Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Kinesthetic learning: not just for kindergartners anymore

 If we subscribe to the old adage that students retain “10% of what they see, 30% to 40% of what they see and hear, and 90% of what they see, hear, and do,”     we are doing a disservice to our students.  Including kinesthetic activities enriches the classroom experience, helps students better retain content, and improves their critical thinking skills. “Learning by doing” also improves the classroom dynamic and creates a bond between students; their shared conviction that you’re crazy goes a long way.  I have reached these conclusions through my own experience employing kinesthetic techniques in my classroom rather than though surveys and statistics (Damn it, Jim, I’m a historian, not a social scientist).

I often begin the semester with an online quiz that assesses the students’ learning styles. I’ve used in the past. It’s not very scientific but it’s a quick, easy way for students to identify their learning style. They then report back to me with a few sentences explaining their style and an example of why they agree (or disagree) with their results. Almost all of my classes mirror the national averages of 15%-20% auditory learners, 40%-50% visual learners, and 35% to 40% kinesthetic learners.  Traditional lectures with images serve the auditory and visual learners but leave out those who learn best when immersed in a physical experience.

These activities provide new ways of engaging with primary sources and one of my favorite ways to do this is through dance. In my first half of the U.S. survey course, we read a period description of Shaker dancing and then go outside and try to replicate the dance as a group. Afterward, we watch a video produced at a Shaker living history museum to assess our success. I then segue into a discussion about what this dancing tells us about the Shakers and encourage the students to place the Shakers in the context of the world in which they lived. Though this process, students read a primary source (visual learning), translate that source into action (kinesthetic learning), and discuss the broader implications of the content they learned (auditory learning).

There are other, simpler ways to teach through physical experience. I spend a lot of time on consumer technologies in my second half of the U.S. survey and cell phone technology is always a hit. I bring in objects that are the approximate weight of different incarnations of the cellphone and have the students to hold it up to their ears for 10-20 seconds to experience the challenges of early cellphones. The Motorola DynaTac 8000x weighed about 2 pounds and many students struggle to keep the small brick I bring in up to their ear for more than 10 seconds.  This activity creates a great starting point for discussions of consumer desire and corporations’ commitment to developing improved consumer technologies; students get to experience just how far some consumers were willing to go to own the latest and best technologies.

Of course, there are limits to the practicality of kinesthetic teaching, some of which are not easily overcome. Classroom time is precious and activities like the Shaker dancing require more resources than you may be willing/able to commit. Some classrooms cannot accommodate physical activity and going outside may not be an option (I highly recommend going outside – students LOVE going outside).  Still, I urge you to find ways to incorporate kinesthetic teaching into your classroom. The trifecta of reading/ doing/ discussing better meets the needs of the students and creates opportunities for young teachers to improve their teaching skills.

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