‘See me. Feel me. Touch me.’ (Pt. 2)

From virtual to visceral learning

After I posted my previous blogpost on inspiring learning through objects and artefacts, I began to think a bit more about what makes that form of learning so powerful. I was walking the dog (I use it as a form of idea-generation therapy) wondering what might be the opposite or complementary term to ‘virtual learning’. Suddenly, as I walked past the butcher’s shop in the shopping precinct, the word ‘visceral’ fell into my head. Passers-by must have wondered at this figure walking very slowly (our dog is very old) muttering to himself and repeating the phrase ‘virtual learning, visceral learning’.

I began to like the idea of visceral learning, with its connotations of strong emotions and physical experiences (not to mention unmentionable bodily functions).  I suspect, however, that we won’t be seeing the phrase ‘ visceral learning’ in our institutional mission statements and learning and teaching strategy documents.

Why visceral?

There is phenomenon that has been occurring in the last few decades, particular in the arts and popular culture. Essentially it consists of a reaction to a world that, increasingly, is viewed and experienced via gazing at a screen – whether a TV screen or a computer monitor or laptop/tablet/phone screen. Once, audiences used to flock to the theatre to watch the ‘well-made play’. They would sit in the dark, in silence, watching the action on stage. Then TV came along. Similarly  people used to flock to Working Men’s Clubs for a ‘good night out’. Then TV came along. Then computers came along, and now we’ve reached the point where a virtually infinite universe of entertainment and information can be accessed at the click of a mouse or, more recently, by tapping the screen.

But there was a reaction to this sitting in front of a screen; and that reaction was to make performances more visceral. No longer was it sufficient to sit passively and watch. The relationship between the performer, the ‘text’, the audience and the environment became blurred, mutable, transactional. The veritable explosion of site-specific, immersive, interactive performances and performance experiences can be seen, in part, as a reaction to the relative passivity of just watching a screen. Audiences were engaged and involved: physically as well as emotionally. And that pattern can be seen in many fields beyond theatre.

Higher education has, perhaps, been a bit late to the visceral learning party. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the innate distrust of anything that is not focused on the mind and the intellect. If you want to put this to the test, try doing a simple, short physical warm-up exercise with a group of colleagues or students from non-performance based disciplines. The looks and expressions tell you that you might as well be asking them to stick needles in their eyes!

But there’s clearly a shift happening, though currently it tends to occur predominantly amongst the creative, educational  ‘outliers’. But slowly, as in Wenger’s notion of legitimate peripheral participation, as more individuals and groups within that community of practice adopt and adapt the ideas, discourses and – importantly – the new or certainly different practices, the activity moves gradually from the periphery towards the centre of a particular community of practice.

The virtual and the visceral are the ying and yang of learning and teaching. It’s not either/or, but both/and. The more institutions focus on enhancing (and investing) in digital and virtual learning experiences, the more that needs to be complemented by enhancing (and investing in)  visceral learning experiences. No longer should students be required to sit passively in the (lecture) theatre, listening to and watching the action on the stage. They can usually get that via clicking a mouse or tapping  the screen and watching the video of the lecture on YouTube (or via the VLE). Visceral learning goes beyond ‘engaged’ learning. It involves immersing oneself intellectually, emotionally, physically and kinaesthetically in the learning experience. That learning experience needs to be designed skilfully to enable that immersion to occur, and it needs skill and confidence on the part of the teacher, who acts not as a transmitter of knowledge but as a guide, mentor and partner through the visceral learning journey.

Tell me and I forget.

Teach me and I remember.

Involve me and I learn.

(Benjamin Franklin)