Learning in Motion: What Your Movements Say About You

Kay Peterson

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.