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Embodied Cognition: Why we should be both optimistic and cautious

6 min read
  • The science of learning

Is “Embodied Cognition” about to be the next big thing in education?

Proponents claim it can help provide a wider range of strategies that are not captured in learning theories such as Cognitive Load Theory, whereas others see it at best as a distraction or at worse as lacking a sufficient evidence base.

So, what is Embodied Cognition and what does the research show? We went exploring and found reasons to be both optimistic and cautious…

What is Embodied Cognition?

Embodied Cognition covers a large range of areas. It combines research findings that include but are not limited to cognitive science, memory, self-regulation, neuroscience and cognitive psychology. This diagram illustrates just how broad the areas are:

Proponents of Embodied Cognition believe that we do not think just with our minds, but with our bodies as well (see this recent TES article for example). This means that how we use our body will impact both how we think and what we think about. This area of research is closely linked to Situated Cognition and Distributed Cognition (which focuses on the interaction between people, their environment and surroundings, technology and social/cultural context and how they contribute to one another). As we said earlier: a very large range of areas.

2 reasons to be optimistic about Embodied Cognition

So what does Embodied Cognition look like in the classroom? And what are the potential benefits and strategies based on it?

1. The range of areas it covers

As seen in the earlier diagram, Embodied Cognition covers a large range of areas. Anything that can help shift the needle on education attainment is worth considering. A psychological theory that can cover decision making, learning and self-regulation offers numerous routes into doing so. 

Some of the criticism of other psychological theories are that they are too narrow. For example, emotions can clearly play a part in students’ ability to concentrate, and yet this doesn’t appear to be too prominent in Cognitive Load Theory, which instead tends to focus on how material is presented and how we support novices vs experts. Perhaps Embodied Cognition can paint a fuller, richer, and more nuanced picture?

2. Positive results

So what are the positive research findings from Embodied Cognition and its related fields? Well, where to begin…

  • Embodying the information – Several studies have found that having students embody the solar system planet, or having them pretend to be carbon molecules helped improve their rate of learning, compared to simply being told about them. This impact on their learning was significant.
  • Movement and fidgeting – Proponents of embodied cognition tend to be quite positive around fidget objects (the rationale being that moving helps people to think). One such study that supports this found that ADHD students spent more time on task when using them. Likewise, this study found that if teachers used physical gestures, it helped improve learning rates.
  • Walking – We have detailed a number of studies in this blog here that found that physical movement leads to better learning and focus.
  • Interacting with nature – A research paper found that students performed 20% better on a boring task if they took a break in natural surroundings, compared to urban ones. Indeed, in this study, students who had their science lesson outside showed significantly greater motivational behaviour compared to those who had a traditional classroom lesson. In particular, improvements in motivation were shown to be most prevalent amongst students who had lower levels of self-regulation. If you want to read more about the impact that being outside has, check out this blog here.
  • Group work – This research paper found that when students worked as part of a group, it reduced the cognitive load placed on each of them (you can also check out our handy blog on the impact of group work on cognitive load).

There are undoubtedly many more. It was not the remit of this blog to give a full literature review (so, apologies if we have missed any big areas). But hopefully, those five research findings give a flavour or broad overview of the positive research findings around Embodied Cognition.

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3 reasons to be cautious about Embodied Cognition

That all sounds good, right? Not really. There are some notable causes for concern when looking at the evidence and practicality around Embodied Cognition…

1. Replication crisis 

Unfortunately, there is a replication crisis in psychology. A lot of what we thought we knew, we don’t. Many small-scale studies that promised big findings appeared to be unable to reproduce their results when examined either on a) a larger scale or b) by different researchers.

A number of these involve studies that would fall under the umbrella of “Embodied Cognition”. For example, power posing may be a lot less powerful than the famous TED talk suggests (though evidence does still suggest some benefit from it). Likewise, it turns out that smiling whilst watching cartoons doesn’t actually make them funnier.

If these studies don’t replicate in tightly controlled psych labs, this may mean that we should pause for thought to consider how well are they likely to translate into real-world classrooms, which are messy, nuanced and often highly context-driven.

2. Contested findings

Similarly, some research papers contradict one another. Remember that earlier research paper that supported the use of fidget spinners? Well, this other study found pretty much the opposite.

It is genuinely hard to know what to make of such findings when two separate peer-reviewed papers studying roughly the same population group find opposing results. 

This is the case for the study mentioned earlier about physical gesturing, too. In another damaging blow for Embodied Cognition, a large scale study found that teaching without using gestures (i.e pointing up when saying “The rocket flew up”) did not lead to any difference in how well the teachers presented the information.

3. Scalability sucks

So, what about studies that do replicate? Are these good to go in our classrooms?

Maybe not. For example, this study highlights how “subjects’ cognitive load considerably increased under the instruction ‘not to move’.” Given that so many schools currently are interested in Cognitive Load Theory, this finding is certainly interesting.

In Annie Murphy-Paul’s book, The Extended Mind, this research paper was linked to a story about a school “replacing desks and chairs with standing desks, and the schools activity permissive ethos allows pupils to stand upright, perch on stools, sit on the floor and otherwise move around as they wish”. For many, teaching in such environments with challenging classes just wouldn’t feel practical and would be fraught with issues.

Also, if we think about those earlier studies about embodying the solar system or carbon molecules, it is tempting to wonder if this positive finding was due to the novelty of it (and so therefore has a diminishing return) and/or is practical to do at scale in each and every lesson.

Finally, how scalable is it to have students walk around in natural environments within the school day or indeed have lessons outside? Geographic location, weather and physical settings would provide a barrier for most.

Final thoughts

Embodied Cognition may be able to help our students. It covers a large range of areas and advocates highlight a number of studies. Anything that can demonstrably help students learn more efficiently and effectively is worth exploring.

And yet, there is good reason to be cautious. Some big studies don’t replicate. Some that do are contested. And ones that are widely accepted may be better in theory than they are in practice, as implementation of psychological research in classrooms is notoriously difficult.

It is definitely possible to see how Embodied Cognition adds more depth and nuance to the conversation, and all research theories have their potential downsides (see Growth Mindset being misapplied, the common dual-coding errors and Cognitive Load Theory barriers). But as we are still on the cusp of learning more about cognition, there may be value in focusing on that first, before we dive in head first on the “embodied” part.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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