Review by Monica Carol Miller
As part of West Virginia University Press’s formidable Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series, Susan Hrach’s Minding Bodies (2021) makes an important contribution to the theoretically grounded, brain-based science books in WVU’s series. As many other books in the series do, Hrach’s book provides educators with pedagogically sound, practical suggestions for ways to think about how movement and space affect learning. Hrach divides the book into three sections: “Awaken the Senses,” “Leverage the Body for Learning,” and “Break through Boundaries.” In the two sections within each section, Hrach explores how teachers can design both courses and lesson plans to capitalize on insights from the field of brain-based learning.
The book is organized around six principles of what Hrach characterizes as “embodied cognitive science”:
- “Like clouds on waves, our bodies are in a state of constant motion” (4);
- “Our ever-moving bodies prize energy efficiency” (6);
- “Our efficient bodies engage tools, technologies, and other people to extend our capacities” (8);
- “Each of us affects the embodied ecosystem of others” (10)
- “Knowledge is constructed through embodied existence” (13);
- “Our bodies reward learning” (15).
Hrach uses these principles to explore the ramifications and possibilities posed by the question, “[H]ow would education need to change if we addressed the primacy of physical movement (and bodily health) as fundamental to learning?” (6) Throughout, Hrach provides both research about
brain-based learning as well as specific activities to use in teaching which draw on these insights, from having students go on campus scavenger hunts to incorporating breathing exercises into the beginning of class.
Several recent books in the scholarship of teaching and learning such as John J. Ratey’s 2008 Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008) have focused on the importance of movement to learning. While Minding Bodies includes many ideas for including kinesthetic modes of learning in the classroom, it also expands the experience of physical space to include other sensory input, including visual, auditory, and even olfactory. For example, Hrach suggests calling student attention to the olfactory dimensions of their study spaces:
How do students describe the smell of your lab or studio or classroom, your library, your campus? See if you can collaboratively identify the mix of sources that produce this unique smell and encourage class members to connect themselves with the students who have experienced the smell of this space in the past. How are you all members of a unique and valuable community? (93).
Minding Bodies is full of such unique approaches to the physical space of learning, beyond the solely kinesthetic. Hrach’s expansive, creative understanding of such space leads her to provide a wide variety of pedagogical suggestions such as this one, encouraging students to claim the physical space of the classroom, thereby claiming their identity as members of their college community. In particular, Hrach provides a number of activities that encourage students to explore the classroom and the campus, finding and learning about the myriad campus resources that we wish they would take advantage of, whether tutoring services, recreational services, or even new study spaces.
I especially appreciate Hrach’s attention to the accessibility of physical space. One significant problem I face as a teacher is the problem of inaccessible classrooms–not only for finding ways to include students with physical disabilities in physical activities, but also for teaching in physical spaces that do not support physically active classes. Whether classrooms with immovable furniture or small classrooms with little room to move around, it is often logistically impossible to actually get students up and moving around the room in ways that I would like. And despite so many sun-dappled photographs in college recruiting brochures, the realities of holding class outside–lack of usable space, the discomfort of sitting on damp ground, and the general level of noise and distractions on college campuses–usually outweigh the delights of fresh air. Hrach directly addresses both ways to address student reluctance or inability to engage in classroom physical activities, and she encourages instructors to use transparency in working with students to find ways that all students can participate.
Hrach not only broadens the conversation about what physical activity in the classroom might mean for both teachers and students, but also addresses how best to secure both resources for such activities and the kind of administrative buy-in such experimental pedagogy might require. Academia’s privileged spaces affect the more-and less-welcome bodies which populate them; Hrach reminds us that teachers can create opportunities for conscious interaction with and claiming of such spaces. Providing ample research-based evidence for her suggestions, Minding Bodies is a cheering inspiration for enlivening classroom practices.
Monica Carol Miller is an assistant professor of English at Middle Georgia State University. Her first book, Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion, was published by Louisiana State University Press. She is the president of the Flannery O’Connor Society and the Secretary-Treasurer of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature.