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Activating Bodies of Knowledge: Improvisation, Cognition, and Sports Education

David Scott Ross

Published: 2011-12-07

While researchers in diverse fields have begun using improvisation as a conceptual metaphor for collaborative means of negotiating indeterminacy, little work has related these theoretical perspectives to physical education. In this paper, I argue that improvisation provides a frame for understanding the cognitive benefits of sports play, and presents learning opportunities for developing skills in tactical and strategic thinking, problem solving, and the enactment of procedural knowledge. I begin by drawing upon the work of Varela et. al.(1991) and Lakoff and Johnson (1999) to discuss perspectives which have effected a significant shift in the understanding of the role that embodiment plays in cognition, perspectives which emphasize the interdependence of the organism and its environment. I then discuss the ways in which context-dependent action is fundamental to improvisation, and means by which improvisation-based curricula effectively promote the integration of cognitive, affective and embodied forms of learning. The importance of enactive perspectives is evident in recent curricular theorizing in physical education. I discuss the possible pedagogical application of these perspectives by looking at one model, Teaching Games for Understanding (Light and Fawns 200, Griffin and Butler 2005), which shifts the focus of game playing from skill execution to situated cognition. In schools, physical education class is the primary context in which students have the opportunity to improvise, with group sports as a structured context that utilizes improvisation as a constitutive element in game playing. In contrast to learning environments that are divorced from immediate exigencies in the topics under discussion, sports play encourages players to “think on their feet,” both literally and figuratively. I conclude that, rather than consigning physical education to a marginal position in schools, work needs to be done to foreground the cognitive dimension in sports play and the ways in which cognitive and metacognitive skills in physical education classes may be further enhanced. I suggest that a pedagogical approach that incorporates understandings from improvisation may lead to a more holistic understanding of embodied learning and a reconceptualization of the role that physical education plays in education.

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If people talked the way they drummed in improvisation, then I think the world would be a lot nicer…

– Youth participant, ICASP improvisation workshop