Thinking on Your Feet (Literally)

My passion is to create a classroom environment with the greatest amount of interaction for the greatest number of students. I want students to live the experience of philosophy as immortalized by Socrates, but in a new way. Drawing from recent research that links exercise to improved concentration, memory, and academic performance, I have developed teaching strategies to optimize interaction by bringing physical activity into the philosophy experience of my students.

After identifying the types of activities I felt comfortable injecting into my classes, I realized I had to transform myself by acquiring a radically new skillset. This is why, with the support of my Dean and faculty development funding, I became a certified yoga instructor and took hundreds of dance classes ranging from hip-hop to ballroom.

Beyond my own retooling, I had to confront tradition. There are spaces for physical activity called gyms and other spaces for intellectual activity called classrooms. This compartmentalization has endured since the gymnasia of ancient Greece, where athletes occupied one space and thinkers another. Yet even Plato sees people as an integration of the physical and intellectual, so why shouldn’t we be taught in environments in which the physical and intellectual are integrated?

As a result of physical activity, my students have become more focused and better learners, as the research suggested—and also more eager to interact. They feel comfortable giving and getting feedback. One student hit it right on the head by saying “mind and body work together to make changes in perspective.” Physical activity has the benefit of moving students around the room and offering multiple opportunities for interaction. For instance, students walk from whiteboard to whiteboard (spread out around the hall) and write their responses to prompts and respond to each other’s comments. Or, they break into small groups to play a kind of hopscotch to learn the relationships in Aristotle’s square of opposition. Or, as students and I do light yoga, we dialogue on the nature of reality. Or, after learning a few steps of a ballroom dance, students stop to discuss issues like climate change with their present partners and with subsequent partners resume the dialogue.

I am excited about this pedagogy and have had the good fortune to share it with the university community and beyond. In 2013, I partnered with the Women’s Studies Program and hosted an outdoor yoga event around the theme of body awareness to help students explore body image issues. I have formed a long-term partnership (since 2011) with the Honors Program, Women’s Study Program, and Student Development and Leadership to tie dance into learning. For example, in an effort to address violence against women and other social issues, I have hosted 10 hip-hop dances involving over 2,000 participants.

Hip Hop Night at Lewis University Student Recreation Center

Hip Hop Night at Lewis University Student Recreation Center

The College of Education has invited me to offer workshops to their doctoral students, and I have demonstrated my techniques to local high school teachers and students in numerous interactive forums. For immersion in this pedagogy, I offered upper level courses such as Philosophy of Dance and Philosophy of Yoga (on 3 occasions) to philosophy majors and minors. When I do advising, it’s usually on a walk around campus. Finally, I have blended my teaching and research in a book on interactive learning (The Well-Good Life) and have launched a website (thinkonyourfeet.education) featuring an assessment tool to document changes in student learning and behavior and lesson plans for implementation of this pedagogy in philosophy courses.

As I enter my fourth decade of teaching, I have seen how physical activity improves student learning and the overall atmosphere of learning. Is it any wonder that Socrates took up dancing late in his life? Maybe he knew something then we are only rediscovering now.

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