A Powerful Tool for Both Learners & Teachers



Larry Ferlazzo invited me to answer this question on his Ed Week Teacher blog: “What is an instructional strategy and/or teaching concept that you think is under-used/under-appreciated in the classroom that you think should be practiced more widely?”  I am sharing my response here but do check out the other answers!

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Every day students of all ages come to school with a powerful tool for mathematical reasoning but rarely get the opportunity to harness its full potential. When this tool, our students’ own bodies, are used, the activity is typically relegated to acts of memorization that lead no further than the next test. In contrast, taking math off the page and into the spatial, embodied realm of the whole, moving body has great potential to open up new avenues for understanding. Here are some examples of how a whole body, #movingmath approach can open up new opportunities for learning in a variety of grades and settings:

  1. Changing the scale:  When you change the scale of the math you are already exploring in your classroom you provide learners with the opportunity to get to know math from a completely new and novel perspective. Whether it’s exploring  number patterns on a scaled-up hundred chart, physically experiencing magnitude, scale, distance, and direction on an open body-scale number line, or noticing new things about polygons using lengths of knotted rope, learners collaborate, discuss, evaluate, reflect upon, record their activity, and start to connect it to other experiences in which they encounter and use these ideas. Seeing connections develops intuition,” Dan McQuillan at the University of Norwich tweeted recently. “Proofs are great; just like climbing trees, but the ability to swing from tree to tree is also great.”CH3P26
  2. Reasoning in action: During a Proving Center lesson Kindergarten students were asked to work in teams of four or five to find the center of an 11- cell structure, which looks a bit like a ladder.  Children were able to find the “center” of the object with their bodies rather quickly but their biggest challenge was to justify their physical reasoning. Lana Pavlova, an elementary teacher from Calgary, Canada told me that some of her students’ reasoning included “Because five is the same as five”, “Because these two sides are equal”, “Because it is exactly the half”.  Another student said that “not all numbers have the middle, six doesn’t. One has the middle and it’s one.” Lana told me, “I was very impressed by the kids’ reasoning. I also want to highlight how important the initial ‘explore’ stage is [and that] the movement IS the reasoning tool.”Fairhill ladder
  3. A reason to persevere: Lisa Ormsbee, a P.E. teacher at Fairhill School in Dallas,TX spent three weeks this past June running an enrichment program using movement and rhythm to explore and deepen enjoyment and understanding of math with intermediate students, many of whom exhibited what she called “math reluctance.” One of her main activities was Math in Your Feet  which requires precise physical/spatial reasoning around rotations,  categories of pattern properties, unitzing, complex patterning, equivalence, and perseverance to create original foot-based patterns. Lisa told me, “The kids were ALL so engaged in this activity! It was extremely hard for a couple of students, but because they were working with a partner they were more interested in “sticking in there” where it was uncomfortable until they got it!”rb-5a
  4. Cognition is embodied: “Conceptualising the body, in mathematics, as a dynamic cognitive system enables students and teachers’ physical, visual, verbal, written, mental, and (in)formal activity to be taken not simply as representations  of abstract spatial concepts but…as corporeal and contextually grounded forms of cognition.” [Spatial Reasoning in the Early Years, Davis et al. 2015]

Overall, no math concept can be understood completely in one representation or modality.  Similarly, not all math can be explored with the body. Whole-body math may be a novel approach for many but it’s also clear that it can be a powerful tool for both learners and teachers.

Malke Rosenfeld is a dance teaching artist, author, editor, math explorer, and presenter coverwhose interests focus on the learning that happens at the intersection of math and the moving body. She also delights in creating rich environments in which children and adults can explore, make, play, and talk math based on their own questions and inclinations. Her book Math on the Move: Engaging Students in Whole Body Learning,  was published by Heinemann in 2016.

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