With rapidly growing numbers of HE students declaring poor mental health, the responsibility of HEIs to provide more pastoral care is evident; in many cases, resources are severely limited, and there is a clear need for creative responses to this increasingly common barrier to learning. Almost all learning environments in HE are sedentary (lectures, seminars, workshops, studios etc), and modern screen-based learning further increases this tendency. Walking has historically offered space for movement of the mind and body, deeper reflection and rumination; and numerous philosophers, writers, and artists are known to have used walking as an essential aid to their creative process. In addition, walking, movement and time in green spaces are increasingly recognised by health professionals as antidotes to mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.
This pilot study investigates the potential benefits of walking for a more embodied pedagogy: for learning, creative thinking and increased wellbeing, in this case for the mentoring relationship. Research was based on a ‘non probability’ sample of two students. After all or part of three of their mentoring sessions walking outdoors, they participated in a semi-structured interview about their experience. Qualitative research, action research and case studies were used. Feedback from the participating students was very positive: observations and interviews found that walking whilst mentoring supported a more focused (and yet spacious) attention, the generation of creative ideas, reduced anxiety and, most notably, freer dialogue and discussion, which is essential for productive mentoring.
Published on 23rd May 2019 | Written by Rosie Holmes | Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
Although no firm conclusions can be reached from the results of a small-scale pilot study that involved a limited number of students, the research and study has highlighted many potential benefits for learning that can result from walking. When analysing the feedback it was important to acknowledge that many variables impact on the experience of a mentoring session such as the current task or focus of the student, the physical/mental health of the student, mood, the weather and even the values and enthusiasm of the mentor/researcher. As such, further investigation is needed. In order to extend this pilot research into a more in-depth piece of action research, a range of HE mentors across a variety of locations would test the process on a much wider range of students from a range of disciplines and socio-economic backgrounds over a longer period of time. Students would need to be observed and interviewed in relation to both seated and walking situations so that a comparison could be made.
Although it is unclear whether the benefits reported in this study came from the physical act of walking or from time spent outdoors in green spaces, the positive effect is clear. It would seem that the physical act of walking is energising on a neurological level (Hannaford, 1995), both during the time spent walking and when seated after walking when a “residual creative boost” can occur (Oppezzo and Schwartz, 2014:1142). Perhaps time spent walking outdoors offers a needed variation from the more traditional seated ‘eyeballing’ method of mentoring, which can prove intimidating and sometimes increase anxiety for students. The most notable benefit reported was that students felt more relaxed and therefore able to engage in meaningful dialogue and discussion – one of the key foundations of any learning: “….if there’s no dialogue, there’s no learning” (Sara & Parnell, 2004, cited in Chick, Haynii & Gurung, 2012:62) Furthermore, growing research is finding that there is a growing need to develop engaging and effective educational interventions that can respond effectively to the growing barrier of poor mental health in students (Salzer, 2011).
The study also suggests that there may be broader applications for walking and embodied learning that would support teaching and learning practices in HE. For example, walking seminars to encourage richer dialogue and discussion (Balter, Hedin & Tobiasson, 2015), integrating walking into curriculum design (Amyot, Y. cited in Mullen & Rahn, 2010:111) or even just the simple recognition that more opportunity for movement may be required for sustained attention during lectures/classes, such as encouraging students to regularly stand up or move. As well as the benefits to health, this would be acknowledging that we learn with more than just our brains; by incorporating physical considerations into pedagogy, perhaps we could enable a deeper level of learning, thinking and creativity.
“Sit as little as possible; credit no thought not born on the open air and while moving freely about – in which the muscles too do not hold a festival.” (Neitzsche, F. cited in Roelstraete, D., 2010:1)
Rosie Holmes is currently a Specialist Mentor at the University of Winchester and has worked in Higher Education and Further Education for 15 years. As well as regularly using waIking to support her own creative work, she is also a fully trained teacher of Mindfulness practices: she offer courses, workshops and often incorporate mindfulness into her work with students on a one to one basis. She is a member of the Contemplative Pedagogy Network at the University of Winchester.
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Amyot, Y. (2010) The Techno-Walker. In: Mullen, Cathy & Rahn, Janice (eds.) Viewfinding: Perspectives on New Media in the Arts. Peter Lang: New York
Balter, O. Hedin, B & Tobiasson, H (2015) Walking With Seminars. In: Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 2015. Available at: http://kth.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:819447/FULLTEXT01.pdf (Accessed 29.2.15)
Hannaford, C. (1995) Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head. Great Ocean: Arlington
Holmes, R. (2016) [Excerpts from Journal entries. [February 2016]
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MUSEION (2005) Hamish Fulton: Keep Moving. Bolzano: MUSEION – Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art.
Oppezzo, M. & Schwartz, D. (2014) Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, Cognition. 40(4), 1142-1152
Roelstraete, D. (2010) Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking. Afterall Books: London
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Student A (2016) [Interview by author, 16th February, 2016]
Student B (2016) [Interview by author, 18th Febrary, 2016]