Minding the body in physics education
How insights from embodied cognition can boost instructional practices in physics
Why do you like physics? Because you can make sense of the phenomena around you? Like apples falling and waves crashing? Or because you enjoy the dizzy feeling of pondering the frontiers of our knowledge? Like whizzing neutrinos and merging black holes? Maybe you love tinkering and using your hands in the lab? Laughing and chatting with colleagues while trying to work out the solution of a differential equation?
Common to all these experiences is that they are deeply linked to our bodies – and how we use those bodies to engage with the world. Our experiences of the world would be fundamentally different if we were an octopus, having eight arms and a nervous system spreading throughout those arms. Instead, we are erect apes whose internal motor programmes are tuned to our up-down orientation. And the structure of those motor programmes shapes our cognitive functions – which play a fundamental role in concept definition, rational inferences and many other activities we associate with doing physics. In short: our human bodies enable and restrict our abilities to think scientifically (figure 1).
Figure 1 – Theories of embodied cognition suggest that our bodies and bodily experiences enable and restrict our abilities to understand physics concepts and derive mathematical models of these concepts. (Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels)
The idea that we can understand the workings of our mind by understanding the links between our bodies and cognition is not new. In fact, recent years have seen much excitement about embodied cognition in disciplines as diverse as the cognitive sciences, artificial intelligence, robotics, or linguistics, to name a few. As an educational researcher, I am most excited about translating embodied cognition research to the context of physics and science education. Suppose that physics learning does not solely happen in the brain (figure 2). How can successful instructional strategies then tap into the embodied experiences of students?
Figure 2 – If physics learning does not solely happen in the brain, how can we tap into the embodied experiences of students to support their learning? (Photo by SHVETS production from Pexels)
Guided by that question, I dug myself into philosophy and psychology books and discussed my ideas with colleagues. Eventually, what emerged was a typology of embodied science education that clarifies how the body bears on science learning in multiple ways (Kersting et al., 2021). If you are a physics education researcher, or an embodied cognition nerd – or both (just like me!), I invite you to read our latest paper to learn more about this typology. More important than the academic paper, though, is that we can translate our research into practical tips for teaching physics. Because good physics education is what we care about, right? Let’s look at three embodied strategies we can employ to help students grasp physics concepts better.
Strategy 1: Invite students to identify with science concepts
Physicists routinely use identification strategies to facilitate their understanding of concepts that are not directly accessible by perception. Such acts of imaginary identification can mean embodying a scientific scenario or placing oneself into a scientific representation. A famous example is Albert Einstein, who imagined riding on a ray of light when working out the details of special relativity. More generally, physicists often assume the perspective of physical entities to think through physics problems. Instructional strategies can deliberately invite students to experience and express such first-person involvement with science concepts, too. Successful cases of imaginary identification include particle physics where students can embody elementary particles (Nikolopoulos & Pardalaki, 2020), thermodynamics where students enact energy transfers and transformations (Scherr et al., 2013), or quantum physics where students take the role of quantum states (López-Incera & Dür, 2019). These cases show that embodying scientific ideas can foster physics learning and engagement.
Strategy 2: Use tools to offload cognitive work onto the environment
An exciting implication of embodied cognition is that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource that students have available to solve problems. When designing instructional activities, we can make it easier for students to use tools with “cognitive value”, i.e., devices that allow students to offload cognitive work onto the environment. One such tool is probeware that connects sensors to a computer to collect and analyse data in real-time. The ability to visualise and view real-time data in the lab can support students in solving tasks in classical mechanics (Bernhard, 2010). For example, what does it mean that the velocity or acceleration is zero at a certain point in time, and how can students represent this scenario by moving their bodies? Rather than spending time on typical lab activities such as making measurements, writing data in a table, or generating a graph by hand, students can focus on interpreting the graphs that the probeware generates in real-time. In other words, students can offload some of the tasks involved in developing data onto the probeware. Physics educators have pointed to the instructional potential of such exercises (Bernhard, 2010). These exercises promote students’ conceptual understanding by tapping into their ability to use the environment as part of their problem-solving strategies.
Strategy 3: Use embodied metaphors to make abstract physics more concrete
Many physics concepts are intangible and far from what we can perceive directly. To make sense of abstract concepts such as atoms, entropy, or curved spacetime, students often draw on an embodied transfer mechanism to map what they know onto what they don’t know. Here, metaphors serve as the cognitive tool to prompt such mappings between everyday experiences and more abstract domains. For example, our language reflects metaphorical mappings when we talk about abstract ideas in everyday life. With expressions such as “I am in trouble” or “I am getting into trouble”, the embodied experience of up and down is transferred from the domain of physical objects to that of an emotional state: the deeper you are in trouble, the harder it is to get out of it.
We often employ a similar mechanism in learning and doing physics: we imagine atoms like solar systems, waves, or clouds; we think of entropy as disorder and spacetime as a rubber sheet (figure 3). This transfer of inferential structures from everyday experiences to abstract concepts accounts for the importance of embodiment in abstract physics thinking – and allows us to tailor instructional metaphors to students’ needs. The key to employing such metaphors successfully is to ground metaphors in embodied sources, that is, in bodily experiences of students: if we construct metaphors that are too complex and cannot be embodied by students, these metaphors often miss their target (Niebert et al., 2012). Besides, it is important to address that metaphors always have limitations: they can break down when being pushed too far (Kersting & Steier, 2018).
Figure 3 – A popular instructional metaphor compares spacetime to a rubber sheet. But of course, there are limits to the explanatory power of this metaphor. (The comic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License and can be accessed under https://xkcd.com/895/).
Bernhard, J. (2010). Insightful learning in the laboratory: Some experiences from 10 years of designing and using conceptual labs. European Journal of Engineering Education, 35(3), 271–287. https://doi.org/10.1080/03043791003739759
Kersting, M., Haglund, J., & Steier, R. (2021). A Growing Body of Knowledge: On Four Different Senses of Embodiment in Science Education. Science & Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-021-00232-z
Kersting, M., & Steier, R. (2018). Understanding curved spacetime—The role of the rubber sheet analogy in learning general relativity. Science & Education, 27(7), 593–623. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-018-9997-4
López-Incera, A., & Dür, W. (2019). Entangle me! A game to demonstrate the principles of Quantum Mechanics. American Journal of Physics, 87(2), 95–101. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.5086275
Niebert, K., Marsch, S., & Treagust, D. F. (2012). Understanding Needs Embodiment: A Theory-Guided Reanalysis of the Role of Metaphors and Analogies in Understanding Science. Science Education, 96(1), 849–877. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21026
Nikolopoulos, K., & Pardalaki, M. (2020). Particle dance: Particle physics in the dance studio. Physics Education, 55, 025018.
Scherr, R. E., Close, H. G., Close, E. W., Flood, V. J., McKagan, S. B., Robertson, A. D., Seeley, L., Wittmann, M. C., & Vokos, S. (2013). Negotiating energy dynamics through embodied action in a materially structured environment. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 9(2), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevSTPER.9.020105