Thinking about learning through objects

I have a reservation about the idea of learning styles. My main reservation comes out of the fact that there are so many different accounts of learning styles. The, admittedly controversial, report commissioned by the LSRC found a whole range of learning styles from those where the learning style was something that a learner could adopt (if it proved useful in the learners current context) to those where the learning style was something intrinsic to the learning (over which the learner had little control and should merely get used to it). The report also pointed out that none of these models is substantiated by research evidence (Coffield, 2004).

Gardner’s model of multiple intelligences (2006) fits at the latter end of the spectrum. I have yet to fully read the whole book (a terrible confession), but it seems that Gardner posits his model not on the basis of research evidence but on a series of reflections on observations. His idea of kinaesthetic learning is based on his reflections on people who use their body well, intelligently even; he gives dancers as an example. Sennett (2009) talks about potters and musicians but in both cases they are talking about a physical ability.

In line with the observation from the Coffield’s report, Gardner seems to be talking about people with innate skill or an innate awareness and ability to use their body. Sennett talks rather of a more democratic notion of ability; skills can be learnt through repeated activity. Robinson (2001) argues that we should not think in terms of discrete intelligences but rather in terms of a spectrum / continuum of intelligences and each person has a profile within that. Robinson also seeks to balance out the deterministic element of intelligences with the idea that different cultures / life experiences create space for people (especially children) to develop certain skills.

Sennett’s vision is rather like children learning to read, early on in the process they focus on the decoding of individual words to the extent that they find it difficult to follow the broader narrative. Once the decoding skill has been internalised, reading can take place. Similarly craft makers repeat the basic moves so that ultimately they are released from consciously worrying over them and can engage with their task at a higher level.

Nonetheless what we are talking about when we talk about kinaesthetic learning is the skilled use of the body. The strength of this approach is that it recognises and validates a wider range of skills than academic competence. The weakness has been demonstrated in the way that this idea has been mangled in the primary school sector in the UK – 8 intelligences become 3 or 4 and kinaesthetic learning becomes (in some instances) moving things around.

So… an idea that has immense popularity in the formal schooling sector, which, in many ways, provides formal validation for practices that teachers value; although some research argues that (again) it cannot be proven.

But children are entranced by physical engagement with material stuff. It doesn’t have to be skilled engagement; it is simply the act of handling stuff – both in the sense of object handling and practical making. In part, it seems that this is because we are haptic (Greenbie, 1982) and not simply visual. It would be interesting to find out whether there is any neurological substance to that statement. Sennett’s neuro-physiological description of the process of trying to play a tune on an instrument (p274, 2009) suggests that there is.

Another thread – I keep coming back to the chance discussions I had with William Pym (an artists blacksmith) and Danny Lane (an artist / craftsman who started working in domestic scale glass and has moved onto large scale glass and steel) . I’m also struck by Hiroshi Suzuki’s descriptions of his experience of working silver. Makers talk of a struggle with a material, whose inner mechanics may be opaque to them, but they are immensely attuned to the material’s responses and are sometimes surprised by the material’s behaviour. Risatti (2007) talks about craft makers in general in the same terms. Focillon (1992) uses a similar language in his discussion of historic fine artists struggling with their materials as they strive to create forms.

Once upon a time I used to be a metallurgist of sorts. Metallurgists talk in words, pictures and equations to describe the process of a piece of metal deforming. I’m fascinated by the fact that both groups are talking about the same event, but perceive it quite differently.

But what are the origins of those different habits of thought?

Robinson (2001), in his critique of the current formal education system, suggests that this split emerged in academia largely out of the economic intent of the schooling system: arts and sciences were split because sciences were seen as useful forms of knowledge whereas the arts were not.

A lot of literature / discussion that I’ve encountered recently argue that artists perceive the world differently than the rest of us and valorises that mode of perception For example ‘After the Crunch’ edited by Wright et al., 2009. (I’m also thinking of a talk given by the chief executive of Arts Council England giving a talk to the RSA about the value of the arts. I guess this polemical approach should be viewed within the broader context of cultural and arts organisations arguing for the necessity of governmental funding for the arts. Nonetheless, it puts my back up!).

These put the discrepancy between artists and scientists on an innate level. Some of the more diplomatic discussion values difference and exchange between the arts and sciences and areas of commonality (e.g. how creativity is intrinsic to both).

It strikes me that such a split impoverishes both sides. Sennett makes this point when he talks about material sensitivity. It furthermore impoverishes children and young people going through the education system right now.

Can it be otherwise? Can people learn about material whilst learning through material? Can you study its internal mechanics whilst experience its response to your attempts at forming it? Moreover, can you think in both ways about the same stuff, i.e. can you analyse the micromechanics of a piece of clay whilst considering its aesthetic, poetic and cultural potential?

This is, for me, an interesting point. I wonder whether it’s like one of those visual games – you can flip between seeing the old lady’s face or the young woman but you can’t see both at the same time because your brain doesn’t allow for that possibility – so are we constrained to think about material like a scientist or an artist but not both at the same time?

Can these threads be drawn together? It would be interesting to look at the nature of physical engagement with material and objects from a neuro-physiological perspective whilst also considering the way in which that engagement is framed within personal / cultural structures of understanding.


Coffield, F. Moseley, D., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K. (2004) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review, London: Learning and Skills Research Centre, [Last accessed 23/08/10]

Focillon, H. (1992) The Life of Forms in Art, Cambridge, MA, US: Zone Books

Gardner, H. (2006) Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory & Practice, (new edition) New York; London: Basic Books

Greenbie, B. B. (1982) Spaces: Dimensions of the Human Landscape, Yale: Yale University Press

Risatti, H. (2007) A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, Chapel Hill, NC, US: University of North Carolina Press

Robinson, K. (2001) Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, Capstone

Sennett, R. (2009) The Craftsman, London: Penguin Books

Wright, S., et al. (eds) (2009) After the Crunch [Last accessed 23/08/10]


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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