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Putting the Body back into School

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

"Intelligence: a patient willingness to say "I don't know" and abide in uncertainty." - Intelligence in the Flesh

When schools were originally being designed, they incorporated the then-widespread view that minds were totally different from and smarter than bodies. Everything to do with human intelligence at its best – logical reasoning, linguistic fluency, aesthetic appreciation, mathematical sophistication – were exclusively to do with the mind, and had nothing to do with the body. Bodies were just ways of getting your mind from place to place, and of taking care of the physiological housekeeping. Thus the curriculum was built around a hierarchy of esteem for different kinds of human accomplishment, with the most abstract and rational at the top and the most bodily at the bottom. The more intelligence you had, the more you would, almost as a law of nature, aspire to the realms of mathematics and grammar, and disdain the lowly pursuits of carpentry and football. If you were ‘bright’ you did Latin and trigonometry; if ‘dull’ you did Physical Education and Design Technology. Those values persist to this day. Look at which subjects get included in (or excluded from) the high-status ‘English baccalaureate’. Look at how much time each gets during the week.

This view of minds and bodies is now comprehensively discredited, so the foundations of traditional schooling are no longer solid rock but have crumbled into sand. The new science of ‘embodied cognition’ – the basis of my book Intelligence in the Flesh – tells us that bodies are not merely vehicles or skivvies of the mind, they are critical to it. For example:

  1. How you think depends on how you are sitting. Sit up straight, chest out, and you will solve anagram puzzles more quickly and accurately. Adopt such a ‘power pose’ before going in to an interview and you will perform better.

  2. The depth of your normal breathing correlates with your IQ. Breathe faster or more shallowly and the quality of the energy being provided to those little grey cells deteriorates and you can entertain fewer and less complicated thoughts.

  3. Develop greater sensitivity to your heartbeat and your decision-making and your creativity improve. Einstein famously said that he got the insights that led to the theory of relativity by attending to physical stirrings and promptings in his body.

  4. Many people – philosophers as well as footballers – think their best thoughts when they are being physically active. Theatre directors as well as sports coaches know that many smart people have to move to think. Craftsmen and artists of all kinds know that you think with your hands as well as with your brain.

  5. Whether you find arithmetic involving negative numbers easy or hard turns out to depend on physical imagery. If you think of ‘subtracting’ as taking things away from a pile, you can’t imagine having less than no-things, but if you see it as walking backwards on a path towards where you started, it’s easy to imagine walking back through ‘zero’ and heading in the opposite direction. Our concrete, physical experience underpins even our loftiest thoughts.

  6. Change your body – change even your awareness of your body – and your precious intelligence – memory, problem-solving, creativity – changes too. Your whole body – your heart, your stomach, your immune system – talk so constantly and intricately to your brain, that every little somatic shift conditions what the rest of the brain is capable of thinking.

This science has caused a seismic shift in the ground on which education is built. Emotions are not anathema to intelligence, they are integral to it. Take away our feelings and we are not more intelligent but less. Drain the passion out of our intelligence and we are left with a kind of bloodless cleverness that may enable us to bamboozle political opponents with rhetoric tricks but which is quite unable to get to the human heart of the matter. Our top schools (and Ofsted) have prided themselves on turned out future leaders who are erudite and rational, but who, very often, lack common sense, let alone the wise judgement that the world needs. Meanwhile, every year tens of thousands of intelligent young people who are sensitive to the nuances of the physical and social worlds, but unable or unwilling to mug up the Periodic Table or the sub-plots of Othello for an exam, are made, iniquitously, to feel stupid or second rate. But it is the defenders of this antiquated and lop-sided curriculum who should feel ashamed of themselves, not the dancers, carers and mechanics.

You can order Intelligence in the Flesh here.

This blog post was originally written for the Expansive Education Network Blog.

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