Embodiment, interculturality and education

Image: © Yann Forget, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA

Eeva Anttila, Professor in Dance Pedagogy at the University of the Arts in Helsinki, explains why schools and other educational institutions need to actively adopt interculturality as a pedagogical principle.

Interculturality as a broad and dynamic phenomenon is gaining more significance in contemporary European societies. In educational contexts, fostering intercultural understanding is crucial not only for maintaining social cohesion but also for safeguarding democratic values, social justice, and human rights.

In practice, intercultural learning refers to educational situations where norms, habits, beliefs, and cultural expressions from different cultures meet and where learners from varied cultural backgrounds actively work together, influencing one another. Intercultural learning takes a step beyond multicultural learning, where different cultures may exist side by side without active interaction. Educational situations and pedagogies that embrace intercultural learning are often highly complex and demand that teachers adopt new skills and mindsets. However, they offer ample opportunities for promoting intercultural and intersubjective understanding, and have great potential for creative and inclusive collaboration.

In culturally diverse groups, embodied interaction and nonverbal communication often become a key to successful collaboration. Gestures, body movements, facial expressions and dynamics of embodiment are important communication channels, especially when the members of the group do not have a common spoken language. Thus, embodied approaches to pedagogy may be central in supporting all learners in developing skills and competences needed in ever more complex social situations that they face during their school years and beyond. Embodied pedagogies refers to educational approaches where both teachers and learners are physically active and fully engaged in pedagogical interaction. Physical activity and full engagement involve both actual, visible body movement and inner bodily sensations, experiences, and physiological changes.

Embodied approaches depart from classroom instruction that leans on verbal communication, and where learners mostly sit, listen, read, write and work individually. Embodied pedagogies aim at engaging learners, activating all senses, raising emotions, and fostering social interaction as well as interaction with the material environment. When effective, such approaches promote embodied learning. Embodied learning refers to a holistic process that takes place within the entire human being and between human beings, and in connection with the social and physical reality. Through this process, bodily movement, embodied experiences, emotions, conceptual thinking, and language become intertwined. Especially when sharing experiences and ideas with others, bodily experiences may be translated into language, concepts, and meanings. This is how personal, multisensory experiences generate cultural expressions that can be shared, discussed, and developed further in the context of intercultural learning.


Image: Eeva Anttila

Embodied interaction and dialogue, when creatively and carefully nurtured, may generate a space where words are not needed for intersubjective understanding. Embodied dialogue does not rely on spoken language and literal meanings. It allows learners to be seen as full human beings and also entails seeing others. Such reciprocity may create a space where (cultural) differences are welcomed, and where new creative expressions and cultural forms may emerge. Physical education and dance, or any activity where embodied interaction and learning can be widely applied, may have substantial value and yet unexplored potential in fostering intercultural learning.

Intercultural learning does not require making compromises, reaching consensus, or dissolving differences. Instead, it enhances compassion, respect for otherness, and acceptance of differences. Respecting others in spite of differences is ever more important for preserving democratic values and human rights. Democratic and socially just societies require that citizens be able to interact and work with one another in heterogenous groups where plurality is not seen as a threat, but as a resource. Intercultural learning may, thus, be the key to preserving and renewing our cultural heritage.

Eeva Anttila

Eeva Anttila works as a professor of dance pedagogy at Theatre Academy of University of the Arts Helsinki, Finland, and leads the MA programme for dance pedagogy. This article has been produced as part of the ArtsEqual Research Initiative funded by the Academy of Finland’s Strategic Research Council (n:o 314223/2017).