This paper explores how experienced teachers use kinesthetic methods in their academic instruction. As education graduate students, our interest in kinesthetic learning stems from a concern with classroom management and discipline, “one of the most daunting challenges” for new teachers (Peterson, 2004). A preliminary investigation led to the finding that “the best discipline is good curriculum,” that is, a curriculum that engages students and does not leave them bored (Salas, 2004). We surmised that the least boring or, conversely, the most engaging lessons often are kinesthetic in nature. Yet while our graduate studies cover a great deal of material, none of our courses specifically trains us to incorporate kinesthetic teaching practices. So we turned to the experts – experienced elementary school teachers.
How do experienced teachers incorporate kinesthetic learning in their academic lessons?
Review of Literature and Popular Media
Regular physical activity promotes physical fitness (Ammerman, Ballard, Evenson & Lee, 2009); (Gartrell & Sonsteng, 2008); (Gaus & Simpson, 2009); (Nye, 2008); (Pica, 2006), and physical fitness, in turn, may improve brain function (Anonymous, 2008); (Viadero, 2008); (Hall, 2007); (Maeda & Murata, 2004); (California Department of Education, 2005); (National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 2002). Many experts therefore believe that physical fitness may facilitate learning (Clancy & Hruska, 2008); (Anonymous, 2009); (Lounsbery & Smith, 2009); (Tummers, 2005); (but see Chalmers & Martin, 2007). Given this link between fitness and learning, some educators believe that using kinesthetic methods in academic lessons will encourage students to “get moving” and “perform better academically” (Collins, Donnelly & Sherman, 2007).
Others advocate the use of kinesthetic methods in academic lessons based on their belief that some students have a kinesthetic “learning style,” and that these students are better learners when material is presented kinesthetically, compared to other modes of presentation (Dunn & Honigsfeld, 2009). The conscious targeting of certain students for kinesthetic teaching methods has many boosters (see, e.g., Dunn & Honigsfeld, 2009); (Dunn & Dunn, 2005); (Burke & Dunn, 2002). In this vein, some researchers have found that underachieving students are most likely to benefit from kinesthetic teaching methods (Ansalone & Lister, 2006); (Burke & Dunn, 2002); (Dunn & Dunn, 2005). The popularity of kinesthetic teaching techniques has led to a thriving industry devoted to publishing learning-styles tests and guidebooks for teachers and offering professional development workshops for teachers and educators. (cf. Bjork, McDaniel, Pashler, & Rohrer, 2008); (e.g., Glynn, 2001; http://www.mindsinmotion.org/home.html).
Yet some educators fear that classifying certain students as “kinesthetic learners” is tantamount to labeling them inferior (see NPR News, 2008). In fact, the idea of kinesthetic teaching according to learning style does have detractors (see Greenfield, 2007); (Willingham, 2008). Recently, some researchers have questioned the conventional wisdom that some students will learn better when material is presented kinesthetically (see Britt, 2009). According to Bjork, McDaniel, Pashler, & Rohrer (2008), few studies have used valid research methods to test the idea of using learning styles in education.
At least one expert believes that while some children may learn best kinesthetically, teaching a child in his or her “best modality” does not affect academic achievement. In his view, teachers should teach according to the content’s best modality, namely, lessons are most effective when the content, rather than the student’s “style,” drives the choice of modality (see Britt, 2009).
Regardless of these conflicting beliefs about the optimal use of kinesthetic methods, many subject matters lend themselves to such techniques.
Bosse (2009) demonstrates how teachers can bring the study of science into almost, if not every, aspect of the classroom. Teachers can set up a discovery area in the classroom, thus promoting many questions through kinesthetic activities (Bosse 10). Scales, weights and graph paper to record findings can increase math skills, also by way of kinesthetic activities. A simple bird feeder that can be viewed from a classroom window can become the study of ornithology if students are given a pair of binoculars, a guide book and paper to record their findings (Bosse 11). Criminale, Esfan, & Mathew (2006) describe how science teachers took their students bowling to study physics concepts. Tummers (2005) suggests using yoga to teach young students about the anatomy of the heart.
A teacher of gifted students changed an ordinary social studies lesson into something more memorable by turning her student’s desks on their sides, covering them with old cardboard, replacing the student’s coats with newspapers and exchanged their regular snacks with stale bread (McClatchy Company, 2010). When the students returned to the classroom, they entered “Hooverville,” a shantytown that they were studying (McClatchy Company, 2010).
Math in the Garden is a book of 35 hands-on “gardening” activities to teach numbers and mathematical concepts such as algebra, measurement, geometry and data analysis (White, 2006). In one activity, for example, students measure the perimeter of leaves; in another, they search for mystery spots in a giant garden grid to learn coordinate grids (White, 2006). Biffle (2007) demonstrates a “whole brain” lesson in the order of operations. In her video, she teaches sixth-grade students using hand gestures to show several concepts, including the four operations (adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing) and a mnemonic device (“please excuse my dear aunt Sally”), which helps students remember parenthesis, exponent, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction, each of which has its own gesture. The class is loud, but orderly, and her students appear completely engaged in the lesson (Biffle, 2007). In Stand and Deliver, a high school math teacher uses fingers to teach multiplication (Musca & Menendez, 1988).
Block, Parris, & Whitely (2008) developed the Comprehension Process Motions (CPM) method for teaching young readers to learn reading comprehension. The CPM method teaches students kinesthetic hand movements that signal their understanding or lack of understanding of the text. The CPM method teaches students to use hand signals to indicate “finding main ideas, inferring, making predictions, and clarifying.” (Block, Parris & Whitely, 2008). According to Block, Parris & Whitely,
These lessons stimulate students’ active learning and provide young readers with concrete images to learn how, when, and where to initiate comprehension processes. They also enable students to demonstrate that they are metacognitively aware that they are using a specific process and to signal their teachers when they have independently transferred and used a specific comprehension process when reading independently.
Block, C., Parris, S., & Whiteley, C. (2008). CPMs: A Kinesthetic Comprehension Strategy. The Reading Teacher, 61(6), 460-470.
Data Collection Methods
Data collection took place in the winter and spring of 2010. We began our data collection by compiling and reviewing relevant peer-reviewed literature and popular media, including articles, books, movies, podcasts, promotional websites, and YouTube videofiles. Later, we observed elementary school teachers instruct students using kinesthetic techniques. Armed with the knowledge gleaned from these endeavors, we compiled the following list of teacher-interview questions:
1. How do you incorporate kinesthetic learning into your academic lessons?
2. How often do you use kinesthetic lessons in your classroom?
3. For which subjects do you use these lessons?
4. Have you encountered any challenges when using these lessons? If so, what kinds?
5. How do students respond to these lessons?
6. Would you recommend these types of lessons to a new teacher? Why or why not?
7. Do school administrators encourage/discourage these kinds of lessons?
8. Do you receive any special training or support for these kinds of lessons?
9. Do you have any advice for a new teacher with regard to kinesthetic lessons?
We also compiled a list of questions for an interview with an elementary school principal:
1. Do you encourage teachers to use kinesthetic techniques in their lessons?
2. Do teachers receive formal training in kinesthetic teaching methods?
3. Do you think teachers should receive such training?
4. Do you think kinesthetic teaching techniques that require students to learn in an active and physical way affect the students’ motivation to learn?
5. Students learn in different ways, such as visually, auditorily or kinesthetically. As a principal, do you encourage teachers to present material in ways that match an individual student’s “learning style”?
We then located four experienced elementary school teachers and one principal who agreed to be interviewed. Before conducting the interviews, we sent a copy of the interview questions to each participant so that she could familiarize herself with the questions and think about her answers. One teacher submitted her responses through email; the other three teachers and the principal permitted face-to-face interviews.
Data Analysis Methods
As noted above, we began our data analysis with a critical review of the peer reviewed literature and popular media, looking for common themes, biases, contradictions, and missing viewpoints. With the knowledge gained from these sources, we compiled our interview questions. When all the interview data was collected, we compared the responses.
Some researchers suggest that teaching students according to their personal learning preferences — such as kinesthetic, visual, or auditory – will improve academic performance. In reality, none of the teachers that we interviewed suggested tailoring each lesson according to each student’s preferred style. Rather, these teachers accommodate the varying needs of their students by using multisensory instruction. For example, a teacher might present a lecture on angles (auditory), using the blackboard (visual), and then have the students create an angle with their arms (kinesthetic).
We found that kinesthetic techniques can be used in every subject area, and that teachers employ these techniques in innumerable ways with varying degrees of frequency. School administrators tend to encourage kinesthetic teaching methods, but do not provide for special teacher training in this area. Such training is probably unnecessary, however, since creative kinesthetic lesson plan ideas abound on the internet and experienced teachers seem happy to share their ideas and experiences.
The experienced educators and much of the peer-reviewed literature stated that kinesthetic techniques are particularly beneficial for underachieving students, students at risk of academic failure, and students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As one might expect, kinesthetic techniques may be less successful with students with motor-planning issues or physical impairments, or with very shy students. Yet these challenges are surmountable. Teachers can modify their lessons to fit the unique needs of their students – kinesthetic methods do not necessarily require physical strength, coordination, or theatrical performance.
As elementary students a few decades ago, we learned to read, write, add and subtract sitting at desks aligned in neat rows, looking at dittos with faded purple ink. This traditional set up may have worked for us, but undoubtedly did not work for everyone. Today, teachers are expected to engage all their students, allowing them to learn with all their senses and to move purposefully around the classroom as part of the learning process. Experienced educators understand this and frequently employ kinesthetic methods in their lessons. Not every lesson lends itself to this type of teaching, but many do. For inexperienced teachers who are unsure of how to incorporate physical activity into their academic lessons, experienced teachers are excellent sources of ideas. So are books, the internet, and the students themselves. Kinesthetic methods may excite our students about the material they are studying, and thus may lead not only to better behavior, but better learning as well.
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