The embodied library : learning to read

(1800 words)

Everything the school library does is in the service of student learning. Learning is change. For the most part, we are not consciously aware of all the changes that occur in our brain and body when we are learning. We can often describe observable aspects of learning such as an improvements in our accuracy in kicking a ball through the goal posts, the ability to solve a challenging math problem, a new way to fold the worlds best ever paper plane, or a new historical insight but the neurological and physiological changes in our bodies are hidden. These new skills or new knowledge may indicate that learning has occurred however they are far from providing a complete understanding of the change that has taken place. This is where understanding the embodied mind can lead us to a more holistic view of learning. Learning that we can directly observe, test or that we are conscious of is only the very tip of the iceberg. Learning is a process that involves the entire body in a complex system of interdependent subsystems. The brain is a dominant arbiter in the learning process however the brain only functions within the context of the body – as Guy Claxton explains, the “brain and the body function as a single unit” (Claxton, 2015 p 89).

The embodied mind: the brain is nothing like a computer

The brain is in no way anything like a computer (Claxton, 2015 p 89). There is no separate compartment for memories. There are no neat series of processing steps. The brain is not binary. Instead the brain operates within a tangle of electrical networks, a sea of chemical interactions and giant array of physical structures creating one of the most vast complex systems we can imagine. Not only is the brain inseparable from the body, the body is intricately involved in thinking. Learning is therefore not just a brain activity but a whole body process of change. The vast majority of the change that occurs in learning is therefore not observable. The aspects of learning that we can observe are merely patterns of behaviour or consciousness that bubble to the surface from a seething mass of impenetrably complex interactions and dependencies  (Claxton, 2015 p53). The observed behaviours, performances or thoughts we are aware of are only a very small part of the vast and complex changes that are occurring when we or our students are learning.

Learning is a complex and emergent property of the embodied mind

Understanding the emergent nature of learning is of great importance to our attempts at crafting optimal learning engagements and environments for students. All we have to go on to gain feedback about whether we have enabled learning to occur is the data we gather and the observations we make, however in reality, these are only signposts or alerts to a vast and complex underlying process of change that cannot be directly observed.

Using data

Tests, exams, observations and other data we collate in schools are valuable systems of feedback about the effectiveness of our teaching however our response to this data should rarely be to attempt to directly address these surface features of student learning by hammering home content with more didactic worksheets and drills to repeat a skill over and over until all passion for learning is extinguished. Our response should be to go deeper, far deeper, to recognise the vast complexity and depth of the process of learning. This requires faith in the process. Didactic teaching of specific skills can have it’s place in teaching however if this is the dominant pedagogy, then we are treating students like computers with slow processors where our main task is to reprogram their circuits and cram their memory chips with the information we think they need. This is very shallow, non-transferable and unsustainable learning. “The predominant association of intelligence with thinking and reasoning isn’t fact; it is a cultural belief … that misdirects us” (Claxton, 2015 p3). Learning goes way beyond what can be captured in a test so to go deeper, our pedagogy must engage all aspects of the embodied mind.

Engaging the embodied mind : Reading

Recent research in the neurosciences has revealed much about the many subsystems of the brain and the body and recent education research has provided key insights into what is effective and what is not for learning. The challenge for us is to learn to trust these insights and engage the deeper and often unobservable subsystems of the embodied mind. For example, we know for certain that there is an undeniable and consistently demonstrated correlation between reading for pleasure (that is students choosing what, when and where they read) and the academic achievement. One of the most powerful predictors of success in adult life is a child’s pleasure in reading. Direct teaching of reading skills has its place but as adults we naturally tend toward the forms of direct pedagogy we feel we can control yet fostering reading for pleasure is by definition, not controllable.  Just because we can control a method of teaching and measure a direct outcome does not mean it is a better teaching method and it definitely does not mean it is the best way for students to learn. For example, in trying to improve student coordination, we can teach and drill the skills of juggling in lesson after lesson until all students can juggle three balls thereby demonstrating our teaching effectiveness. imageThe problem is that this is an isolated, specific, non-essential skill and it is highly questionable whether it is of such importance that it warrants hours of teaching to accomplish. Similarly direct teaching of phonics is not useless but considering the time involved in phonics programs, the problem is that it hones in on a very specific component of reading. Phonics is very important in language acquisition and literacy luring us into thinking that direct and explicit phonics programs are the most obvious way for students to learn these skills especially when data for these programs can be so readily gathered. The problem is that just because we can teach it directly and measure outcome directly does not mean this is the way students best learn phonics or indeed if it yields the sustainable literacy outcomes we are looking for. In fact, intensive reading programmes can have the effect of reducing student pleasure in reading, the exact reverse of what we are trying to achieve.

Understanding the embodied mind draws us to a much more holistic and comprehensive view of learning to read. Learning to read is not about refining our Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software (there are excellent apps for that). We know that learning to read involves building positive experiences around text, fostering conversation about story, finding the right nook that helps us become absorbed in a story, connecting with like minds, sharing perspectives, responding with creative action, pausing in shock at what we have just read, anticipating the next instalment in a series, discovering a new author, arguing with a friend about the motivations of a character, having our deepest held beliefs challenged by a great thinker, taking great pleasure in creative passion of an illustrator, discovering something new about the natural world – this is reading, this is the experience of reading, this is what draws us back to life long reading.

Notice that many of these aspects of reading involve our position in space – where we are sitting, who we are with, the location that reading takes place is often defined by when it takes place. Notice how many of these aspects of reading involve the when – the anticipation, the events that lead up to a new discovery, whether it is late in the dark of the night or in a corner of a busy school library, when we have time to stare endlessly at a beautifully crafted illustration. Notice how many of these reading experiences involve interactions with others – sharing, arguing, discovering, in shared attention, in side-by-side company. Movement and physical responses are not a disruption or subversion to learning to read, they literally embody reading. As Claxton points out, “complete stillness is incompatible with life: it is anathema” (p36). The embodied mind helps us to understanding that reading is not about decoding text, my iPad has great OCR software that can recognise words but my iPad is not able to read anything. Siri can convert any text to audio but Siri is not reading. The development of AI is therefore showing us that we are nothing like computers, reading is an experience of the embodied mind that requires high level cognitive skills that are inseparably embedded within a bodily experience that extends even beyond our skin.

All this considered, it is clearly a very incomplete reading pedagogy that is focused on narrow aspects of reading such as phonics and decoding. To provide a comprehensive reading pedagogy we need to provide a learning environment and process that sees reading as embodied. The library must be embodied. To do this we must play the long game. Focusing on short-term interventions can at times be effective in pushing over a hump in a learning journey but the big changes in learning occur over long periods of time. A love of reading that we know sustains a life time of reading and learning is not something we can teach. It is a spark that emerges from within each student and it is a spark that we cannot create. This is hard for parents, teachers and librarians to accept. We desperately want to light that spark, to be the ones to ignite a passion for learning and reading but we cannot. What we can do is create every opportunity for that spark, when it comes, to survive and grow. We do this by building positive experiences around literature, maximising access to high quality compelling literature, fostering deep conversation around literature, watching for signs of interest in a genre or subject and feeding that interest, leveraging technology to connect students into ideas and inspiration. And yes, sometimes it does require sounding out a word but as long as it is in a context and at a time that is directly relevant to honouring student led inquiry. As a stand alone it is like teaching a student to juggle – of some benefit but very limited.

The embodied library is a library that participates in the embodied mind of each student. Practices, procedures, and rules that do not contribute to a holistic experience for students need to be stripped away. The focus must be on understanding the student and how our pedagogy and practices encompass the embodied mind. The embodied mind is a complex system compelling us to avoid reductionist theories and open our minds to deeper learning experiences for students.

Further reading

Claxton, Guy. Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than It Thinks. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2015. EBL. Web. 15 May 2016.

@GuyClaxton on Twitter

Rowlands, Mark. The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. Print.


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