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The Embodied Social Studies Classroom
Mälardalen university, Sweden. (SMED)
Örebro University, School of Health Sciences. (SMED)ORCID iD: 0000-0001-8748-8843
Örebro University, School of Health Sciences. (SMED)
2016 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

In recent years scholars interested in teaching and learning in social studies in schools have showed how learning in social studies classrooms can be understood through instruction, dialogue, cognition, reflection, concepts, thinking, writing, reading and awareness (cf. Bickmore & Parker, 2014; Brooks, 2011; Hess; 2002; Journell, Walker Beeson & Ayers, 2015; King, 2009; Nokes, 2014; Savenije, van Boxtel & Grever, 2014). Despite these important contributions, learning risks being limited to explorations of cognitive, verbal and/or written aspects of the educational situation. 

Learning is, however, very much also embodied, including the embodied interactions with the environment (cf. Shilling, 2000, Zembylas 2007), and research also reveals that secondary social studies is facing a crisis since a majority of students still are made to memorize and reproduce socioscientific knowledge instead of being prepared to use knowledge meaningfully and participating in public discussions (Sandahl 2015; Ljunggren et al. 2015; King 2009). Social studies have accordingly, as many other school subjects, often been handled as dis-embodied (Almqvist & Quennerstedt, 2015; Evans, Davies & Rich 2009), and this gives us a quite limited view of the learning going on in classrooms. The consequences of this gap in research as well as practice are that we miss out on important aspects of what Armour et al. (2015) argues to be “the dazzling complexity of the learning process” (p. 11).

In this presentation we aim to ‘transgress’ the separation of mind and body and explore embodied aspects of learning in the social studies classroom. With a point of departure in John Dewey’s transactional view of learning and Sharon Todd’s discussion on the liminality of pedagogical relationships, the ambition with the papers is not to explore ‘The Learning’ going on, or what every student learn in the explored situations. Instead, we argue that students always enter pedagogical encounters as some-body, and that it correspondingly is fruitful to explore students’ embodied engagements as an important but often overlooked aspect of the social studies classroom. The risk that remains is otherwise that social studies is treated as dis-embodied and that we as a consequence do not fully understand or embrace the potential of social studies.

Hence, the purpose of the study is to explore embodied engagements in a social sciences classroom. The focus in the study is on expected and potential pedagogical encounters and how students’ actions obtain a certain function in the classroom. As a conclusion we will discuss the results of our analysis in terms of the liminality of pedagogical encounters in classroom practice.

Our intent in this study is not to resolve tensions produced by theontological divide between representational and non-representational approachesor the epistemological separation of mind and body. Instead, by turning topragmatism and Dewey’s transactional perspective, we intend to approach socialstudies as embodied rather than dis-embodied. 


By focusing on embodiment in a transactional perspective the attention is turned from bodies as a pre-determined metaphysical entity separated from the mind to what bodies do and become in and through transactions with the environment (Biesta & Tedder 2006; Garrison 2015). Taking a transactional approach, the study puts into focus the ‘lived’, embodied engagements with others (teachers, student peers) and the environment (classroom practice, classroom materiality) they engage in. The analysis is conducted in three steps; (i) distinguishing pedagogical encounters, (ii) identifying embodied engagements, and (iii) categorising embodied engagements by the function of actions-in-context. In this study we focus on situations where the body is foregrounded and the action is connected to subject matter. Accordingly, we are interested in both the pedagogical relation between teacher and students and the didactic relation between subject matter, instructional activities and teachers and students involved. This is described by Hudson (2015) as the didactic triadic that recognises the complex set of relations between teacher, student and content (Cf. Klette 2007). The study has no generalizing ambition since the data comes from a small sample, however, we hope that the insights that can be drawn from this case can be helpful in re-understanding social studies as embodied rather than dis-embodied. The empirical material consists of video recorded lessons from two different subject areas (Criminology and Sociology) in an upper secondary school in Sweden. The content of the lessons is small group activities, whole class lectures and student presentations. The class consisted of 31 students in their final year of the Business Management and Economics Programme. In exploring embodied engagements in a social sciences classroom several challenges arise. As Estola and Elbaz-Luwisch (2003) state “attention to the body is a challenge to both the researchers and the methods used” (p. 715). These challenges can be summarised as the difficulty in exploring the dazzling complexity of any educational situation involving verbal and non-verbal actions and communication, teachers and students, teaching aids, the materiality of the classroom as well as the context as a whole (Cf. Quennerstedt, Öhman & Öhman 2011). In order to handle this complexity the question that guided us in our analysis of our video recorded data was how aspects of embodied engagements manifest themselves in the social studies classroom. As a conclusion we will also discuss the results of our analysis in terms of the liminality of pedagogical encounters in classroom practice.

Expected Outcomes

In the analysis we have identified three embodied engagements in the social studies classroom: (i) disengaged encounters, (ii) screened encounters, (iii) collective inquiry. These embodied engagements describe functions that different actions-in-context have in transaction in the classroom. Each category describes different functional roles that teachers, students, classroom settings, tasks, etc. have in embodied engagements and the direction this takes in the pedagogical encounter. The categories are not mutually exclusive, but instead intertwined with each other in real situations.Disengaged encounters is about how students are made disengaged in transaction with others and the environment in terms of teacher led lessons, peer presentations or disengaging tasks.Screened encounters refer to embodied engagements being both focused towards screens (computers, smart-boards etc) and screened off in terms of how student interaction occurs.Collective inquiry is events when students actively (as some-body) engage in a collective, communicative process guided by conditions of uncertainty and change.These results will be clarified and discussed further in terms of the liminality of embodied engagements in classroom practice with reference to Todd (2014). Todd uses the metaphor of liminality, or the threshold, as a way of discussing that pedagogical relationships in education are “played out materially, between bodies in the present, unpredictably against a future that is always unknown” (p. 243) thus these pedagogical encounters have the potential to be transformative. The paper aims to contribute to earlier research on embodied aspects of learning in Sweden and Europe and to extend the methodological approaches currently in use within the field of subject didactics.


Almqvist, J. & Quennerstedt, M. (2015). Is there (any)body in science education? Interchange. A Quarterly review of Education, 46(4), pp 439-453.

Armour, K. Quennerstedt, M. Chambers, F & Makopoulou, K. (2015). What is ‘effective’ CPD for contemporary physical education teachers? A Deweyan framework. Sport, Education and Society, DOI:10.1080/13573322.2015.1083000.

Biesta, G.J.J. & Tedder, M. (2006). How is agency possible? Towards an ecological understanding of agency-as-achievement. Working paper 5, Exeter: The Learning Lives project.

Estola, E. & Elbaz-Luwisch, F. (2003). Teaching bodies at work. Journal of Curriculum Stuides, 35(6), pp. 697–719.

Evans, J., Davies, B. & Rich, E. (2009). The body made flesh: embodied learning and the corporeal device. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 30(4), 391-406.

Garrison, Jim (2015). Dewey’s Aesthetics of Body-Mind Functioning. Aesthetics and the Embodied Mind: Beyond Art Theory and the Cartesian Mind-Body Dichotomy. Alfonsina Scarinzi (ed.), Dordrecht: Springer.

Hess, D. E. (2002). Discussing Controversial Public Issues in Secondary Social Studies Classrooms: Learning from Skilled Teachers. Theory & Research in Social Education, 30(1), 10-41.

Hudson, B. (2015). The epistemology and methodology of curriculum: didactics. In The SAGE handbook of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, edited by Wyse, Dominic, Hayward, Louise and Pandya, Jessica (eds.) Sage. 

Journell, W, Walker Beeson, M. & Ayers, C. A. (2015). Learning to Think Politically: Toward More Complete Disciplinary Knowledge in Civics and Government Courses. Theory & Research in Social Education, 43(1), pp. 28-67.

King, J. T. (2009). Teaching and Learning about Controversial Issues: Lessons from Northern Ireland, Theory & Research in Social Education, 37(2), pp. 215-246.

Klette, K. (2007). Trends in Research on Teaching and Learning in Schools: didactics meets classroom studies. European Educational Research Journal (online), 6(2), pp. 147-161.

Quennerstedt, M., Öhman, J. & Öhman, M. (2011) Investigating learning in physical education – a transactional approach. Sport, Education and Society, 16:2, 159-177.

Savenije, G. M., van Boxtel C. & Grever, M. (2014). Learning about Sensitive History: “Heritage” of Slavery as a Resource. Theory & Research in Social Education, 42(4), pp. 516-547.

Schilling, C. (2000). The Body. In G. Browning, A. Halcli, & F. Webster (Eds.), Understanding contemporary society: Theories of the present. (pp. 415-432). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Todd, S. (2014). Between Body and Spirit: The Liminality of Pedagogical Relationships. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 48(2), pp. 231-245.

Zembylas, M. (2007). The specters of bodies and affects in the classroom: a rhizo‐ethological approach, Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 15(1), pp.19-35.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
National Category
Educational Sciences
Research subject
Sports Science
URN: urn:nbn:se:oru:diva-53833OAI: oai:DiVA.org:oru-53833DiVA: diva2:1054607
ECER 2016, Leading Education: The Distinct Contributions of Educational Research and Researchers, Dublin, Ireland, 22-26 August, 2016
Available from: 2016-12-08 Created: 2016-12-08 Last updated: 2016-12-13Bibliographically approved

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