Learning in Motion: What Your Movements Say About You

There’s a Big Bang The­o­ry episode in which Shel­don goes to Pen­ny to learn act­ing tech­niques to improve his teach­ing and con­nec­tion to his stu­dents. Pen­ny sug­gests that Shel­don “move around in the space! Do what­ev­er feels nat­ur­al,” as a warm-up exer­cise. If you’re a fan of the pop­u­lar sit-com, you can prob­a­bly guess that Penny’s move­ments are much dif­fer­ent than Sheldon’s. Penny’s flu­id, mod­ern-dance move­ments are a stark con­trast to Sheldon’s stiff, guard­ed motionlessness.

Sil­ly, yes, but that scene is actu­al­ly the per­fect illus­tra­tion for how our move­ment pref­er­ences reflect our learn­ing styles. The way we learn and the way we move are innate­ly inter­con­nect­ed. And if you want to expand on or change your style, you can start with chang­ing the way you move.

“Human move­ment is ever present and always reveal­ing,” is a con­clu­sion of Car­ol-Lynne Moore and Kaoru Yamamo­to in their book Beyond Words: Move­ment Obser­va­tion and Analy­sis, a study of the body lan­guage of move­ment. And in How You Learn Is How You Live, David A. Kolb and I talk about how people’s pre­ferred learn­ing styles are embod­ied in our habit­u­al movements.

As babies, we move in about 300 dif­fer­ent, flex­i­ble ways. But by the time we’re 30, we move in only about 10 dif­fer­ent ways habit­u­al­ly.  We have our rou­tines and they require cer­tain types of move­ment. Oth­er types of move­ment get elim­i­nat­ed. All that shows up in our style preferences.

For instance, how often do adults move side to side or use free-flow­ing move­ments like in mod­ern dance in the course of a reg­u­lar day? These move­ments sup­port cer­tain styles and con­strain us from using oth­ers. Grant­ed, there is an ele­ment of neces­si­ty here. By 30, we are often ingrained in a pro­fes­sion that requires hom­ing in on a spe­cif­ic style. Our habit­u­al move­ments and move­ment style reflect that.

Chang­ing that and becom­ing more adapt­able starts with aware­ness of our own move­ment habits.

For exam­ple, Lance, an accoun­tant, prefers the Ana­lyz­ing style. He spends most of his day sit­ting at a com­put­er, crunch­ing num­bers. Lance sits in a chair fac­ing for­ward, his arms nar­row­ly reach­ing out to his key­board. He keeps his low­er back rigid­ly straight and his shoul­ders slumped for­ward. His move­ments are slow and con­trolled. His vision is focused intent­ly on the com­put­er screen. His breath is shal­low and high in his chest. Even when he runs for exer­cise, his move­ments are rhyth­mi­cal and repet­i­tive. Like most adults, Lance spends so much time doing the same things every day in habit­u­al activ­i­ties that his move­ments are habit­u­al, too. His move­ment style has become limited.

How can phys­i­cal move­ments help us to move into dif­fer­ent styles?  To learn, we have to expe­ri­ence some­thing, so mov­ing in new ways puts us into the expe­ri­ence of being in the style.  To move to the Decid­ing learn­ing style, try stomp­ing around the room, pound­ing your fist on the table. To move to the Act­ing style, move quick­ly, increase your tem­po. To embody the Reflect­ing style, slow down, be still, with­draw back to an inward focus.

Once you expe­ri­ence these dif­fer­ent move­ment styles, it’s a self-per­pet­u­at­ing cycle: Con­scious­ly change your move­ment and you can expand your learn­ing style range to become more flex­i­ble; you may find your­self con­nect­ing with oth­ers bet­ter, teach­ing bet­ter, lead­ing with a strong sense of reach­ing those in your group. Then, as your learn­ing style changes, the way you move and car­ry your­self will change. And the cycle continues.

To explore var­i­ous move­ment styles, try watch­ing oth­ers and com­pare their move­ments to your own. As you exper­i­ment with dif­fer­ent forms of move­ment styles, notice which ones are com­fort­able and which feel new for you. When you build flex­i­bil­i­ty with your body by mov­ing in dif­fer­ent ways, you also build learn­ing flex­i­bil­i­ty by cre­at­ing an expe­ri­ence of stand­ing in the space of new styles.

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To learn more about the embod­i­ment of learn­ing styles and the con­nec­tion between learn­ing and move­ment, see How You Learn Is How You Live by Kay Peter­son and David A. Kolb. And for more on Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing, go to www.experientiallearninginstitute.org.