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Teaching Environments and the Pandemic: reflections from NeuroArchitecture

Part I: the body

By Andréa de Paiva

Have you attended any online course during the pandemic? How was your experience? With social isolation, schools of different types had to adapt to the model of online classes. Child education, universities, specialization courses, all these teaching environments had to be transformed. Our home - both the teacher's and the student's home - was included in this equation together with the virtual environment. Amid so many changes and with the possibilities of distance learning, NeuroArchitecture brings important reflections on the teaching environments. In today's article, we selected one of these reflections to discuss: the relationship between body and learning.

Ambientes de Ensino e a NeuroArquitetura
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

As discussed in our last article on offices, some of the changes in teaching environments in this period of social isolation are transforming existing possibilities. People who previously did not have the time or logistical conditions to take a face-to-face course have benefited from the opportunity to take the course without leaving home. Many educational institutions and teachers can also feel some benefits: courses that were once regional, can now be offered on a national scale, without extra expenses regarding the logistics of teachers' travel.

On the other hand, in the classroom, students and teachers occupy a space that was designed to function as a teaching environment. The lighting, ventilation, acoustics, furniture - and the entire school building complex! - were designed to provide an adequate environment that contributes to learning and exchanges between students and teachers. In addition, the classroom is a space with less external interference. With the cell phone on silent, it is almost certain that students and teachers will be able to spend the class hours without being interrupted by family members, the sound of the television or the intercom ringing. Some topics within NeuroArquitecture, however, bring our attention to other points that deserve to be discussed when considering online courses or in the blended model (mixed online and face-to-face). A greater understanding of the brain and of our biology helps us to focus on issues that could go unnoticed in this scenario. The view that considers body and mind separately, known as body and mind duality, has been influencing science and the way we understand our own functioning. Dualism assumes that body and mind are distinct and separable and that mental phenomena are not physical. But neuroscience and cognitive psychology have shown us that our behavior cannot be separated from biology [1]. Body and brain have a mutual relationship in which, just as the brain influences the body, the body can also influence the brain. Studies like those conducted by Amy Cuddy show that body posture can affect the production of hormones such as cortisol, associated with stress and testosterone, associated with dominance [2]. Other research, such as that conducted by Lawrence Shapiro, points out that the exploratory movements we make can help cognition and even replace the need to construct complex mental representations [3]. Have you ever tried to work or study for a few hours lying on your bed or on the sofa? Or to work standing up? Perhaps you noticed a variation in your energy when adopting such postures ... in the classroom the furniture is ergonomically designed to keep students comfortable and in a more neutral posture. But in an online class it is much more challenging to interfere in the posture of students at a distance. In the classroom it is also possible to create diverse physical experiences, such as when proposing a group exercise and having students move their tables, or proposing that they get up and present something in front of the room, or even when bringing a book or interesting material that they can handle and interact with. In education there is already a field of study known as embodied education, in which the students' bodies are considered an important tool for their learning. It is no wonder that companies like Lego, for example, realized this and created solutions such as Lego Serius Play, in which playing with toy pieces - which requires handling and movement - are used to solve problems in corporate and educational environments. All of these experiences can get more limited in an online class.

To sum up, the changes resulting from the context of the pandemic bring several benefits to everyone involved in teaching activities. However, they also bring new challenges. More than that, these discussions and debates on distance education bring important reflections to any teaching context, regardless of the pandemic scenario. Understanding more about the nervous system and the functioning of the brain and updating methodologies and teaching spaces incorporating such knowledge is an important step so that we can create environments that contribute even more to learning.

NeuroArchitecture's insights for teaching environments are not limited to what was discussed in this article. Therefore, soon we will return to analyze other issues related to the theme that can help architects to face this challenge!

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[1] DAMÁSIO, A. (1994) Descartes error: emotion, reason and the human brain. New York: Putnam Publishing. ISBN 978-0-399-13894-2

[2] CUDDY, A. (2015) Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. New York: Little, Brown Spark

[3] Sapiro, L, Stolz, S. (2018) Embodied cognition and its significance for education.

Theory and Research in Education. 17(1):19-39

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