Author Blog

Bodies of knowledge?

Guy Claxton reflects on the way schools still hold onto outdated views of all things practical

Our hypothetical Ruby is a practical person, and a confident, intelligent one too. Her school enabled her to develop the 7 Cs – but for every Ruby there are hundreds of others who were not so lucky. Why do schools not recognise that many strengths are not primarily academic ones?

Schools, and teaching in particular, rely on an outdated conception of the relation between mind and body. Since Plato, Western so-called civilisation has been built on the idea that ‘mind’ is smart and separate from body. The body is seen as menial and mechanical, merely carrying out the wishes of the intelligent mind. Inherently corrupt and unreliable, driven by emotions rather than thought, the body has continually to be instructed and corrected by the ‘higher faculties’ of reason and intellect. Vestiges of this view pervade school. Fidgeting and doodling are bad: ‘Sit still and get on with your work’ is the constant cry. Sedentary learning is prized more highly than anything which involves movement – that’s why maths sits (quietly) at the top of the pecking order and DT, drama, dance and PE are at the bottom. Emotions are acknowledged only as potential disruptions or distractions from the core businesses of reasoning, writing and arguing.

But it is not a natural truth that writing a little essay on Othello is more valuable, or requiring of more ‘intelligence’, than crafting a song or scoring a century; it is a 2000 year old social convention that has no basis in science. The new discipline of ‘embodied cognition’ has shifted the tectonic plates of our culture. Far from being just the fallible vehicle of the mind, the body is integral and essential to our intelligent functioning in life. US neurologist Antonio Damasio has shown that the frontal lobes of the brain are fundamentally designed to integrate gut feelings with cognition, and if that integration is disrupted, we stop acting intelligently. We can still do well on an IQ test, but we are unable to yoke our intellectual cleverness with practical reality. We can think well but continually screw up. Without what Damasio calls the ‘emotional rudder’, we are lost.

Our sensitivity to the workings of this rudder – our inclination to heed the promptings of our ‘gut feelings’ – matters enormously. People who have greater bodily awareness are smarter than those who don’t. A recent study showed that stock market dealers, people whose living depends on making fast decisions based on correctly interpreting a flood of financial data, are more successful if they are body-aware. They make more money and they survive in the business longer than those who are insensitive to their visceral workings.

Teaching in a way that ignores or denigrates bodily processes and movements encourages that split between body and mind, and creates cleverness without real intelligence. We are governed, for the most part, by conspicuously successful products of elite education – people with hatfuls of A levels and firsts from top universities – whose education has equipped (and disposed) them to make superficial decisions and then defend them with sophistry. Characters like Gove, Johnson and Cameron are intellectual games-players whose lack of bodily awareness makes them unfit to govern – yet they are hailed as successes of our education system. They lack empathy, wisdom, or even common sense. We need to put some body back into schools, or we will continue to be nations of lions led by emaciated and eviscerated donkeys.

First, we need to put embodied cognition on the curriculum – so those who are good with their hands (or feet), but not so good with their silver tongues, do not mistake their practical intelligence for stupidity. Doodling and gesturing are part of the workings of the mind, not interferences with it. And then we need to help young people retain and develop their visceral rudders and their ‘interoceptive awareness’ so they can make good decisions, and not just win abstract arguments. We don’t need more sports trophies in the cabinet in the school foyer; we need regular classes in meditation, tai chi and yoga to build integrated body-minds.

Ruby’s school knew there was more to life than maths, and more to intelligence than verbal and abstract language. If we can help to change the underlying conception of the mind, we can have many more Rubys in our midst.

Guy’s book Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than It Thinks, is published by Yale University Press and is now available in paperback.