What is the best way to form students? If we believed people are solely rational beings whose minds resemble computers, then education would look a certain way. We would want our classrooms to resemble sterile labs where students would sit still most of the day while being fed data.
But if we believe that we are psychosomatic beings—that we are body and soul united—then reaching students, forming them, involves teaching them through their senses as well. It involves the practice of what might be called embodied learning.1
The idea of embodied learning, or learning by activating the senses, is not new, but old. It is tied to both the classical ideal and Catholic tradition, which affirms that “as creatures made in God’s image we are composite beings—unions of body and soul.”2 Embodied learning allows us to tune the hearts and minds of children to what is real and true. We learn reverence, for example, when we genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament more than when we are simply told to “be reverent.” We learn courage when we read or perform a play about brave deeds more than when we are simply told to “have courage.”
St. Jerome School emphasizes embodied learning because we believe that students are more than just minds but that they are a unity of body and soul. Some of the best examples of embodied learning at St. Jerome are related to our history sequence since our teachers attempt to bring their time period to life through songs, activities, and the art and literature surrounding the period they teach. And of all of these history-related examples, one of the most memorable this year is the first-grade Trojan Horse project.
Mrs. Byers’ first-graders (in “The Greek Year”) not only learned about the Trojan War through reading and didactic instruction, but they also learned about the Trojan War through their senses. How did they manage this? By recreating the Trojan horse and reenacting a Trojan Horse invasion. What a day! Here are a few pictures which capture the event.
Time to hop inside!
Shhh! I bet the third-graders will take our “gift.”
We can even “invade” the front office to visit Mrs. McGraw.
Clearly, the first-graders had a very memorable unit on the Trojan War due to embodied learning.
Let’s look at the senses they engaged in their Trojan Horse project. The first-graders were not only able to see a replica of the Trojan Horse, but they were even able to create the visual themselves as they designed and painted the horse. And although they didn’t hear real battle cries, the first graders certainly had to appreciate the silence that was required of them as they waited in their horse. They also heard the wheels roll to a rest as they anticipated the moment they would spring out of the horse in an unsuspecting classroom. And, of course, the first-graders also got to feel the sense of being stuck inside a painted horse-on-wheels! They probably even felt the challenge of getting their muscles stretched out again when they emerged from the horse. And they even felt that sense of anticipation and exhilaration when they were able to pull off a sneak “attack”!
On account of their excellent teacher and embodied learning, our first-graders will never forget the Trojan War...and the unsuspecting “Trojans” probably never will either!
If you would like to see the benefits of embodied learning, please come to St. Jerome for a tour where you can experience the excellent education here with your own senses. But while you are here, beware that if you are given a very generous parting “gift” from the first-graders, you will also want to use all of your senses to determine whether you should keep it!
Christopher Perrin of Classical Academic Press has emphasized the importance of embodied learning in his work as a classical educator and author. See, for example, “The Five Sense Inventory: Seeking a Fully Embodied Education” available at insideclassicaled.com.
Clark, Kevin and Ravi Scott Jain. The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2013), 23. See also chapter five of Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness and Beauty by Stephen R. Turley, which explores the classical and Christian roots of embodied learning.