Moving Wisdom

The role of the body in learning

One of the articles in Transforming Education (IC#18)
Originally published in Winter 1988 on page 26
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

Peggy Hackney is Associate Professor of Dance at the University of Washington, is a nationally recognized authority in Laban Movement Analysis and has an extensive performing background.

– Robert Gilman

Current policies and processes in education are not working! Educated, confident, powerful, spirited human beings are not emerging from 12-16 years of sitting at desks, reading books, and listening to lectures. We’ve known this for years, and now we know it doesn’t have to be this way. That confronts us with a challenge: Are we willing to take the risk of doing something about it? In particular, are we willing to value:

  • pre-conscious knowledge?
  • pre-verbal knowledge?
  • bodily knowledge?
  • body as intelligence?
  • expressions of your body as knowledge generators?

And are we willing to train for each of these?

How do you respond to these questions? At this point you might find it instructive to jot down associations, including pictures, images, sounds, feelings (both positive and negative), thoughts, concepts, beliefs, "shoulds"… anything you find clumped together with the word "body."

To discover how your body relates to your own knowledge and intelligence, draw a picture of yourself. Indicate on the drawing where in your body your intelligence for different areas of your life resides. If you need some help getting started, ask yourself questions and let your body tell you.

  • When I know that another person and I are (are not) on the same wavelength, where in my body do I know it?
  • When I know the decision I’m making now is the right (wrong) one for me at this time, from where in my body does that knowledge emanate?
  • When I know the research I’m currently involved in is on/off target, where is that knowledge coming from in me?
  • When I know my colleagues haven’t quite gotten to the crucial point in their thinking on an issue, how do I know it? Where are the signals coming from?
  • When I am generating ideas for a project (teaching a class, making a design, creating a piece of art), how do I know which one of the many ideas to follow through to the end? Where in myself do I know it?
  • Continue on your own. What knowledge is vital for you? Where does it reside in you and how do you get to it?

The above questions include types of intelligence viewed by Robert Sternberg (author of Beyond IQ and Understanding and Increasing Human Intelligence) as both primary and trainable. He feels that some persons’ major intelligence is in the traditionally tested/graded area of critical thinking (for instance, comparing and contrasting two ideas), some persons reveal their intelligence in creative thinking (generating new innovative thought and connections) and, some people are able to make things really work for them out there in "real life;" they are contextual thinkers.

All of these types of intelligence involve tuning-in to movement at a pre-conscious level, because the very act of perception is a movement phenomenon. The concept of "relationship" in itself involves an interaction, a moving between.

Maybe you noticed in doing the above exercise that you sensed alive sparks of knowledge in different parts of your body as you participated in different areas of knowledge. You know truth through sensing aliveness. You probably discovered that the knowledge of what is alive and true for you reveals itself in the interactive moving process, in relationship. You probably generated in your mind’s eye an image of a situation and then made subtle adjusting movements to get in touch with your knowledge in that area. In other words, you moved into relationship with that knowledge within yourself. You located it through moving, thinking in movement.

You probably also noticed that the knowledge is not located only in a specific part in your body and cannot be accessed through body part meditation. Nor is it located in textbooks or newspapers. "Information" may be located in books, but "knowledge" resides in a personal claiming of that information through interactive involvement with it, forming a feelingful relation with it and encoding the knowledge bodily. We are always using movement thinking to bring to conscious awareness what is true for us; knowledge is felt bodily and can be tapped by asking our bodies and listening to what they say.

Scientist and systems thinker Paul La Violette has developed a new theory of how thoughts are formed and stored through associations of "feeling tones." This Emotional/Perceptive Cycle Theory has much to offer educators, including the postulate that for every 10 minutes of content offered, a student needs 2 minutes to incorporate it by associating it feelingfully. Conscious movement experiences could provide this feeling association, and should be utilized.

Whole person education through movement is, of course, not a new idea. It reappears constantly in the work of such theorists as Rousseau, Montessori, Dewey and Leonard. It resurfaces as a concern every few years. I am not, however, thinking of movement as a romantic frivolous "extra". I am not advocating it even as a content area or simply as a process. I am stating something more radical. I am saying that where there is life, there is movement – however subtle it may be. An ability and a willingness to pay attention to movement puts one in touch with the essential core of life phenomena.

What the field of linguistics calls "deep structures" needs to be looked at in relation to education. Our culture continues to want "structures" and "content" in education to be static and unchanging, but the real revolution in the sciences as well as other areas of knowledge is that the "deep structure", the core of all phenomena, is constant and ever changing relationships, i.e., movement. (These changing relationships might be at an atomic level or in ecosystems, in alive ideas, business, politics or galaxies.) Teaching this core structure requires valuing and training in, if not relishing, the change process. Change is movement and a preparation to effectively live in a world of constant change must involve a heightened awareness of movement.

Howard Gardner, in his book, Frames of Mind, has identified seven different "intelligences" including Logical, Linguistic, Mathematical, Spatial, Musical, Kinesthetic, Personal, and Interpersonal. It is fortunate that Gardner recognizes that kinesthetic intelligence is basic since all people use kinesthetic intelligence to make sense of their lives. Researchers who study learning styles know that learning through movement is a primary inroad for large numbers of people, children and adults.

Any educator concerned with reaching learners cannot afford to ignore its importance as a learning/teaching modality. But more than a modality, kinesthetic knowing is in some sense developmentally more basic and central to life than other inroads and it can be trained. The big stumbling block so far is that at this point in our culture we have dismembered our idea of thinking from our feelingful self. We have ignored our bodies except as machines to be "worked out" or " limbered up" or used sexually. And we have isolated our spirit into Gothic cathedrals. All this we have done rather than face the uncomfortable notion that we are integrated moving beings, constantly revealing ourselves in movement, and that paying attention to movement will uncover knowledge.

So how do we do it? How do we begin to value bodily knowledge and start to pay attention to movement?

The first step in any creative process (and learning is certainly a creative process), is the act of merging, identifying and becoming one with that which is there to be known. This part of the process generally happens at a pre-conscious level. Most adult learners do not actively acknowledge this part of the process – and therefore do not teach the particular skills of this stage to others. Here is the crux of the current educational problem. The ability to know through merging happens bodily. It is an almost cellular knowledge – grounded and made vital through moving.

Everyone knows that very young children learn through identifying. They learn the nature of "cat" through becoming one. Tribal humans survived through honoring the animal they were stalking and intimately knowing it as they hunted. Growing up in a tribal society included learning how to become one with the essence of another being.

Our culture has valued and taught distanced knowing – commonly referred to as objective, scientific, measurable – rather than what Morris Berman calls "participatory consciousness." It was a stage our culture needed to go through. Almost like 2-year olds or adolescents we needed to learn to make boundaries. We needed to act as if phenomena were totally separate isolated events, distinct from us and all of our human moving imperfections.

Boundary setting is an important stage in any creative process, whether it is psychological development or the development of new knowledge. I am certainly not advocating merging vs. differentiation. I am suggesting that merging precedes differentiation and that integration follows it. We have learned to make boundaries. We now need to remember our merging skills in order to proceed to integration.

In all areas of life we are acknowledging that total isolation is an illusion. Interconnectedness is the nature of existence. The problem at this point in time is that we have now to remember our fuller ways of knowing including tuning in at a bodily pre-conscious level, as well as at a highly differentiated articulate conscious level. True intelligence at this point in our culture is knowing when to listen to what type of knowledge and how to get in touch with that knowledge as we need it. Indeed, the type of knowledge I am advocating valuing and training for needs to be refined by and integrated with the more conscious types of critical thinking.

Knowledge that comes spontaneously (or upon being asked) in movement or image is generally not highly form-specific (it may be metaphoric) and may come from a part of who we are that is not appropriate to the immediate setting. Such knowledge needs to be honored and it needs to be checked against other forms of knowledge. For instance, if I am hiring someone for a head teacher position, I probably have an immediate sense bodily of whether I can work with that person. I would also check his/her file to find out if he/she had the requisite knowledge and info the job required. I would never, however, simply check the resume.

You might ask, "If bodily knowledge coming from movement experience is as basic and important as you suggest, why is our educational system reluctant to wholeheartedly get behind its inclusion in the curriculum?" I might ask you to check your own biases again (remember your body associations?). Most people have mainly negative or spurious associations with their own body (fat, base, carnal, animal, dumb, sexual). Any reference to the whole of who they are feels invasive or overly personal. Almost no one is willing to say in a serious discussion, "I can see from your body that you don’t agree with me. What are your reservations?"

When I mention to people that I am a movement analyst almost invariably they begin to feel "undressed." This idea that we can hide who we are is in fact totally fallacious. Whether a person is a movement analyst or not, every person reads body communication and makes important decisions from the knowledge it brings them.

"Movement thinking" is a real world happening – whether in business, politics, medicine or the arts. Because it is part of what runs the world, I am advocating that we acknowledge the fact and train for its wise usage. I would like to have every child and adult experience intimate participatory knowing, passionate knowing. And this kind of knowing happens in a profound way the more the whole of who we are is involved in the process.


Here are some examples of training for movement thinking and valuing it. These may seem basic, but this kind of "back to basics" is what is needed in education today. Movement has become so invisible in our cultural consciousness that even prime messages are ignored.

1) Practice identifying/merging in movement with:

Another person: This is an important beginning in training for relationships. The ability to take on another’s flow is a major part in effective communication. The old adage "getting inside someone else’s skin" is at least partially facilitated through a kinesthetic identification.

Nature: Taking on the qualities of the essence states of trees, animals, clouds, etc. can be an inroad to biology and all natural science learning. The shapes and forms of nature speak loudly through movement. And not only will the student be learning about nature itself, but will also be developing a "metaphor bank" for literature classes. ("The fog comes softly on little cat feet."… Carl Sandburg.) A simple way to begin is, "show me how the molecules are moving under the microscope" or "how the water moves around the river rocks." Ask students to explore the movement fully – exploring similarities and differences in moving air & water for instance. Then let them describe their movement experiences.

Geometric Forms: Practice locating the X,Y,Z coordinate axes as if your center of weight is where they originate. This clear spatial experience orients all moving in our three-dimensional world. Forward, back, up, down, right and left become focused. This is the basis of perception of geometric forms such as the octahedron, the cube, and the icosahedron. Movement within the icosahedron (as fully explored in Laban Movement Analysis) provides a strong kinesthetic base for relational three-dimensional thinking and moving.

2) Practice noticing your own habitual movement responses to situations – for instance, train yourself to notice when you begin to tense up, stop breathing, or involuntarily divert your eyes, face or body from what is going on. These could be cues that precede conscious verbalized awareness that you are uncomfortable or that the situation is not the best for you.

Notice when you begin to feel energized, vibrant, deeply grounded, or eager to advance and open yourself. Train yourself to recognize these responses. These could be cues to unconscious knowledge that a situation feels right or good to you.

3) Practice developing the ability to pose a question to yourself, asking for a spontaneous movement response or an image to form. Cultivate the awareness of the personal interpretive value of that movement expression. You may find that you develop a " personal code" that lets you know what is a "yes response" (for example, a sense of rising and widening in your body, or an image of a flower opening) and what is a "no response" (for example, sinking and narrowing in your torso or an image of an animal encased in concrete.)

4) Practice asking yourself, "What is moving here?" and "Where am I in relation to the moving?" (at its center, on an edge, cutting through, etc.)

5) Practice exploring how your idea would move.

6) Practice moving your response to situations before you verbalize.

7) Ask yourself, "If you took time to let your feelings move, what would they do?" (Remember, thoughts are feeling fully encoded.)

8) If you are a teacher, all of these exercises can be shared with your students. In planning classes, give yourself 10 minutes extra to move the concept in the body, your own as well as your students. If this seems like a strange prospect to you, begin simply. Use your hands.

Most adults view movement as "play", so say to yourself, "I’m just going to let my hands play with moving this idea." As you do this you will no doubt discover new ideas popping into your mind and you will want to involve more of yourself. If you feel weird, strange, stupid, or inhibited, you can blame it totally on me. I will accept total responsibility for your discomfort. If, however, you find new thoughts, enjoy the experience, or simply feel energized, the reward is yours. There is a joy in discovery that belongs to you, the mover. And hopefully that rich reward will be passed onto your students in the form of a chance to move and know more fully.

As anthropologist Edward T. Hall says in his book, Beyond Culture, "…Western man has created chaos by denying that part of his self that integrates while enshrining the parts that fragment experience."

Being present in our bodies and willing to notice movement generates awareness of knowledge which is there in us waiting to be "discovered". This type of knowledge is integrative. Are you ready for the challenge?