Why Embodied Learning?

In a world of continuous change and constant social innovation, learning has taken on a new meaning. While it was once sufficient to be competent at the same job over a lifetime, we are now required to continually learn new skills, to adapt to people with widely different backgrounds, and to be flexible enough to change roles, job positions, and organizational directions. Learning over the course of our career has become a necessity. Learning how to learn is one of the most powerful ways of dealing with the changes of today’s world. In this time of accelerated change, learning to learn gives us a competitive advantage. To succeed in the future we must be learning individuals in learning organizations. The current conversations about neuroscience and leadership gives scientific grounding for the effectiveness of embodied learning.

Embodied Learning is About Taking New Actions

We propose a different approach to learning – embodied learning. We begin with the claim that learning is the ability to take actions that were previously unavailable to us. Secondly, we offer a new interpretation of the body that is fundamental to learning. This interpretation challenges the rationalistic tradition, the dualism of mind and body that our educational system has maintained over the past three hundred years. In contrast to this tradition we say that learning is the result of new practices that we commit our body to, not in gathering and understanding information. In the words of William Shakespeare, “By my actions teach my mind.” We challenge the notion that cognitive understanding produces the ability to take effective action. We are not suggesting abandoning cognitive learning. We are saying it is only one aspect of learning. We do see, however, that learning happens in our bodies. When we understand, for example, the power of making grounded assessments, requests, offers, and leading those we manage, but find ourselves incompetent to do so, we see it is necessary to design practices that train our bodies for these actions.

The Rationalistic Tradition

To say we learn through our bodies and that learning is assessed by our ability to take new actions is somewhat startling at first. Trained in the rationalistic tradition to value theoretical knowledge, we are pre-disposed to think of learning as something that happens in the mind. When we look at the traditional education model, we read books and listen to lectures about theories for acting in the world. The body was is simply the delivery system that transports us to the classroom and then remains in the background as we absorb information. In this model, we say someone has learned something if they can understand and analyze data. This person, we would say, is smart because they can prove what they say is true. There was is little recognition given to someone who can produce value through certain actions or coordination with others to produce a desired goal, such as the team leader who gets his team to meetings on time.

A Call to Action

Because this traditional model of education has historically produced tremendous advances in science and technology, it’s understandable that we consider learning to be about accumulating knowledge. Since the time of the industrial revolution it has served us well. As recently as a generation ago, there was time to ponder over the information that was given us. When people were at the same job over a lifetime, this way of learning was satisfactory. The traditional model is no longer optimal. Not only is there too much information for any of us to process, we are moving at a velocity that demands action instead of theoretical knowledge. We are now at a historical transition in which it is crucial that learning be placed in a context of action, as a way of being in the world, instead of being only intellectually smart.

Emotions and Moods are Fundamental to Learning

It is also important to acknowledge the role of emotions and moods in our inquiry of embodied learning. We distinguish moods and emotions in this way: Moods live in the body and exist as a general orientation to life over an extended period of time. We will be drawn to or repelled by people because of their mood. Moods are fundamental in that they open and close possibilities for relationship. Over a period of one’s life we will characterize that individual as embodying a particular mood. Emotions, on the other hand, exist in a shorter horizon of time.

We must take into account that moods and emotions are fundamental to how we orient to life and they must be factored into our learning. For embodied learning to be effective, it’s essential that the teacher and student agree on and collectively produce an emotional atmosphere of openness, curiosity and wonder. As we become competent in this area, we can begin to observe other people’s moods and learn to work with them in producing emotional states that are conducive to creativity and teamwork, rather than being in a state of reaction to them.

Humans Live in Bodies

Whatever we do as human beings we do in our bodies. The sum total of our history lives in our body. The accidents and broken bones we have live in our body, as does the history of being in abusive or caring relationships. We are predisposed to act out of the conditioning of this history. Wherever we are, our bodies and our history are present. This is so obvious and simple we overlook it. The poet William Blake spoke to this when he said, “Man has no body distinct from his soul.” Once this fundamental fact is grasped we can see that learning does not happen in the mind. We begin to see that what we call the mind is a metaphor for that part of the nervous system that is housed in our bodies. Learning can then be seen as changing our body’s capacity for taking new actions. When we take new actions, perform in new ways, or behave differently we will be seen as someone who has learned something new. The converse is true: if we don’t act in a new way we will be assessed as not learning.

For example, consider a manager who is evaluated as not fulfilling on his promises. He decides to learn about keeping commitments – to satisfy his customers and his boss. He reads the latest books on commitment and responsibility. He becomes intellectually knowledgeable on the subject and can speak convincingly about it, yet does nothing to modify his actions. Despite his knowledge in the subject, he continues to find himself not fulfilling his commitments. Regardless of his understanding and theories about commitments, he has not changed his actions and continues to be assessed as someone who has not learned. What is missing for him is a set of practices that will allow him to modify his body in a way so that he will act consistently with his declaration of keeping his commitments.


Learning is embodied through practice and recurrence. If we want to learn to be proficient in the next iteration of Photoshop, for example, it’s not enough just to read the instructions. Nor will we gain competency by mentally memorizing the sequence of certain functions. To be able to use it without having to consciously deliberate our actions will take practicing the program over time. When we think of how we learned to drive we can see the common sense in this. We first distinguished the various parts--gas pedal, brake, steering wheel, turn signals, speedometer, etc. Then as we began to drive under the tutelage of a teacher (often a certified driving instructor, sometimes an older friend, sibling, or parent) we drove deliberately and self-consciously. Now we drive and converse with other passengers, plan our days, listen to music, daydream, and even talk on the phone. The ability to drive a car is embodied. It’s invisible to us. It is so transparent to us that it may even be difficult to teach. It’s something we just do. Through a practice of recurrent actions, we’ve embodied the capacity to drive without having to consciously reflecting on how we’re doing it. We can now say we have embodied the skill of driving a car.

The Body For...

As managers, executives, customers, analysts, salespeople, coaches and consultants, we are continually required to learn new skills. It is not enough to simply be knowledgeable about something; it is necessary to act and perform in new ways. Once we are able to perform these actions in a recurrent, graceful manner we say “He has the body for making requests”; or, “She has the body of a leader”; or “He doesn’t have the body for making offers.”

Embodied learning opens many possibilities for us. We see that we can change and we see how we can coach others to change. The possibilities for coordinating with others is enhanced and we become more capable of producing a future that takes care of our concerns.

Strozzi Institute Programs

All learning in Strozzi Institute programs is based in embodied learning. We have participants put their bodies in practices that are metaphors for the skills and abilities required for leadership in today’s world. Our programs are a mix of didactic conversations and bodily practices. The practices are designed to develop the awareness of current skill levels of a particular distinction, and then the recurrence of the practice in the learning environment will build that skill or ability in the individual – the beginning of the embodiment of that skill. The body cannot lie; it is incapable of lying. What comes out of the mouth can lie. This is one of the reasons that working with the body in learning is profound. We are able to see the truth of who we are. And if what we see is not aligned to who we want to be in the world, we can practice other ways of being.

Embodied learning also produces sustainable change. By changing how we act through recurrent practice, we become different people. Just like it would be extremely difficult to unlearn driving a car, what is learned through embodied learning permanately becomes part of who we are.