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Skip to 0 minutes and 1 second In the EF mass guidance report it refers to manipulatives and the use of those to support learning into scaffolds towards an abstract understanding. And I was wondering whether they are used because to hold them physically and the movement of the body helps to support the understanding, or whether it’s because it’s helping you to understand that there are other ways of representing that form and that calculation. I think it’s a bit of both. What we need to remember is that we’re asking children in the end to manipulate numbers and symbols and solve problems completely in their heads, in an abstract way, which is a really challenging thing for them to do.

Skip to 0 minutes and 50 seconds So doing work with manipulatives where children can move objects around in front of them gives them that kind of physical experience that they can then internalize. So without having lots of that experience with objects and manipulatives, they’ve got nothing to internalize to then work in that abstract way that we’re looking for in the end. We do something similar, I think, in the secondary sector, using students modeling with themselves, to be their own external representation of what you’re talking about, as an abstract concept. Where you do it with showcasing the differences in three states of matter. They pretend they’re different molecules, or how they’re packed, how they move.

Skip to 1 minute and 30 seconds They do it in representing electric current, and how they move around series and parallel circuits. Does that tie into what you’re saying? Yeah, and I think what you’ve got in that example is in a sense of the increasing the depths of connection that students have with different representations. So some of those kinds of things that you talk about, the structure and movement of molecules, isn’t something we can actually see very easily. So modeling that physically gives children just another way of understanding what they’re going to be talking about and how they’re thinking about different phases of matter.

Skip to 2 minutes and 10 seconds So what we’re talking about here with representing things in different ways would support the mastery curriculum with different ideas of the concrete, and the pictorial, and the abstract? Yeah, so I think a big part of what we’re talking about in mastery is increasing the depths of understanding that students have. And I think what we’re really talking about is the different kinds of representations that children have of concepts, and of the connections between different concepts. And the more kind of accessible representations that children have, and the more children have worked on the connection between those representations, the more of a kind of flexible platform of understanding they’ve got to then build on in the future.

Examples of physical experience in learning

We’ve established that teaching a student in one modality, according to their preferred learning style (visual, auditory or kinesthetic) is not an effective way to build knowledge. However, physically exploring ideas can provide a different representation of a new concept for all students.

In the video above Mari and Eleanor discuss two examples of using movement to help their students understand something new. Tim explains that the main aim of using movement is to help internalise abstract concepts, either by physically modelling an idea to create an alternative representation or to have a physical experience of an idea.

Some examples

In a recent study, students’ understanding of angular momentum increased (with consequently higher test scores) when they were encouraged to explore the idea physically with the help of bicycle wheels (Kontra et al., 2015). Brain imaging showed their improved performance could be explained by additional activation of sensorimotor brain regions, when students were acting out their reasoning about angular momentum. This additional video shows how you can do this in the classroom.

When kindergarten children were asked to compare quantities using a full-body movement on a digital dance mat, stepping to the left or right according to whether one number was larger than another. Compared with responding by ticking a box, the spatial training enhanced children’s performance on a number line estimation task and on a subtest of a standardised mathematical assessment (Fischer et al, 2011).

A third example involves a mixed-reality learning environment. In a titration experiment carried out by pairs of students, learning was improved when one student added base molecules while the other added acid molecules, grabbing virtual molecules with their physical wands and then tossing them into a virtual flask (Johnson-Glenberg et al, 2014).

In your classroom you will use learning with movement regularly. This is particularly the case with STEM subjects. The task below asks you to consider one activity in detail and justify why movement supports the learning of that idea. You may wish to think about the role of practical activities and where students act out concepts, as well as how physical objects supplement other representations. Draw upon what you have learnt this week to support your justification.


Choose a lesson that you will teach this week and plan to use an activity where students will physically explore an idea. You can choose a concept you’ve taught with movement before, or try out something new.

In the comments below:

  1. Explain your activity.
  2. How does it use movement to support learning?
  3. Why is movement effective in learning this particular concept? Consider alternatives.

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This video is from the free online course:

The Science of Learning

National STEM Learning Centre