in which digital and social media are having a chronic impact on student mental health and body dysmorphia. Yet, just as GPs are now prescribing cookery, art classes and physical activity for their sedentary patients, budgetary and performance pressures are forcing schools to remove these elements from the curriculum, increasingly shackling students to desks and propping them in front of screens in order to extract more data from them.

The direction of travel is clear, but why is this happening?

As I wrote recently in these pages, with education under unprecedented financial and league-table pressures, shortening break times, chasing academic results and investing in systems that promise efficiency can seem very attractive. Online learning systems promise quick results and more docile students, producing lots of easily digestible assessment data.

Design technology, art and drama require lots of space and are expensive to run. For the financially minded, break times are wasteful. For those wanting quiet, well-ordered schools, they are unstructured and chaotic. Teachers as physical bodies and schools as physical structures are expensive. They need looking after and investing in. Computers don’t need time off at night. These days, they don’t catch so many viruses.

Once we shape our tools, our tools then begin to reshape us. As we gain access to more data-processing tools, we begin to set more screen-based lesson activities and homework that suits easy data collection. As the poet Michael Rosen has quipped, “They said they needed data about children to make sure they were learning. Then the children only learned what could be turned into data. Then the children became data.”

Children become data when we demand maximum productivity from every minute of their day, when we hear noise as disturbance and see movement as interruption.

Disrupting the balanced interplay between physical and mental activity has a material impact on the kinds of learners we produce. The other day, during a lesson on ratio and proportion, one of my very bright key stage 4 students calculated that the size of a man - scaled up from the model in the question - was around 2.6 metres. When I challenged her to think again, she looked perplexed.

“What’s wrong with that?” she asked.

Others rallied around her, and a discussion erupted. “What does 2.6m look like?” I asked them. “Giant, or normal sized?”

I encouraged them to think about this 2.6m body in the room, how it would look and feel, but the experience they had to draw on was weak. They found it hard. They are well able to perform complex trigonometric calculations on theoretically sized triangles, but their sense of what physical space feels like is more of a struggle.

Adam Dunne, head of art at a south-east London secondary, is clear on this phenomenon: “The ability to translate three dimensions into two dimensions is a difficult skill, one that hones an awareness of the physical world and teaches us how to understand the three-dimensional world. Increasingly, this is a skill that students struggle to deal with.”

He has seen a change in his students in the past decade. When doing life drawing, they ask if they can take a photograph and work from that instead.

It’s a benign request in one way: a photograph isn’t affected by the travel of light during a day, doesn’t get obscured as people move, can be slipped into a bag and offer the prospect of continued work at home.

Yet copying flat images to flat images, Dunne reports, “leads to a lack of awareness of the physical world and how its complex dimensions interact”. Real life is taken out of the drawing.

The diminution of the kinds of fine-motor skills that art and design technology hone is having a more serious impact on lives in another field. Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College London, recently spoke about the degradation of manual skills of trainee surgeons, telling the BBC that “while, historically, these skills might once have been gained by cutting textiles, measuring ingredients or repairing things in the house by delving into the toolbox and using basic woodwork techniques to fix things, technology has taken over.”

No longer able to assume that students leave school being able to cut out or sew because “a lot of things are reduced to swiping on a two-dimensional flat screen”, he has begun active collaborations with lacemakers and other craftspeople to help his students improve.

When students grow up without excellent motor skills, their experience of the world and their ability to interact with it is diminished. Art is narrowed, crafts are lost, surgeons become deskilled.

Yet if “brain is hand and hand is brain”, the withering of hand skills means more than lost crafts. It actually diminishes our intellectual abilities, too.

This is where the work of Trevor Marchand, professor of social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, is so vital. Marchand has spent years studying the work of artists and craftspeople, gathering research on mud masons in West Africa, minaret builders in Yemen and fine woodwork trainees in East London. “Neglect of the body,” he explains to me, “equates to neglect of the mind - the two are inseparable.”

Moreover, he argues, neglecting the body actually reduces the kinds of thinking that we are able to do.

Grave concerns

Much of Marchand’s work has focused on how artists “mathematise”: how they engage in mathematical thought, even if they are not committing calculations to paper. His conclusion is clear: “The skilled practices of artists (and craftspeople) are imbued with mathematics and, more particularly, a mathematics that is parsed and generated not in the mind but from the body” (Marchand, 2018).

This is muscle memory in practice: in opposition to a narrow view of optimal learning being about stilling the body to let the mind think, by engaging the whole body, a fuller array of different kinds of thinking remains possible. The more senses we are able to engage, the more dimensions there will be to our thinking, meaning better recall of techniques and skills, and more creative responses to questions.

Marchand’s work is thus fundamentally important because it warns schools that removal of handicraft will diminish the breadth and depth of thinking that students are able to bring to their “academic” subjects. If hand is brain and brain is hand, keeping art and drama on the curriculum is not only vital for sustaining the creative arts - an educational good in itself - but will also help to improve maths and science, too.

But it goes beyond giving time to these subjects: we need their mechanics in other lessons. When we come to solve problems, we draw on the whole body. We scribble and gesture, sketch and visualise, and form shapes with our hands.

Marchand quotes a fellow researcher who, observing a biochemist crafting solutions to a hard problem in chaotic systems, noted that the scientist’s “encounter with paper and pen, the manual activity of folding and twisting [paper], combined with the visual activity of glancing and squinting … brought forth the new mathematical concepts”.

Removing tactile engagement with a problem literally makes less sense. Constricting education to “concepts-based” learning serves to atrophy synaptic connections between motor and conceptual processing regions of the brain.

Marchand has grave concerns about the way curricula are being pushed towards data-friendly concept-based learning. The implications of his work for schools is profound, and in expressing his anxieties about the consequences of inaction, he does not mince his words. We face nothing less, he says, than “an elimination of the body from the curriculum”.

Action will require schools to accept the principle that the ways in which we learn affect the kinds of people we become. Education must begin with the root question of what kinds of students we want to grow. If, with the combined pressures of financial austerity and passive acceptance of technological innovations, we sleepwalk into a pedagogy that is almost entirely mechanistic and algorithmic, we will be failing in our responsibility to nurture those in our care in rich ways.

There is a very real danger that, in the drive for data that presents schools as academic and perfectly behaved, we unconsciously create a system that would prefer students no longer to have physical bodies, just obedient minds.

In such a system, would it be any surprise if students grew up with little respect for flesh, ill-equipped to be physical beings that knew how to interact in complex, creative and human ways? Lacking opportunities to develop dexterity, their hands might become clumsy tools; lacking space to paint or dance or act, the narratives available to them might become narrow, the kinds of answers of which they might be capable robbed of perspectives deeper than those presented on tiny glass screens. They might even begin to think of themselves as “no-bodies”.

Is this world already familiar? If it is, then we have work to do. The question of our times is not what separates us from the apes but what differentiates us from machines.

It falls to schools to take on this ultimate task of modelling what it is to be fully human and defend the whole human body as a site for learning.

Costly as it will be to sustain subjects with a greater emphasis on physical skill, what price can we put on raising young women and men who are not just sharp thinkers but thoughtful people with creative, dramatic and dextrous solutions to make a better world for every body?

Kester Brewin teaches maths in south-east London. While working as a teacher, he has been a consultant for BBC Education, and is the author of a number of books on culture and religion. He tweets @kesterbrewin

This article originally appeared in the12 April 2019 issue under the headline “The whole world in your hands”

You need a Tes subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newletters

Already registered? Log in

You need a subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content, including:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newsletters