Learning is a gateway to power and freedom
Learning increases our degrees of freedom by giving us new ways to move, communicate and adapt to challenges and capitalize on opportunities.
True learning is a sacred process that is not honored in how typical classrooms are run.
I have seen many kids begin to believe that something is wrong with them. Not because they are unable to learn, but because of the teachers’ and education system’s outdated understanding of how humans actually learn and optimize their functioning.
On a deeper level, because of outdated and ineffective education models that exist in schools, I think many of us were not given a chance to truly tap into our unique brilliance, and the effects of this linger in us today.
The highlights of my life have been working with young people and watching them light up as they recognize their capacities to learn. I love teaching them the magnificent systems-logic that exists in the world and in their bodies for them to use for their own sense of power and agency.
It was an honor to speak with two professors who align with this and are taking action to transform and disrupt education as we currently know it.
In this episode, Drs. Sheila Macrine and Jennifer Fugate and I explore how our cognitive and learning processes are embodied as we discuss their book, Movement Matters: How Embodied Cognition Informs Teaching and Learning.
Their website is: embodiedcognitionandlearning.com
An example from the Movement Matters book is an expert bassoon player. When this expert musician thinks of ‘bassoon’, their entire brain lights up with activity that simulates what it’s like to feel the smoothness of the instrument, the vibration of the sounds, etc. as they hear and play the instrument.
Someone who has never played that instrument will not have the same areas light up when they think about a bassoon - there will be categories and words associated with ‘bassoon’, such as instrument or music, but that embodied, sensorimotor anchor of knowledge will not be there. To learn something well enough to apply it, personalize and use it, we need to ‘play’ with the world, interact with it using our bodies and senses.
As Dr. Fugate says in the interview, “the richer the initial experience , the richer the information that can be used for the simulation”. Using more of our senses (including interoceptive and proprioceptive senses) during the learning process gives the brain-body more data to use later.
Embodied, Enactive, Embedded, Extended
The idea of this process is aligned with 4E cognition. As described by Dr. Shaun Gallagher, this framework proposes that “cognition is not just in the head. it's something that involves the body in general and also the situation of the body in the environment …”
As Schiavio and van der Schyff (2018) describe, there are 4 components of 4E cognition:
- Embodied: Cognition cannot be fully described in terms of abstract mental processes (i.e., in terms of representations). Rather, it must involve the entire body of the living system (brain and body).
- Enactive: Cognition is conceived of as the set of meaningful relationships determined by an adaptive two-way exchange between the complexity of living creatures and the environments they inhabit and actively shape
- Embedded: Cognition is not an isolated event separated from the agent’s ecological niche. Instead, it displays layers of co-determination with physical, social, and cultural aspects of the world.
- Extended: Cognition is often offloaded into biological beings and non-biological devices to serve a variety of functions that would be impossible (or too difficult) to be achieved by only relying on the agent’s own mental processes….
Schiavio, A. & van der Schyff, D. (2018). 4E music pedagogy and the principles of self-organization. Behavioral Sciences, 8(8), 72.
An example of this also comes from my earlier career in international security where I helped strategists with information about various situations going on in active war zones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and other areas of the world. As part of this, I was learning to analyze communication and other types of patterns by learning from experts on the ground and those who were embedded in a variety of communities involved. As I went to meetings to share information, I realized that what I chose to highlight for the decision-makers came from an embodied, visceral feeling and a sensory-motor simulation that came from learning and enactive exchanges with teams of experts and using knowledge about my own social-communication patterns.
We also used extended cognition in terms of diagrams, sketches and even role playing to envision patterns and scenarios. As we did, ‘salient’ points emerged. Salience has to do with the relevance of something towards what it is we are trying to do. In my view, salience is connected to a feeling.. We can ‘feel’ when something is salient, relevant to the goal at hand. It is an embodied process used to predict patterns. As a result of the relevance of the information that came from our sessions, our team became one of the most requested groups of personnel to those meetings. We received feedback that the information had consistently been critical to decision-making, which helped us further adjust and monitor our group’s analysis.
I continue that process today, as I create content. I turn to experts and then embody what I learn by applying it to my own life so that it is anchored in a sensory-motor way. As I write and create the content, I tune in to who will be receiving the information, and how it might be used after the person integrates and applies it for themselves. As I do this, salient points emerge - and that is what I share with you. It is truly and embodied, visceral, sensory-motor process.
Deep learning is embodied and cannot be standardized
All great teachers are also exceptional learners - and this process of exceptional, deep learning is what makes them great teachers. Deep, impactful, embodied learning is extremely difficult to do with the old, factory-model school paradigm of a ‘talking head teacher’ at the front of the room and children seated at their desks.
I want to keep reiterating this because so many of us went through that education system. It means that there is so much untapped potential about what our talents really can achieve and what they are in the first place.
The antidote is to get out there and get your hands and bodies learning new things - moving and creating. This is how you will get in touch with these deep, embedded potentials that are lying dormant within you now. You won’t be able to access your highest intelligence without this -without getting into the world and experiencing it live, in the flesh, with multiple depths and dimensions, textures, smells, sights, sounds, etc.
True, authentic learning is about tuning in to ourselves and what our body and internal environment is telling us. It’s a very individualized process that cannot be standardized in a factory model way.
Because brain-body circuitry and our sensory-sensitivities are powerfully shaped by our personal experiences, each of us will embody, embed, enact and extend in highly variable ways.
In my case, I viscerally feel the world around me and what I learn. While this is a gift because it helps me explain and find words that seem to resonate extremely well for others, It also means I can get overstimulated fairly quickly. Because of this sensitivity, I need rhythms and routines that honor how I integrate and process information. This was always a challenge for me in school in my early years. Because I didn't know this about myself, and didn’t have autonomy to learn in a way that was attuned to my rhythms, it was seen as a ‘behavior problem’. In fact, my kindergarten teacher had many meetings with my parents about this! Thankfully, in first grade, and several other grades after that, I had teachers who seemed to pick upon this and allowed me to learn in my own way. They would trust that when I withdrew and went off on my own, that I was doing it as part of my regulation-integration mechanisms. In every classroom and work environment where I was supported in this way, I became a leader.
I am also grateful that over the years I began to better understand this about myself and learned to curate it regardless of whether the conditions were ideal. But it does take a lot of intentionality (and trial and error). This requires taking breaks from consuming information and taking time to slow down, quiet down and integrate it on a visceral level.
We need more parents and educators who understand this.
We all have unique sensitivities and rhythms to learning. This means that we need to take time for ourselves to embody, embed and integrate what we learn. Children do not have that same autonomy or awareness. They need the adults in their life to honor and recognize that each person has their own rhythms and sensitivities. The more we understand how the mind-body is one system, the more this can help us pay attention to what our bodies are telling us.
It also means finding ways to be fully present in our body in as many moments of life that we can be, so that what we learn from an experience can be internalized and then applied in real life for reasons that matter to us. When we apply learning to something we care about, it improves our ability to persevere and adapt. When we 'care', it means that there is an amplification of positive visceral feelings, which creates a richer initial sensory-motor experience. That richness of experience, as Dr. Fugate discusses, is essential to learning.
Take time to learn what truly matters to YOU
To get to know what matters to us on that internal, deep layer means we need to separate what 'lights us up' from what we are doing because it is approved of by others. To do this, we need to have time to ourselves. Tuning inward to how things feel can help reveal to us what is salient and truly meaningful to us in terms of what we choose to learn and how we want to conduct our lives.
It also means spending time with people who are different than who we normally surround ourselves with, so we can have a wider sensory-motor experiential palette to choose from as we get to know what matters to us. This can help us form friendships and relationships that are based on who we are more authentically, rather than what may be accepted or approved of by others.
When we truly understand how embodied our learning is and can be.. The better we get at learning. Remember that learning is not just about academics, sports or technical skill, learning is the mechanism for change, such as when we learn to regulate our emotions, and relationship skills. All of this is learning and requires the same type of embodied, embedded, enacted and extended approaches.
Drs. Sheila Macrine and Jennifer Fugate are paving the way for educators, parents, and leaders to update how we teach in ways that are aligned with the science and with how we understand humans actually learn. It was an honor to speak with them.
Please check out their book, Movement Matters: How Embodied Cognition Informs Teaching and Learning.
Their website is: embodiedcognitionandlearning.com
On a side note...
I’m headed to Calgary next week to spend two weeks with family. My mother is in the early stages of dementia, and I would like to help my dad with support for her. My dad will be teaching me family recipes from Germany, which I will cook with him while I'm there. I’m also looking forward to going through old photos.. Many years ago, he built his own darkroom in our basement and I used to help him develop pictures. I’m honestly still blown away by the idea that humans found a way to take something ‘out there’ and encode it onto a piece of paper!
Starting October i will be re-entering the freelance world, and I also look forward to a new era of partner-based teaching and content. I am currently getting training in that area. I think the world needs more ‘power couples’ who find unique ways to synergize very different expertise in new ways. I believe that partner-based leadership is a new and critically important frontier that will help future generations with examples of collaborative behavior for enduring ups and downs, and sticking with a common purpose for the long haul, while tapping into each person’s unique gifts and talents. It’s a more advanced level of leadership and more challenging than doing it solo. I’m looking forward to growing through this power partnership with someone I deeply respect and trust, and who is an expert in very different types of skills and knowledge than mine, but who shares a common vision and cares deeply about improving how families function as a contribution to higher levels of collective intelligence.