Treat students to a moving experience

July 20, 2001

Space and movement sound like elements of an acting class, but Sherry Jordon has found that using them to dramatise points makes her teaching more effective.

Several years ago I attended a series of lectures presented by William Mallard of Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. As is typical of most lectures and conferences, we spent long hours confined to our chairs, moving only to obtain that all-important cup of coffee and the occasional meal. Mallard surprised us, however, by repeatedly interrupting his lectures and asking us to stand and stretch.

Although his lectures were quite good, I must confess that I do not recall a great deal of what he said about St Augustine, the first ecclesiastical author. I do remember - with awe and pleasure - his acknowledgement of our bodies.

That incident was one of the few times in my academic career where bodies were recognised and acknowledged. It led me to wonder how I embodied my own pedagogy in teaching theology. The location of our bodies affects classroom dynamics. Proxemics, the study of the use and perception of social and personal space, offers insights into the relationship between space, the body and effective communication.

In The Hidden Dimension , Edward T. Hall defines proxemics and distinguishes between fixed-feature space (created by buildings and immovable walls), semi-fixed-feature space (shaped by furniture) and informal space (personal space carried by the individual that changes during interactions with other people). All can either encourage or discourage interaction and communication between people.

The importance of fixed-feature space for effective communication is made painfully evident whenever I teach in tiny or poorly configured rooms. I have taught in classrooms located across from the racquetball court, shaped like bowling alleys, and so overcrowded that I could not walk between the rows of chairs.

My response has been to request the better classrooms (with mixed success) and to arrange the furniture to make the room as inviting as possible. I try to arrange the semi-fixed-feature space to suit my particular style, which in introductory courses is a combination of lecture and large group discussion.

I usually ask the students to arrange the desks or tables in a "U". This arrangement enables the students to see each other and encourages discussion and interaction. But it also provides a focal point when the professor lectures or uses audiovisual equipment.

I have also become more aware of where and how I situate myself in the classroom or, to use Hall's terminology, my use of informal space. I feel most comfortable and effective as a teacher when I stand and move. I find that I need to be physically close to my students, walking around the room, looking them in the eye. This works best when they are arranged in a "U" and I can walk around its inside perimeter.

I hope this communicates to the students that I want to connect with each and every one of them. If nothing else, it prevents them from hiding in the back row. But a change in how bodies are arranged in the room will not, in itself, change classroom dynamics. If the students have not read the material or do not have a clear task, the instruction will still founder.

Rearranging the furniture is only part of restructuring classroom interaction. It is a first step of many. I also encourage students to look at each other, not just the teacher, when they speak. I ask them to value one another's opinions and listen carefully when other students contribute to the conversation. All of these strategies are intended to create a more collaborative environment, a community of learning.

I also try to be aware of the ways in which my body language serves to help or hinder communication in the classroom. I am constantly sending non-verbal messages through my body posture, gestures and facial expressions.

Kinesics, the systematic study of how humans communicate through body movement, has demonstrated the importance of non-verbal messages in determining the meaning of interpersonal communication. Do my body posture and facial expressions indicate that I am welcoming, confident, enthusiastic? Although I acknowledge that it was a somewhat uncomfortable experience, it was helpful to have someone observe my class and critique my non-verbal messages.

I try to take advantage of the power of non-verbal behaviour by making a conscious effort to use my body to illustrate and reinforce what I say in class. My first efforts at this were spontaneous and unplanned, but the reaction of the students (and their increased ability to remember the point later) convinced me of their value.

For example, I use my body when I teach book seven of Augustine's Confessions . The students have a very difficult time understanding his intellectual conversion and the change in his views on the nature of God's reality and the origin of evil. I have found that it helps if I stand on one side of the room as I describe his initial view, move to the middle to discuss the problem he had with it and then walk to the other side of the room when I detail his new position. I do this for both issues (God and evil) and I find that it vastly improves their ability to see the parallels in his argument and to keep his old and new views distinct.

I also use my body to illustrate Augustine's struggle with his moral conversion. Augustine describes the conflict of his will, torn between love for God (a higher good) and sex (a lower good). To dramatise this conflict, I struggle to reach upward with one hand while being pulled downward by the other. As the students watch me wrestle with these opposing forces, they see the turmoil Augustine experienced before his conversion.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that "dramatise" is the appropriate word for what I am doing; effective teaching and good acting both involve conscious use of the body and a flair for the dramatic.

Researchers in proxemics and kinesics have concluded that culture strongly influences use of space and body language.

Given the different cultural backgrounds of my students, I need to remember that my use of space and body language is open to a variety of interpretations and that my ability to read a particular student's posture or facial expression may be affected by my own cultural biases. Given that caveat, however, I have found that a conscious use of space and body language has helped me to communicate more creatively and effectively with my students.

Sherry Jordon is a theology professor at the University of St Thomas, St Paul, Minnesota, United States.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teaching Theology and Religion, Vol 4, No. 2 , 98-101 pages , Blackwell's 2001.

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