Embodied Learning: Research & Thoughts

Chemistry in the SMALLab. Credit: Ken Howie Photography> In this post I’ll go over two applications of embodied learning. First is SMALLab, a learning environment using motion-capture technology and large scale projections to track movements in space, and second is Science Choreography, a project through Wesleyan University and the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange that combines…

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Chemistry in the SMALLab. Credit: Ken Howie Photography
Chemistry in the SMALLab. Credit: Ken Howie Photography>

In this post I’ll go over two applications of embodied learning. First is SMALLab, a learning environment using motion-capture technology and large scale projections to track movements in space, and second is Science Choreography, a project through Wesleyan University and the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange that combines art, science, and kinesthetic learning to teach science topics. But before getting into all of that, a look at what embodied learning actually means:


The SMALLab website defines embodied learning as “a field that blends the learning sciences and human computer interaction”. Science Choreography deals more with the direct translation of a process or concept into movement. In this video, Liz Lerman describes, “when you embody a process you start to realize what you don’t understand, and you begin to ask questions because you want to get the movements right.” In embodied learning, physical movement is the medium through which we internalize knowledge.

A few learning theories relevant to embodied learning are embodied cognition, differentiated instruction, and social constructivism. Some quick-ish definitions before getting into the examples:

  1. Embodied Cognition is the argument that all aspects of cognition are determined by the body. This includes higher level cognition like reasoning, judgement, and categorization.
  2. Differentiated instruction refers to a teaching philosophy contrary to the “one size fits all” model that many schools go by today. Students are provided avenues for learning and assessment that are effective for all students, regardless of ability.
  3. Social Constructivism refers to a teaching style where instructors are more like facilitators (as is the case with SMALLab Learning), and the group learns as a whole. Constructivism itself is the theory that knowledge is created only when new information intersects existing knowledge. It is a primary component of Connected Learning (maybe more on that in a future post).


SMALLab, or “Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab”, is a motion capture system that users interact with using a wand to manipulate images on a large scale projection. It was created in 2010 at Arizona State University by a team led by David Birchfield. Here is an excellent presentation he gave at the Cyberlearning Research Summit in 2012:

SMALLab’s overall mission is to blend direct physical experience with abstract representations of knowledge. I’ve been very lucky to try out the SMALLab at Elizabeth Forward Middle School (and am very very excited to have the opportunity to work on some actual games! More on that soon). Elizabeth Forward has partnered with teams at the ETC, including BrainSTEM, who created a vocabulary game, Prefix Pagoda, and a couple of math games for the system.

Dave Faulkner, one of the BrainSTEM team members (and my friend!), wrote about the SMALLab and some of the design challenges it presents. Notably:

  1. Teachers become facilitators. As in social constructivism, the teacher in a SMALLab classroom is no longer the focus and sole provider of information. When designing for the SMALLab, you have to consider the new role of the teacher and how to involve him/her in the experience.
  2. Not all students can participate at one time. Only a couple of students can be holding wands at once, so what do the remaining ~15 students do? There needs to be a way to include everyone in the experience.

Further, there are the challenges all educational games face. As outlined in Moving Learning Games Forward: Obstacles, Opportunites, & Openness, educational games struggle with:

  1. The need to cover mandated content areas. Ahh, standardized tests.
  2. Healthy skepticism of new technologies (combined with a lack of infrastructure for these technologies). Equipping a school with new technologies is very expensive, and the effects are often unproven.
  3. An unfamiliarity with games and no easy route to game competence. Many (if not most) teachers don’t play games, let alone design them. Understandably, it would be intimidating for these teachers to entrust part of a class to a tool they haven’t used.

Educational games often fall into the trap of Integrated Learning Systems:

Sadly, while they may go by the name “games” they usually end up being little more than interactive quizzes. The resemblance to a game is meaningless when the activity is nothing more than answering multiple-choice questions and when success is measured solely as the percentage of correct answers given expressed as a “score” and presented with a fun animation (source).

Another potential danger I see with SMALLab game design is that a lack of meaningful interactions might be obscured by the medium of physicality. For example, a game where you use the wand to drag and drop images onto vocabulary words might seem effective, but only because of the unique opportunity for movement. In reality, it is not different than the games described in the above quote.

SMALLab Learning (the company) is working on additional embodied learning tools including Flow, a system using a motion tracking device similar to Kinect that brings embodied learning to existing interactive whiteboards and projection surfaces.

Science Choreography

Science Choreography is a set of tools and modules to teach science to students of all ages. The tools draw heavily from dance and theater exercises, and utilize open ended questions to encourage innovative thinking. Music and sometimes projects are also incorporated into the exercises.

The project began when choreographer Liz Lerman created a multimedia dance performance, Ferocious Beauty: Genome. The piece “explores the current historic moment of revelation and questioning in genetic research”, and was inspired in 2002 with the public announcement of human genome sequencing. Lerman collaborated with scientists, artists, and educators nationally, and worked with Wesleyan University and project through and the Dance Exchange to create a movement based toolbox to teach science and creative thinking. A video about the project:

The Science Choreography website includes a series of teaching modules in addition to the tools mentioned above. The tools are very similar to improv games and warmups, it’s inspiring to think about applying them to other topics. Some of the tools (more here):

  1. Warmup. Very similar to the improv warm up games I am so familiar with, these exercises intend to break down some initial tension and to, well, warm up.
  2. Ask a Question. The teacher/facilitator in the class asks a question (like “What are bonds?”), and students move around the room to music. When the music stops, students pair up and discuss the question. The questions are constructed to build upon each other, moving from open-ended to specific and challenging.
  3. Walk and Talk. Students line up and the facilitator asks a question. The students have a certain number of passes around the room to answer the question, and then walk around answering the question to themselves. As in “Ask a Question”, the prompts progress to more direct questions.
  4. Equivalents.. This exercise is a “tool to build a sentence in movement that is equivalent to a language sentence” and is intended to help students better remember information. For example, what does the word “the” look like in movement? What about “genetics” or “inherited”? I like this one.
  5. Empathy. This tool encourages observation and embodiment. Students find partners. One simply stands, and the other observes, noticing small details in the other’s stance. The facilitator give physical prompts and the observing student mirrors the stance of the observed.


Combining the Two

The tools from Science Choreography would be fantastic design guides for SMALLab games. For example, in the “Equivalents” step, students might draw or collage elements on the SMALLab board to create the representations of various terms and concepts. In the “Ask a Question” stage, students might walk around the SMALLab board and when the music stops, they have to be in a certain quadrant and complete a task. 

Movement as Metaphor

I’ve always been into the idea of using game mechanics as metaphor. In lieu of this research (and my experience with improv), I am also very interested in exploring movement itself as metaphor for the subject matter of a course.

For example, in the web development class I am co-teaching at the Saxifrage School, I came up with a role-playing exercise to help students learn Git. Students assumed the roles of Sally the coder, a local repository, Git, and a remote Github repository. We were able to emulate pushing, pulling, committing, branching, conflicts and more by moving the repositories’ arms or legs to emulate changing a file. For example, Sally moves the local repository’s arm to the left, commits the change, then pushes it to Github, where Git walks over to Github and moves his/her arm to the same position. I promise to write a more detailed post about this.

The Dance Exchange’s D|Lab includes an exercise called Movement Metaphor in their Toolbox for instructors, which functions to “generate movement vocabulary”. My idea of movement as metaphor is more about emulating the larger architecture of a process or concept, rather than breaking down specific terms. It would work well with technical topics like the example above, and I think would be effective with liberal arts, particularly philosophy. I’m in the beginning stages of designing a game/exercise to emulate historical conflicts for the SMALLab at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. Progress updates coming later this summer.

In Conclusion

There is much more I want to address here, so I’m adding this anecdote of future post topics because committing to things publicly supposedly helps you complete them.

  • We need a new word. I keep labeling my ideas and work as “games”, but in many cases they are more accurately “interactive learning experiences”. I’ve written before about the many definitions of game, and some of them apply. But when it comes down to articulating my thoughts to others, the term “game” doesn’t work.
  • More details on the Git “game” mentioned above, and strategies for simulating technical topics with movement.
  • SMALLab games for Elizabeth Forward. More ideas on how to incorporate the Science Choreography tools, and details on the game I am creating about conflict. Coming later this summer.

That’s all!