Dance as a place for learning
A case study in Kartanonkoski School, Vantaa, Finland
This case study focuses at dance as a place for learning. The word place here refers to both physical
and imagined spaces, as well as learning environments. It also refers to the spaces between people.
Also, a moving, living body can be understood as the location where all learning takes place. This
research project seeks understanding about complex, multisensory learning processes in the context
of dance and education and aims at articulating a view on learning that takes embodied knowing
into account. The research question is: What kinds of learning and knowing can dance elicit? The
project is based on collaboration with school teachers, dance teachers and dance artists in creating a
special learning environment, or space for students. In this learning environment artistic and
pedagogical practices inform and influence each other. This approach embodies a cultural
viewpoint towards learning and pedagogy, where students are seen as active creators of culture and
art, instead of a learner of skills or knowledge related to art. The study then investigates how
embodied, arts-based knowledge is at play in generating meaningful learning in a formal
educational environment, that is, a school. The research methodology is based on collaborative
Introduction and theoretical background
The purpose of this research project is to develop a conception of learning that embraces bodily
processes in human learning. A deeper understanding of the embodied nature of learning is a step
towards a comprehensive view of learning that involves the entire human being and that is
thoroughly intertwined with social processes. These processes consist of reciprocal, embodied
interaction with other human beings and with the world of socially constructed meanings. The
premise for this research project, thus, rests on the so-called embodied turn that has taken place in
many scholarly fields, for example cognitive science, neuroscience, neurophenomenology, and
somatic studies (Damasio 1999; Gallagher 2005; Lakoff & Johnson 1999; Maitland 2005; Pfefer &
Bongard 2007; Thompson 2007; Varela 1991).
This interdisciplinary study looks at embodiment especially in a sense of creative human process
and thus, focuses on creative movement and dance as embodied practices and avenues for learning.
In so doing, it participates in a movement that seeks to overcome the gap between science and art in
human, social sciences (Bresler 2008; Leavy 2008; Pakes 2003). I uses the metaphor of place in
several ways: it refers to both physical and imagined spaces, as well as learning environments. It
also refers to the spaces between people. Also, a moving, living body can be understood as the
location where all learning takes place.
Embodied learning can take place within a wealth of different activities. Dance, however, is a
largely unexplored field in terms of learning and education (Hanna 2008). Despite the embodied
turn that has all but falsified the Cartesian notion of the mind-body split, it seems evident that
educational practice still widely endorses this split. Within the dualistic framework embodied
practices, such as dance, are not considered integral in human learning. This research project seeks
to shed light on the complex learning processes that originate in the moving, sensing and feeling
body, that generate rich reflections and meanings, and that comprise of complex relations to others
and the world.
This inquiry is situated in the context of dance and education, but the results are applicable to other
fields, including cultural activities, physical education, recreation as well as to all age groups and
institutional contexts (social services, arts institutions, businesses, to name a few). Embodied
learning can take many forms and take place in formal and informal contexts. It can support life-
long learning and holistic well-being in all demographic groups, and help individuals with learning
difficulties. This study, thus, is related to many academic fields. It is truly interdisciplinary,
depending on understanding of related fields and bearing relevance to a number of current research
efforts in human, social sciences (see, for example Hyyppä & Liikanen 2005)
The theoretical basis of this study is broad. As mentioned above, it will build on findings in the
fields of cognitive science and neuroscience that demonstrate how the mind is inherently embodied,
how social interaction is the basis of intelligence and complex mental operations, how the body
shapes the way we think, and how consciousness needs a body. Also, the study of social cognition
has unearthed the role of mirror neurons has illuminated how social cognition develops largely
through attending to others’ bodily gestures and movements (Hari 2007). The field of somatic
studies and movement/dance philosophy are also significant resources for this study as they
incorporate bodily practice and academic study and seek to understand the human being from the
first person perspective, thus widening understanding about the meaning of our bodily existence and
being in the world (Hanna 1995). Here, the study will relate to and make use of the work of a vital
community of researchers in Finland who can be considered leading scholars in the field even in
internationally (e.g., Monni 2008; Klemola 2005; Parviainen 2002, 2006; Rouhiainen 2007). It will
also draw from and apply Lauri Rauhala’s seminal work on holistic conception of human being
Methodology and research questions
The methodological orientation of this study draws from collaborative action research, practice-
based research and interpretive research. The starting point of collaborative research is that research
is conducted with people, rather than on people (Birch & Miller 2002; Reason 2002). It fosters an
active research relationship that involves the exchange of ideas and understanding. It involves
physical interaction and face-to-face encounters among human beings, and a shared process of
meaning-making and interpretation. Epistemologically, the approach is based on social
constructivism and on the notion of embodied knowledge where local, cultural and socially situated
perspectives are focal. (see Burr 1995; Gergen 1999)
The epistemological premises of practice-based and embodied knowledge will be further articulated
through this study. The study seeks to overcome a gap between embodied and socially constructed
knowledge and demonstrate how embodied practices can be described and reflected through
language (see Anttila 2007).
While the purpose of the study is to develop and articulate the notion of embodied learning, the
specific research questions are:
• How do students of a public school describe their learning experiences related to dance?
• How does the school community (teachers, staff, parents, students) reflect on the
educational value of dance in a public school context?
• What kinds of learning and knowing can dance elicit?
The empirical data will be collected from students, teachers, staff and parents of a public school in
Vantaa, Finland, where dance is integrated in the general curriculum for all students (grades 1-9).
For the purposes of this study, a professional dance teacher has been hired to work at the school
full-time, starting August 2009 until at least May 2010. The prospects for a three-year long
engagement are very promising. This has been possible through a national arts education project
funded by the Ministry of Education that extends through 2013. (see www.taikalamppu.fi).
Data collection will happen through journals, interviews, a virtual dance room where staff and
teachers can document their observations and experiences, videotaping and photographing, parent
surveys, and on-site observation. Data collection will continue throughout the dance project, while
the analysis of data will happen in cycles according to the academic (school) year. Each cycle will
build on the previous and deepen the understanding of the evolving thematic structure. The data
analysis will be completed by 2014, and the entire study, incorporating theory, reflection and
implementation will be completed by 2015.
The preliminary results will be published from 2012 in leading journals of arts education and
education as well as national and international conferences of American Educational Research
Association, Congress on Research in Dance, dance and the Child international, Nordic Forum for
Dance Research, World Alliance for Arts Education.
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