Embodied Education: Teaching through Movement

Credit: iStock.com/FatCamera
Credit: iStock.com/FatCamera

If you were to compare the average college class with the average elementary school class, one thing you would immediately notice is that college students almost never move around after they have sat down, whereas elementary classes often involve hands-on activities that require movement. There is no pedagogical reason for this difference. It’s not that older people learn better by sitting still while younger children learn better by moving. Indeed, movement improves learning at all ages by integrating more than one sense (Katai et al., 2008).

When I speak of adding movement to learning, I am not referring to movement meant to teach a skill, such as lab exercises in science classes that teach how to use lab equipment itself. I also don’t mean the “walking meetings” that are used in the corporate world to provide a break from sitting all day. Rather, I am speaking of ways to use movement to improve understanding of concepts.

When I taught ancient philosophy, one of the topics we would cover was Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this story people are chained in a cave, which Plato uses to represent his theory of reality and learning. Instead of just talking about it, I had students act it out. Using volunteers, I had three students sit in a line of chairs at the front of the class; three others sat behind them. Then I turned off the lights and gave the students in the second row a flashlight each and some ordinary objects. They would then shine their flashlights on their objects to make shadows on the walls as I read the story and act out the various events.

I would pause at each step to ask what the elements in the story represented. The mere change of pace from me lecturing was highly engaging to students. They were all paying attention and interested in sharing thoughts on what it meant, as well as suggesting action. I got a lot more student discussion of the meaning of the story than when I just told the story to the class and looked out onto a bunch of faces with my questions. The acting made the story more interesting and meaningful to the students.

I also teach medical ethics, and one activity I have students do is create short skits in groups, acting out a topic that we cover. For example, we cover the shift in the medical profession’s relationship with patients from paternalism (doctor’s orders) to a patient autonomy model in which a patient can refuse treatment if they wish. The group assigned to this unit creates a skit with a doctor and patient, showing one interaction involving the paternalistic model and another involving its patient autonomy counterpart. We then talk about the skit as a class.

This activity helps them see in the manner of the doctor in clinical practice how the change plays out. Students enjoy making these short skits, which are ungraded because I don’t want to limit their creativity, and as future medical professionals I hope that they remember the main themes so that they can think about whether their own interactions with patients fall back into a paternalistic relationship rather than honor patient autonomy.

Skits can be used in nearly any class that talks about human interaction. A leadership class might have a group act out two different meetings, one with a leader who invites the opinions of all participants and the other with a leader who shuts down discussion. Seeing this acted out would help students think about their own actions in meetings and whether they are modeling inclusive or exclusive leadership.

Model building is another activity that can aid learning. One teacher at my institution has a unit on the water cycle and helps students understand it by having them build cardboard models of a city featuring structures that influence the water cycle. They create impermeable roads and sidewalks that produce runoff, as well as water capture systems. They think about where water goes after it rains and enjoy using their creativity in designing different types of cities.

Similarly, I have had students develop models in my courses to represent concepts. One involves the Euthyphro question from a Socratic dialogue. The question comes in response to a character’s assertion that wrong action is what the gods decree is wrong. Euthyphro asks (revised a bit for clarity), “Is an action wrong because the gods forbid it, or do the gods forbid it because it is wrong?” This sounds like wordplay, but it actually demonstrates an important point with divine command theories of morality. If an action is wrong because God forbids it, then there is no other standard of rightness and wrongness that guides God, making God’s will—and thus morality—arbitrary. If God forbids an action because it is wrong, then God is only the messenger of a moral standard that exists outside of God. Either option creates issues with divine command morality.

Since it can be hard for students to see the distinction, I have asked groups to build a model of the two options using Styrofoam balls, wire, labels, and some other material. Balls represent concepts, while wire demonstrates connections. This helps students visualize how the options differ, and in designing their models they are forced to consider the concepts more deeply than when they only hear about them. This is similar to the digital concept maps used to sketch out relationships between concepts, but the tactile experience of building them, as well as their physical manifestation, adds an element that helps with understanding and retention. We often forget the tactile sense in our teaching, but adding another sensory input can greatly improve student learning.


Kátai, Z., Juhász, K., & Adorjáni, A. (2008). On the role of senses in education. Computers & Education, 51(4), 1707–1717.

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