Susan Griss’Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching the Elementary Curriculum: Part 1

Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching the Elementary Curriculum: Part 1

Susan Griss has an extensive background as a dancer, choreographer, artist-in-residence, educational consultant and facilitator for professional development. A teacher after my own heart, she draws on this range of experience to develop clear and thoughtful methods for teaching the elementary curriculum through a kinesthetic approach.

Griss offers both a book and website to share her methods and insights.  Her website includes a biography, sample lessons, articles and a thorough summary of her thinking about kinesthetic learning.  You can visit her site at: http://mindsinmotion.org/home.html.  In addition, her articles on kinesthetic teaching have appeared in Educational Leadership, the Smith College Alumnae Quarterly, and Teaching Artist Journal.

If you see her website and want more, I highly recommend her book, Minds in Motion: A Kinesthetic Approach to Teaching the Elementary Curriculum, published by Heinemann in 1998.  Griss offers many strategies to connecting mind and body to teach the whole child. Reading her book moved me from a theoretical appreciation for kinesthetic learning to having clear, manageable and meaningful ideas I can actually try in my classroom right away, as well as deeper understanding for developing kinesthetic lessons of my own in the future.

I won’t try to summarize her whole book, especially as she explains herself so well on her website, but I’ll share what stood out most to me, and how Griss’ book helped me develop my thinking about kinesthetic learning in my classroom. This post focuses on her book’s first chapter.

Why a Kinesthetic Approach?

Cognitive Development

Griss’ first chapter, “All Children Want to Move,” points to appealing benefits of kinesthetic learning.  She explains that kinesthetic learning is experiential learning, and she also draws on the work of Karla Hannaford, who believes that our bodies can anchor our learning (“Movement anchors thought”).  As an example, she describes a lesson based on a kinesthetic demonstration of a scientific principle – a line of students demonstrating the way a sound wave moves.

Griss reminds us of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, particularly the way developmental stages build upon previous stages; sensory-motor development is connected to cognitive development.  Griss points to Piaget’s “preoperational period” between ages two and seven, during which “concrete and motor examination of many dimensions of the external world” support the development of “higher-order, abstract thought processes” (p. 3).  She also notes that in the following stage, the “concrete operations” period, even though the power of thought is becoming more developed, children still have an active and concrete relationship to the world.  In short, sensory-motor development is foundational for, and intertwined with, cognitive development.

Griss’ chapter brings a new level of importance to kinesthetic learning – as a way to support cognitive development for all students.  We want our classrooms to help all students succeed.  If we know that students are at varied levels of development in different areas (and that each student can operate from different levels of development in different situations), then it seems reasonable that many learners would often need to ground their learning in concrete and experiential ways.  In addition, I wonder if children (and some adults?) never totally outgrow the need to anchor learning in a sensory-motor way.  For people who may have experienced trauma and/or poverty, or other challenges, kinesthetic experiences may be helpful – even necessary – to “fill in the gaps” from limited exploration or integration at certain levels of development.

Affective Benefits

Griss also points to affective benefits; she explains how in addition to academics, “Children are also learning how to interact with others; how they fit into the world around them; who they are; how to pursue and complete projects…. Whether or not they think they deserve respect; whether or not they should trust themselves; whether or not they have the ability to succeed” (p. 6).  Kinesthetic learning can support these outcomes, both as a body-based innovation and because it can offer the benefits of an integrated arts experience.

Griss develops this connection between kinesthetic learning and the arts as she writes, “Kinesthetic learning shares the power of all the arts to provide a deep, personal space for exploration of the self and the world – a private space that can nonetheless be shared” (p. 7).  Her observation highlights a layer beyond the content-focused physical learning demonstrated in Jean Blaydes’ DVD, How to Make Learning a Moving Experience, to include social-emotional benefits through exploring students’ inner and outer worlds through a kinesthetic language.

Finding Success

Griss explains with conviction that kinesthetic learning offers students alternative pathways to grasping the subject matter – she calls it “Saving Students from Failure.” Griss describes how kinesthetic learning can help students find success.  She brings this idea to life in the following passage:

“Rodney is a good example.  Stumbling through a paragraph that is two years beneath his grade level, his eyes wander out the window to let him escape his frustration and embarrassment.  But thirty minutes later, he demonstrates – with confidence and professionalism – the choreography he was taught a week before.  Interpreting the nature of the main character in a Dr. Seuss story, he weaves his way from upstage to downstage at the appropriate cue.  Adept at this kinetic vocabulary, he helps other slower learners remember their parts.  Rodney is developing reading comprehension skills through a kinesthetic retelling of the story” (p. 9).

She describes how this engagement helps him to focus during his regular reading lessons.  While some might argue that struggling readers need to spend their time reading, not dancing, Griss talks about how “kinesthetic learning can save some children from the spiral of academic failure,” offering a source of motivation, an avenue to find “focused energy and strong intent,” opening up learning channels and reducing resistance.

The Creative Process

I found especially profound Griss’ connection to dance and the creative process.  Choreography consists of “making formal and aesthetic decisions to create a dance that can be repeated.”  Griss acknowledges that “not all teachers are able to guide students through the creative process through the medium of movement,” rather she advocates for a “team approach” that brings out the best that artists and teachers have to offer students – the artist-in-residence or the arts-in-education institute.

Griss beautifully describes the choreographic process:  students “develop the germ of an idea through many stages of brainstorming and exploration, analysis and synthesis, refinement and editing.”  She shows how the cognitive skills of Bloom’s taxonomy parallel the choreographic process, Griss demonstrates that, “By providing children with a physical language to experience the creative process – a process which some cannot [yet] access through the written word – we can deepen their cognitive development” (p. 13).  This is a much deeper process than simply demonstrating a concept or anchoring key words through gestures.

I personally appreciate the distinction between teacher and artist that Griss makes.  She reminds us, “Dance is an art form in its own right and should be presented with integrity by an experienced artist” (p. 13).  I forget that, as I have played both roles in my life and I sometimes don’t notice how the lines can blur for me.  So this section of the book holds gems for both my teacher and my artist selves:  Griss’ detailed and deep description of the creative process will enrich and clarify the work I do in the summers as an artist-in-residence, and I’d like to explore the whole-group lesson, “Choreographing a Book Report” as an enrichment for my class at least one time this spring, before the school year ends.   After that, I can better make decisions about its value in teaching our curriculum goals.

Another, maybe simpler, way to try out kinesthetic learning in reading would be to read a poem as a class and come up with movements for the lines/stanzas of the poems.  On last year’s standardized testing, some students struggled with understanding and responding to poetry.  It would be very helpful to find out if kinesthetic learning would help deepen students’ understanding of poetry.  I’ll let you know what we find out, and I’d love to hear what others are trying, or have tried, or are thinking about trying, in their own work with learners and learning!

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