The ‘brain in the body’: whole body teaching and learning

16 Oct

New research results on brain development and knowledge about how the brain functions are fast becoming an everyday occurrence. But the remarkable findings in brain research (especially research on learning) compared to teaching practices in most schools are completely out of sync. Many brain researchers feel frustrated about their inability to reach teachers and even decision makers in education (Fischer, 2009).

I have been interested in brain research for almost two decades. The first articles and books that appeared in the early nineties opened new possibilities for development and learning, especially for young children. Today these first trickles of information have become a wide, fast-flowing river. Research on learning is not restricted to young children anymore. Older learners, teenagers and even adults can improve their learning by being aware of research applications on the brain and learning. One of the more practical applications of brain research is the relationship of learning with the whole body.

This is in direct contrast to the school system that viewed learners as people who need their brains to be filled with the abundance of knowledge from teachers and knowledgeable adults. This philosophy had its roots in Descartes, the French philosopher of the 17th century — the source of the famous phrase “I think therefore I am”. This philosophy spawned a school system that lasted for more than 200 years. Fischer and Heikkinen (2010) refer to this approach as the “brain in a bucket”-approach. This approach is at the foundation of popular programmes, like Kumon Maths, with the premise that if a child repeats something enough times, they will never forget. This belief is also at the foundation of the ubiquitous testing which learners are subjected to.

Fischer and Heikkinen say that we should rather look at the “brain in a body”. Brain research emphatically proves that students of any age learn better, faster and remember longer if more senses are involved in the learning process. Apart from better learning, it is surely more interesting and pleasurable to involve movement, touch, smell and taste instead of ad nauseam repetition. To test this approach to learning, we decided to run our own little ‘research project’ in our Reggio Emilia school on the efficacy of this approach.

We presented a group of Grade 4 learners with their usual 52 spelling words for the week. Instead of route learning and memorising, we required them to learn the spelling words out loud, while skipping rope. We were really elated when most learners achieved between 40 and 48 out of 52 (between 77% and 93%). The two learners in the group who experience significant language barriers, managed to improve their usual 20% to 40% — an improvement of 100%!

The next test was to see how much of this learning was retained after a week. The scores of the learners stayed more or less the same, with small deviations from the first test. The two learners who experience barriers, even managed to slightly improve on their scores. One of these learners was able to correctly use syllables of words for the first time. The teachers were ecstatic and vowed to permanently incorporate this approach in their everyday teaching.

John Medina (2008) says that the brain appears to be designed to solve problems:

  • Related to surviving
  • In an ever-changing environment
  • While continuously moving.

The bottom-up approach to learning typically involves the exploration of the life world and the incidental learning that came from that. We can use this approach in language and in mathematics teaching. If we look at fMRI scans, we can deduct that Mathematics is exactly suited for the human brain. For example, multiplication tables are processed in the language area of the brain when learners are young, but later becomes an automatic process. When learners are young and are busy acquiring new concepts, teachers have to involve movement, senses, repetition and the building of memory. Lessons should be planned to include a variety of environments, with inclusion of a variety of movement activities. Opportunities for creative problem solving are also very important. We have been using this approach in our school for the past year, and it produces learners who believe Math is the “coolest” subject in school!

Even though the system does not always stay in touch with the most recent developments in educational research, teachers can step up to the plate to fill this void. School need not be the boring, static exercise we all know so well. The rewards of including the whole body in learning are self-evident. There is nothing more satisfying than young learners who are motivated and happy, on their way to a bright future.


Medina, J. 2008. Brain rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School.

Fischer, K & Heikkinen K. 2010. In: Mind, Brain and Education: Neuroscience implications for the Classroom.

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