Kinesthetic Teaching/Learning

The phrase kinesthetic learning is on the increase in academic literature, yet it doesn’t seem to have a standard definition. Many terms and phrases related to kinesthetic learning or perhaps nearly the same thing as this have appeared over time. There are words that have to do with movement and/or sense of movement, such as kinetics, kinesis and kinesiology. There are also words that have to do with the body: embodied, somatic, corporeal. There are words and phrases that have to do with action or process, such as proprioception, experiential learning, active learning or learning by doing. There is also nonverbal learning, incidental learning, tacit knowing, deep versus surface learning, and self-directed learning. There are terms from the fields of education, psychology, physiology, neurology, bodywork, dance and music. All of them are references to some kind of learning that can happen through the movement of, or the knowledge of the sense of movement of, the body. In my investigatiion, in recognition of the reciprocal nature of the process of learning, I use the term kinesthetic teaching/learning. In the first part of this section, I explore the history and definitions of what this concept may involve.
I believe that the fact that this wide variety of terms and phrases refarding kinesthetic teaching/learning exists, and in so many different disciplines, and the fact that many of these terms are relatively recent, gives support to my proposal that there is a growing trend to recognize the body as being a vital agent in learning. I see this trend as coming from many directions but converging on a central point: the principle of considering our bodies and our sense of movement when we seek to teach and learn deserves our attention.
What are the possible approaches to kinesthetic teaching/learning? What is its range of uses? In order to explore these questions I will look to the fields of movement reeducation and education. In the next section, I’ll look at a broader history of kinesthetic teaching/learning. From the field of movement reeducation I’ll review the work of Alexander and Feldenkrais. Next I’ll examine anthropologist and humanist Montagu’s perspective on touching and skin and Ayres theory of sensory integration. In education I’ll examine kinesthetic approaches to readiness for learning focusing on the theorists Gilbert, Dennison, Kranowitz, Hannaford and Dore. Finally, I’ll review the educational use of kinesthetic teaching/learning in skill building and conveying academic content in the work of DeGeest and Wills, Hohl and Smith, and Westreich. Along the way, I’ll examine the range of approaches to kinesthetic teaching/learning these theorists have. In the end I hope to make solid start at understanding the range and scope for what might be considered kinesthetic teaching/learning. In the process, I will attempt to tease out the threads of this approach to education as it emerges from a broad range of disciplines and practices and evolves into a more defined and specific educational strategy.
I conduct my examination through the lens of my key questions which are the guiding star for exploring the subject of kinesthetic teaching/learning. These questions are: how can kinesthetic teaching/learning experiences affect self-awareness and/or the ways we relate to and understand the world we live in, and what is kinesthetic teaching/learning and how can it be used effectively for enhancing awareness and understanding in the context of teaching music?


Bastian (1902) coined the word kinæsthesis when he combined the Greek kin-ein (to move) with aisqhsij, (sensation), æsthesis. He defined kinæsthesis as “sense of movement;” “ To speak of a `Kinæsthetic Centre' will certainly be found more convenient than to speak of a `Sense of Movement Centre'”(Bastian, as cited in the OED, 2002). Perhaps, then, kinesthetic learning is equivalent to sense of movement learning.
Thirty eight years later, H’Doubler used the term kinesthetic and its derivatives to create a number of phrases and express a variety of concepts, many related to learning (1940; reprinted 1988). By 1978 H’Doubler defined kinesthetic learning as “learning triggered by sensations that are generated by the body through motion, emotion, thoughts and ideas, and that is expressed through motion of the human body” (1978).
At about the same time, Mead and Bateson (1942), while doing research in Bali, described a traditional method of teaching in Balinese dance and general culture as
kinesthetic learning, defining the term as learning which involves body-to-body contact.
Among the Balinese, learning is very rarely dependent upon verbal teaching. Instead, the methods of learning are visual and kinaesthetic....The pupil either watches some other individual perform the act or he is made to perform the act by the teacher who holds his limbs and moves them correctly. During this process the pupil is entirely limp and appears to exhibit no resistant muscular tensions....Learning to walk, learning the first appropriate gestures of playing musical instruments, learning to eat, and to dance are all accomplished with the teacher behind the pupil, conveying directly by pressure, and almost always with a minimum of words, the gesture to be performed. Under such a system of learning, one can only learn if one is completely relaxed and if will and consciousness as we understand those terms are almost in abeyance. (1942, p. 84)

Mead and Bateson make a distinction here between kinesthetic, aural/verbal and visual learning, a distinction similar to those found in the learning styles theories of the Dunns and others. However, also note that even the Balinese tradition of visual learning as described above seems to have a kinesthetic foundation which involves the direct body-to-body transfer of information “first by manual manipulation, and later he will learn to follow visual cues”(1942, p. 84). This hints at kinesthetic learning as being a possible precursor for other kinds of learning.
I believe these three very different definitions of kinesthetic learning bear closer examination and comparison, and that in doing this something about the nature of kinesthetic learning and education itself may be revealed.
Bastian’s kinesthetic means sense of movement, so it seems important to look at sense as well as to consider what is it that’s moving. When we examine sense we find that its primary definitions consistently relate it directly to the body: “Each of the special faculties, connected with a bodily organ, by which man and other animals perceive external objects and changes in the condition of their own bodies....The faculties of physical perception or sensation as opposed to the higher faculties of intellect, spirit, etc” (OED, 2002).When we look at movement we find “The action or process of moving...change of position; passage from place to place, or from one situation to another”(OED, 2002). Putting these together, I begin to extrapolate kinesthetic as being or being related to a sense of the body moving, a perception of a change in condition or position, a sensation of change, and physical perception of passage from place to place.
The use of the word higher in the above definition of sense struck me. This definition is reflective of a culture which takes as a given the separation of physical perception or sensation from “higher faculties of intellect, spirit, etc”(OED, 2002). Part of my exploration into kinesthetic teaching/learning has to do with a curiosity about finding connection where there has been a separation between these things. Any “sense of movement” happens within and depends upon the body. Perhaps the very phrase “kinesthetic learning” puts back together things separated in the definitions above. In any case, Bastian’s being the original, I consider it to be the primary definition.
But we also have, from H’Doubler and Mead and Bateson, two additional and significantly different definitions of kinesthetic learning, which seem to have developed almost simultaneously. I believe these two definitions connect to a broader issue found in theories of teaching and learning, a duality which Dewey identified and tried to resolve. I see in the H’Doubler and Mead and Bateson definitions a manifestation of the dichotomy Dewey discussed between the internal and the external, the self and the community, the wisdom and knowledge of the past which is carried into the present in the culture we find ourselves in and which forms a continuum toward the future.
Embedded in this is the question of the learner as passive recipient or active, self-directed being. In the Mead and Bateson segment above, the learner “can only learn if one is completely relaxed and if will and consciousness as we understand those terms are almost in abeyance.” But H’Doubler’s learner seems to be tuning into the inner world of the self, and may not require the presence of an external teacher at all. Are these definitions at odds with one another? Or, do these two approaches to kinesthetic learning establish the range of what may be found within the kinesthetic teaching/learning spectrum? It’s notable that both forms of kinesthetic learning have a common ultimate goal of movement generated by the learner.
I believe, with all due respect, that Mead and Bateson haven’t got it quite right in their estimation of the kinesthetic learner’s will and consciousness being almost in abeyance. I think that a learner can consciously will her will to be in abeyance, and that doing so in a body-on-body learning situation can allow the learner to have internal kinesthetic learning experiences like those H’Doubler discusses, but in this case initiated by the physical presence of the teacher. I think this happened for Linda Myoki Lehrhaupt , who, in the book T’ai Chi as a Path of Wisdom, describes an experience she had while learning to play chess from Max, an elderly German master, when she was an eight year old girl at a summer camp community in New York. At first Max taught her verbally, explaining the rules of movement for each piece and a number of opening moves. Once this had been established, a new method of teaching/learning was employed.
One night Max told me it was my turn to play. He sat me on his lap, then whispered an opening move to me. As my young fingers moved toward the piece, Max wrapped his hand around my own. We moved together throughout the game as if we were one. I felt the energy and speed of battle, the lull as the armies regrouped, the cunningness as we faked a retreat, only to advance triumphantly the next second to outflank our opponent. I felt a sense of power emanating from my own center that I knew to be not yet completely mine, but something Max was letting flow through me....
Max and I opened. The rest of the game was a chess symphony. I don’t remember the notes we played, but even now my body remembers the sweeping orchestrations that we soared through. With Max guiding and moving with me, it felt as if I were enveloped in a great wave that continued endlessly across the ocean. At the same moment, Max and I uttered together, “Checkmate.”
Our partner shifted back in his chair. He looked at me with a kindly fierceness. I returned his gaze steadily, confident from our victory and from the presence of Max behind me. I thought he would growl at me in anger, but suddenly he slapped his hand on the table and said exuberantly, “Well done! You’ve trained her well, my old friend.”
As he rose to leave, he leaned over to me and whispered, “Wherever life leads you, little one, remember one thing: Let the spirit of the master move you.(2001, p.99)

For the older gentlemen in this story, a decidedly kinesthetic teaching/learning method seems to be part of their cultural norm. Yet Germany is a long way from Bali.8 Is this narrative at odds with Mead and Bateson’s interpretation that, in the way they have defined kinesthetic learning, “Under such a system of learning, one can only learn if ... will and consciousness as we understand those terms are almost in abeyance” (1942, 84). Mead and Bateson distinguish rote learning from learning by insight, a distinction which von Glasersfeld also makes, but they also imply that the kinesthetic learning they describe consists solely of rote learning and is devoid of opportunity for insight on the part of the learner. I believe the above narrative suggests that perhaps certain kinds of rote learning experiences, if structured mindfully by the teacher to be so, can allow the learner enough space within them to create opportunities for insight, construction and synthesis. This aligns with Dewey’s position that a balance and a mutual respect for both the position of the teacher and the student, the internal and the external, the self and the community, is necessary for learning to effectively happen. I would classify it as a kinesthetic teaching/learning experience, and I believe it illustrates a possible integration of the parallel definitions above.
It seems we need and use both internally and externally motivated learning in trying to make sense of our world and find our place in it. Dewey talks about balancing the internal and external. If most of what we learn has aspects of both this could lead to much confusion in teaching and learning and, I think does. For example, von Glasersfeld talks about what must be memorized as opposed to what must be understood, but most of life requires both rote, verbatim memorization of things and an internalized, self constructed understanding of our world. Perhaps learning benefits from times of both complete submission to a trusted teacher and the external authoritative dictates of the discipline being learned, and simultaneously or serially, benefits with like respect from the insights which can only arise from within the self as a result of processing information. Perhaps Bastian’s simpler and broader definition, a sense of movement learning which is not dependent on any specific structure or impetus, could embrace these both.

Kinesthetic Teaching/Learning Today
Since the1990’s, the term kinesthetic learning and the use of the word kinesthetic in conjunction with or in relation to learning had become ubiquitous in educational popular culture. In book and on web sites, finding the phrase kinesthetic learning is not difficult, but neither does it appear to have consistent meaning or definition. Considering the history of the phrase, however, this is not surprising. In contrast, in the academic literature of education I found the phrase kinesthetic learning and even the word kinesthetic to be relatively scarce (although it has increased considerably over the two years during which I’ve conducted this study). This presented a research challenge. I wondered why the term was so prevalent in books and on web sites yet so absent in the literature, and what other terms might be used in the literature which could mean something similar.
Although learning is not the same thing as intelligence, and therefore kinesthetic learning must be distinguished from Gardener’s bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, I think it’s important to examine Gardner’s definition of this intelligence. According to Gardener, the characteristics of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence involve two “core capacities,” “the ability to use one’s body in highly differentiated and skilled ways, for expressive as well as goal-directed purposes” and “the capacity to work skillfully with objects, both those that involve the fine motor movements of one’s fingers and hands and those that exploit gross motor movements of the body” (1983, p.206). Gardner points out that it’s easy to see these characteristics in athletes and dancers, but that we also must keep in mind actors, artisans and instrumentalists and, less obviously, inventors and any “individuals in whom the use of the body proves central”(1983, p.207). The “skilled performances” that a person with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence creates have certain components as well, such as a “well-honed sense of timing” (1983, p.208), and a “mastery of the possible alternatives” (1983, p.209).
As to a kinesthetic learning style, the Dunns assert that, “Learning style is a complex construct for which a comprehensive understanding is evolving” (Learning Styles Network. (2003). So true. A quick glance through the Theory Into Practice Database at reveals scores of teaching and learning theories with a variety of spectrums of learning styles.
Whatever the distinctions between intelligence types and learning styles, the use of the term kinesthetic is common to both, and in practice the two are coming together to influence teaching. Recent research reveals at least one study which examines Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence as praxis (Rockwood, 2003). In the first four months of the 2004-2005 school year, I’d had at least one opportunity per month to attend a professional development seminar on differentiated learning, creating a brain-friendly classroom, and multiple intelligences, each with promises to provide insight into kinesthetic teaching/learning.
So what does the phrase kinesthetic learning mean today? Studies like Katja Pylyshenko’s The Experience of Knowledge: A Post-modern Somatic Approach, provide a clue. Her phrase “what I call embodied or kinesthetic learning” (1996) implies two things to me; 1) that the term may not be well-defined, and 2) that what might be considered to be kinesthetic learning may be called by other names. As is made evident from the above definitions and history, the thing people are trying to get at when they use this fledgling term kinesthetic learning or when they say a person is a kinesthetic learner (as the Dunns have) or has bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (as Gardner has), may be many things. I’d been looking for the history and definitions of the specific term kinesthetic learning, but, just as the map is not the territory, the word is not the thing it represents. It became clear that I needed to also be looking for the history of the thing itself.

8I can’t help but wonder: what other kinesthetic teaching/learning traditions are yet still to be discovered?

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