Embodiment – physicality and presence in #activelearning


Photo by Chris Fuller on Unsplash

Imagine active learning.

What comes to mind for me is people, together, finding value and common purpose in each other. ‘People’ is a significant word in this description. It’s not an abstract notion of ‘learner’, it is a real, humanistic involvement in which each person brings their all – their multiple senses – to the situation.

An environment of self-actualisation

bell hooks (1994) refers to this as ‘engaged pedagogy’ coming from a holistic appreciation of the learning experience in which there is self-actualisation: first, the teacher’s self-actualisation, but ultimately the learner’s self-actualisation; a sense of self-recognition of one’s achievement in applying one’s full potential to a given situation. The implication of this is that, by conceiving the learning environment as a space for self-actualisation, the design of the space and the way in which the teacher engages the learner in that space is markedly different to a delivery-based teaching philosophy. The teacher’s conception of learning is not only active but student-centred: really student-centred, in a way that values individual difference. Specifically, teaching values the whole person and the learning event is essentially inclusive and highly appreciative of diversity.

Embodied learning

This brings us to the idea of embodied learning, which reflects learning as being of the moment; a lived experience. Knowledge is viewed holistically as something that is experienced continuously, affecting the whole person. It is learning as being in flux, ambiguous and subjective.

Embodiment describes knowledge as being bound to a person, their senses, their movement, and their engagement with their environment, culture and language, and its effect on self-understanding and empathy towards others (Baker & Janja, nd.).

Embodiment is often discussed quite literally as being about the body, and less about psychological engagement or presence. Literature on embodied learning theory regularly makes reference to sport, dance or other forms of bodily performance in which movement is the focus of assessment. Sharples (2019, p. 175), for example, draws attention to the physicality of learning, going on to relate embodiment theory to emerging learning technologies. “Embodied learning involves experiencing and controlling one’s body interacting with a real or simulated world. The aim is that physical feedback and bodily actions support learning.” Smart technologies and haptic technologies introduce new ways of thinking about how the body interacts with the real world and, through them, physicality can heighten a learner’s emotional and cognitive engagement. Haptic interfaces create a literal, tactile relationship between the body and cognition.

The title of my own blog, Tactile, makes some connection to this though here the connection of fingers to keyboard infers the decision-making act of thought transformed into writing in the presence of an audience.

Sharples acknowledges interaction with the material environment which “provides opportunities for action (called ‘affordances’) that our bodies detect and act upon by walking, running, hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, tasting.” (pp. 175-76)

Reviewing my own interests, I have been consistently driven by how the learning environment engages the learner fully in a sensual and emotional way whether that involves aural or oral senses, smart devices, or the third places deemed significant by each learner according to their own needs and preferences. In this way, we can acknowledge the learner’s physicality and presence in either the material or digital space, somewhere between or where and how spaces connect. This leads us to an appreciation of the polycontextuality of place and its effect on a student’s psychology, and vice versa.

For example, in my study of audio as a learning space over the years (e.g. educational podcasting in its various forms, digital storytelling, audio feedback, etc), my primary interest has been of embodiment through psychological presence. For example, embodiment created and felt through the receipt of personalised tutor-generated audio using the conduit of the learner’s headphones. Similarly, the reports of staff engagement with audio for learning in my research has revealed their desire to speak directly to/with each one of their students so as to make a difference to their lives by showing their interest and care. Tutors care for their students and audio, they say, creates a proximal channel for intimate personal support. This, by the way, is not purely altruistic; it is a reciprocal act about giving meaning and purpose to the academic too.

Embodiment theory finds connections with ideas such as experiential learning (Kolb, 1984), reflection in learning (Schon, 1984), situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991), agency (Bandura, 2006), critical pedagogy (Friere, 1973), and placemaking (O’Rourke & Baldwin, 2016).

Baker and Janja (nd.) identify several conditions from the literature that demonstrate embodiment in learning,

  • mindful awareness in the present lived experience and attuned senses and perceptions to engage with the lived experience to gain a greater awareness of qualities in experience (Eisner 2002, p. 231).
  • a strong emotional or ‘felt’ dimension in learning and meaning-making. They cite research that describes how “these physical memories and feelings, when evoked from lived experiences, have a strong influence on meaning which leads to action”;
  • sensorially enriched aesthetic experiences are linked with embodied emotion and embodied meaning – “this sensorial experience occurs when the person attunes their perceptions to the sensorial values and qualities in the world around them.” (p.7)

Embodiment, then, refers to an atmosphere or presence inherent in, or created in response to, the environment as an assemblage. Anderson (2009) posits the idea of ‘affective atmospheres’ and Sloterdijk (2009) explores ideas ‘spheres’. Sphere can be imagined as a bubble-like definition of space. Ash (2016, p. 94 ) discusses these ideas and notes that,“Developing aspects of Anderson and Sloterdijk’s account, we can define atmospheres as the effects, forces and affordances contained and brought into being by the specific objects that make up a sphere, which in turn create the appearance of objects as being discreet and spatially differentiated from one another.” So while we consider embodiment as being about the whole person, we can see the environment as being an assemblage of objects and people that together form a lively constellation with its own significance. He goes on to note that,

“Space can be understood as emergent from the relations and non-relations between objects, which in turn constitute a specific sphere. Objects, spheres and atmospheres are therefore linked to one another in processes of co-emergence.”

This notion resembles Actor-Network Theory (Latour, 1990).

Space, in relation to physicality, embodiment and spatial presence, can be considered as a playground full of latent experience and promise. It affects the subject’s presence, expectations, and imagination which is connected to a person’s emotional engagement with the world (Watkins 2000: Dirkx 2006) and thereby a factor in a person’s creative processes.


Beyond the physicality of space, bodies and objects, active learning is affected by the people who enact it, their values and sense of common purpose or alienation. As actors or objects in a constellation of objects, people exert an influence on each other and the situation as a whole. They have and are affected by social presence: the degree to which a student feels personally connected with others according to five experiential facets (Sung & Mayer, 2012):

  1. social respect (being noticed);
  2. social sharing (information and beliefs);
  3. social interaction;
  4. social identity;
  5. social intimacy.

Lowenthal (2010), in consideration of online learning, feels that definitions of social presence tend to lie on a continuum with a focus on interpersonal emotional connection between communicators being on one end and a focus on whether someone is perceived as being ‘present’, ‘there’ or ‘real’ on the other end. Perhaps, in consideration of presence in general, we may propose there is a similar continuum of affective and transactional influence.

The development of social presence in online, corporeal and blended learning spaces can counter potential feelings of anomie (Garrison & Anderson, 2003). Short et al. (1976), and Gunawardena (1995) concur, adding presence is concerned with “the degree to which a person is perceived as a ‘real person’ in mediated communication” or having a sense of heightened reality.


Active learning is as much about the psycho-social environment and its complex constellation of influences, as it about the methods and strategies we deploy as teachers and learners. Such a constellation forms a spatial body that allows us to develop an environmental framing of embodiment.

If active learning is believed to be student-centred and inclusive compared to other pedagogies, the teacher-designer must understand what bell hooks refers to as ‘engaged pedagogies’ and how they can accommodate the whole being of each person. Such design should not only be inclusive but should accentuate the value of a diverse and complex learning environment.

Indeed, this raises the challenge of subjectivity, hidden curricula, and assumed values in the design and orchestration of learning, space, and assessment, and the curriculum in general: a psycho-social view of embodiment not only identifies the value of a diverse and complex ecology, but the many value systems present that give it its vibrancy.


Anderson, B. (2009). Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society, 2(2), 77-81.
Ash, J. (2016). Theorising studio space: spheres and atmospheres in a video game design studio. In Farias, I. & Wilkie, A., eds, Studio studies: operations, topologies and displacements. Abingdon: Routledge.
Baker, R. J. & Jahja, R. (nd). Bridging embodied learning theory, place meaning and the process of placemaking in design studio pedagogy. Online at: https://www.academia.edu/14240393/Bridging_Embodied_Learning_Theory_Place_Meaning_and_the_Process_of_Place_Making_in_Design_Studio_Pedagogy
Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 164 –180. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00011.x
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Garrison, D. R. & Anderson, T. (2003). E-Learning in the 21st century: a framework for research and practice. London & New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
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hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York and Abingdon: Routledge.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development, vol. 1. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Latour, B. (1990). On actor-network theory: A few clarifications plus more than a few complications. Online at: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-67%20ACTOR-NETWORK.pdf
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge.
Lowenthal, P. R. (2010). The evolution and influence of social presence theory on online learning. Online Education and Adult Learning: New Frontiers for Teaching Practices, 124-139. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
O’Rourke, V., & Baldwin, C. (2016). Student engagement in placemaking at an Australian university campus. Australian Planner, 1-14.
Schön, D. A. (1984). The architectural studio as an exemplar of education for reflection-in-action. Journal of Architectural Education, 38(1), Autumn, 2-9.
Sharples, M. (2019). Practical pedagogy: 40 new ways to teach and learn. Abingdon: Routledge. Chapter 30, Embodied learning – make mind and body work together to support learning. pp. 175-180.
Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. London: John Wiley & Sons.
Sloterdijk, P. (2009). Talking to myself and the poetics of space. Harvard Design Magazine, 30
Varela, F, Thompson, E and Rosch, E 1999, The Embodied Mind. Cognitive science and human experience, The MIT Press, Cambridge.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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1 Response to Embodiment – physicality and presence in #activelearning

  1. Pingback: Energy and active learning Part 2 | Tactile

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