Movement and Learning

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By Dr Arthur Turner

I have been working with the Centre in Bristol for 18 months and have often looked across from the Executive Development Centre (where most of my work has taken place on campus) at the new building rising on periphery of the site. I wondered about the impact of the new building on the efficacy of the executive programmes we collectively deliver.

In addition, I have been trying to make more space in my small study at home and noticed again the plethora of books I had been collecting over the last five years or so which have walking, movement or the outdoors as their main focus.

Recently I overheard a group talking about a previous workshop and they were debating about where to sit in the room in order to avoid a previous stiff neck induced by the previous day spent staring at a screen! Their comment seems more to do with remembering their physical state rather than the content delivered! This prompted me to think more closely the role of movement in aspects of learning; a role which is often ignored in the pursuit of the sight of a screen (or multiple screens!) as proxy for the structure of a course, programme or module.

Previously, and to explore movement in education a little further, Gareth Edwards and I had been talking and walking together in snatches of collaborative effort. We also have been able to ‘follow’ a group in Wales/Cymru who have been learning with a Welsh company (who only deliver their programme outside and through the medium of walking) in order to see if we can understand what are the significant features of learning enabled through the medium of walking and movement. The group of 12 employees in a public service organisation have been attending two to three-hour mobile workshops on personal effectiveness; one per week for 3 months. Reflective diaries have been being filled out by the participants, along with video and audio recordings of the group, in response to the workshop material/experience and these diaries will be ready for review in May.

Another recent example springs to mind. As part of my work outside of the University of the West of England I was invited to work in the Republic of Ireland just before Easter and commissioned to present a Masters’ level module about leadership, change, innovation and transformation through business excellence models! The delegates were mainly senior managers and top company leaders from public service from both countries on the island plus a further disparate group of other leaders from finance companies, journalists and industrial managers. 18 delegates were present and this was their third session of a 1-month course which had included a 5-day study tour to Boston whose University were co-sponsors of the Masters’ qualification.

What was shocking was the initially almost completely passive nature of the delegates despite their seniority and the ways in which their learning and understanding of the topics had not taken account of significant aspects of space, place and pace. Finding ways of improving their engagement was a challenging, but interesting, process based on me providing a number of challenges to their thought-processes and their activity within the group as they learnt.

Two aspects of this warrant further description and thought.

Firstly, the delegates were separated from the facilitator (lecturer) by a row of tables effectively pinning the delegates in a narrow tube of space bordered by bricks and windows, making movement between individuals really difficult due to the proximity of the wall! Participants at one of the long row could not see colleagues at the other end. The empty space in front of the desks was pretty large (it contained 20 people fairly easily) and then on the opposite wall, by two enormous screens, was the facilitators’ (and for some of the sessions the presenters’) seat.

By re-naming the large space within the surround of the tables and chairs the ‘learning place’ I was able to convince the delegates to move between this more active space whilst maintaining a safer ‘home’/reflective space between the tables and chairs.

The change for the group from passive to active took a couple of hours with candidates initially complaining about having to move or manipulate chairs in awkward spaces. This change in approach illustrated, on some levels, the very topic we were studying – change and transformation – and the emotional attachment we humans have to the status quo.

Using the learning space as described above I created a session so that the group could investigate their understanding of business excellence. I was also able to utilise the artefacts from the pre-planning, namely the paper copies of the slides that each delegate had in their pack, so that we remained true to the curriculum of the module.

I chose four of the most popular models in the pack of printed slides; Total Quality Management, European Excellent Model, Investors in People and the Balanced score card.

Four groups of four were randomly chosen (to help to exclude friends’ groupings) and four chairs were placed together, facing in on each other, at the four corners of the learning space. Two observers from the group were chosen to provide feedback on the process and the learning.

Very closely timed, the session allowed each group ten minutes to debate their business excellence models based on two things: their own experiences and the collection of slides that covered their topic. After ten minutes the group had further 5 minutes to consolidate their thoughts and to appoint an emissary to visit the other groups in turn. The emissary moved clockwise to the next group after ten minutes – five minutes of which was to discuss their ‘own’ model and the other five minutes to listen to the views of the group they were visiting. This movement continued until the emissary was back to their original group whence they had to teach their group what they had learnt on their travels. This invented technique, which the group jokingly called ‘Arthur’s quadrangle’, was characterised by a lot of movement, intense concentration and a lot of voices engaged in noisy, focussed debate, challenge and opinion. A real contrast to the silent acceptance of a previously delivered section of the programme.

A second way in which movement was incorporated in the group’s learning was through an adapted psycho-geographical approach by asking the delegates to wander purposelessly around the centre of Dublin (as opposed to walking directly from A to B for a distinct reason). Taking change as the topic they were asked to notice something about changes in the City that might be revealed around corners, in hidden ‘city-scapes’ or juxtapositions of unusual and frequently unseen objects or buildings! This induced a good deal of reflective work on the topic of change and the group presented back to the plenary session in any way they felt was helpful. This included a hand-drawn picture, an acted session in front of the group using a shawl, a fine description of watching traffic lights change for half-an-hour and many people took photos on their ‘phones and as they presented back to the group used a Whatsapp group so that all the group could see the image being discussed.

All this has made me ponder on the ways in which we in the faculty use space, place and pace to engage our learners in a more dynamic form of learning. I have been wondering how much more effective it might be follow the ideas of teachers such as Parker J. Palmer to be able to intuitively and flexibly command the interest and participation of group members by adding regular movement and, what Stephen Zaccaro calls, experiential variety more into our teaching and interaction. With large groups of undergraduates this may be impossible but with smaller executive groups or tutorial groups this adaptive approach may be perfectly and continuously possible.

Dr Arthur Turner




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