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Critical encounters: enacting social justice through creative and body-based learning


Debates about what constitutes a socially just education remain a central concern in these complex times. Embodied and creative practices in schooling offer a pedagogical approach that can respond to social justice within schooling and classrooms. This paper draws on pedagogies that utilise the body and creative practices as a method for engaging students who have historically been marginalised in schools and the learning process. Transforming classroom practice through a model of engagement is explored in relation to teaching mathematics outlined through a case study involving a Creative and Body-based Learning (CBL) initiative in four classrooms across two schools. This work describes the journey of students, teachers and artists working collaboratively with CBL and how emotion, creativity and embodiment positively impacted student learning in these highly diverse and underprivileged schools.


Pedagogical practices in schooling shape students’ success, achievement and engagement. However, policy directives that continue to privilege high stakes testing compromise social justice as they perpetuate social stratification and work to limit teachers’ pedagogical practices (Comber 2012; Ford 2013; Thompson 2013; Thompson and Harbaugh 2013). As maintained through the literature, education is a social institution that reproduces knowledge, shapes subjectivity and informs a rationality through forms of knowledge, power and domination (Foucault and Gordon 1980). Routinely disadvantaged schools are positioned by statistics that represent deficits and ignore the structural inequality of such sites as well as the positive and relational possibilities of students and their teachers inside these systems. Connell (2012, p. 681) argues that social justice in schooling is not only concerned with the machinations of institutionalised regimes, but also the practices of teaching as a service. Following Biesta (2007) we believe that diverse cohorts of young people, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, deserve the right to experience education in ways that locate them, engage them and ‘work’ for them.

In this work, we document pedagogies that utilise the body and creative arts-based practices as a means to enhance engagement by students from two disadvantaged schools (Hayes et al. 2009). In committing to social justice, this study draws on ideas originating from the work of Dewey (1938) that advocates creative embodied learning as well as Greene (1995), Eisner (2004) and Ewing (2010) who document the potential of the arts to release imagination, open perspectives and raise ‘consciousness’ (Freire 1970). In this work, liberating young people to take control of their learning is foregrounded through a focus on ‘engagement’ and its centrality to socially just pedagogy for those working with disadvantaged students (Munns 2007).

Due to its significance in current economic and social engagement, mathematics is considered key learning for life-time success (Walshaw and Anthony 2008). However, in Australia many students lack confidence in mathematics, do not see personal relevance and are unlikely to voluntarily continue its study (Council of Australian Government 2008). Traditional approaches to the teaching of mathematics emphasise particular skills, including memorisation and recall, and favour direct instruction. Whilst necessary at times to impart particular skills, these approaches can limit student interaction and contribute to unequal outcomes for diverse groups (Walshaw and Anthony 2008). Narrow pedagogical approaches not only limit student engagement, they restrict students’ ability to show or express what they really ‘do’ know. As mathematics is key to academic success, there is need to investigate broader ways of knowing and expressing knowledge (Hannula 2012).

This paper offers insight into a Creative and Body-based Learning (henceforth CBL) initiative as an enactment of a socially just counter-narrative to current neoliberal practice. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has now mandated for all students the acquisition of general capability around critical and creative thinking and identified the arts as a distinct learning area encompassing five art forms (ACARA 2019). With this support, CBL takes up the pedagogical approaches inherent in arts and embodied practices in order to translate them into broader forms of inclusive classroom and curriculum practice. The CBL project explores how material, physical and creative approaches generated through individual student standpoints can operate as transformative and socially just educational practice. In this paper, we will outline links between social justice and engagement before exploring the conceptual resources offered by embodiment and creative arts practices that led to the development of a CBL initiative that is informed by Dawson and Kiger Lee’s (2018) work on Drama-Based Instruction and interpreted in the local context (Garrett et al. 2018; Garrett and MacGill 2019). We then describe a research project that utilised artists working as collaborators with teachers whilst they investigated the impact of redesigned pedagogies on students’ engagement in mathematics.


Socially just practice in a neoliberal landscape

Current school environments such as those in Australia are significantly influenced by neoliberal logic (Connell 2013). By way of definition, neoliberal practices consolidate economic power in the hands of a few and aggressively subordinate the needs of society to market interests. The ascendancy of a neoliberal corporate culture led by market-driven discourses has seen high stakes testing, reduced budgets and accountability measures amongst other strategies become commonplace practice in educational institutions (Giroux 2005).

In climates of accountability, teachers’ pedagogical practices are impacted by a drive to prepare students for high stakes testing. For example, when investigating the effects of standardised testing on students and teacher practices, Dulfer et al. (2012) and Thompson and Harbaugh (2013) found that teachers became concerned with ‘teaching to the test’ thus limiting pedagogical possibilities. Dulfer et al. (2012) indicated that such approaches resulted in lower student enrolment and retention. Similarly, Thompson (2013) investigated teacher perspectives of the impacts of testing in Australia and found an increase in stress and anxiety for teachers as well as negative impacts on learning for many students, often due to disconnection between learning and student lifeworlds. Comber and Kamler (2004) suggest that students who live in poverty have long been disadvantaged by traditional pedagogical practices in schooling and continue to be amongst those who are least successful where a discourse of deficit and blame accepts educational failure as an inevitable end point for many.

Conversely, the process that facilitate students’ understandings and sense of belonging is a framework for social justice in schooling (Giroux 2005). In addressing deficit understandings of students from disadvantage, Freire (1970) indicates the need for a sense of power and ownership in learning as a critical social consciousness. He argues that students can be empowered by engaging with each other in critical reflection and opening possibilities for how we learn. Similarly, Hattam et al. (2009) argue that by making links between curriculum and students’ lifeworlds, we are valuing learners’ ways of knowing and empowering them to experience ways of accessing knowledge and understanding. They found specifically that by valuing individual contexts, positive relationships within the classroom were enhanced through a sharing of power in the learning process. By empowering students in their learning and connecting this with the real world of a young person, students might engage more deeply with learning. From this perspective, we are challenged to view education as a set of dialogical relationships between teachers, students, the curriculum and context where critical reflexivity by teachers as well as ‘engagement’ by students is crucial for transformative practice (Berdayes 2004).

Engagement and student relationships

In their work with students from disadvantaged backgrounds, McFadden and Munns (2002) and Munns and Sawyer (2013) found that traditional classroom cultures elicit resistance by many students for lacking connection and meaning to their lifeworlds. They identify that in a bid to keep students on task, teachers often revert to low-level tasks in order to keep students ‘engaged’. Munns (2007) argues that whilst student connectedness with their peers and teachers is vital, the reproduction of low-level tasks further generates disengagement. Other researchers also suggest that compliance with low-level tasks does not invite rigour in the learning process for students from low socio-economic backgrounds (Haberman 1991; Jones 1989; Munns 2005; Munns and Sawyer 2013).

Munns and Woodward (2006) claim that definitions of engagement often focus on compliance where being ‘busy’ or ‘on task’ is perceived as being engaged when considering disadvantaged students. Munns (2007, p. 304) argues that to define engagement, student compliance must first be problematised as a “pedagogical practice that holds no guarantees for enhanced academic and social outcomes”. Rather, Munns and Woodward (2006) argue that notions of ‘engagement’ must also encompass high cognitive and emotional dimensions in order for students to connect more significantly with learning and schooling more broadly. As such, multiple domains of engagement including operative, cognitive and affective are argued as imperative for students to develop a strong and enduring sense of connection with schooling (Munns 2007). Operative engagement refers to the idea of being ‘on task’, whereas cognitive engagement relates to the connection generated with learning for enhanced academic outcomes (Munns 2007). Affective engagement is concerned with the emotional connection that students make with their learning (Munns 2007). In the present work, we adopt an understanding of ‘engagement’ as a multidimensional construct that includes behavioural, cognitive and emotional components. In aligning with Munns (2007), we explore how eliciting all three forms of engagement might promote a substantive engagement with learning.

To generate operative, cognitive and affective domains of engagement, students and teachers need to work within an ethic of care (Noddings 2001) that begins with the affective domain as foundation to belonging safely within a classroom space. Whilst Nodding’s work was seminal, further research on diverse student learners required an expanded definition of what constituted care within Indigenous, Black and working class communities (MacGill 2008; Rolón-Dow 2005). The challenge for teachers is to “find ways of enabling and encouraging learners to enter into communities of practice, discourse and inquiry…to become an ‘insider’ in the culture of the classroom” (Durrant and Green 2000, p. 103). Munns and Sawyer (2013) identified the need for students to be emotionally invested in their experiences with schooling to develop enduring relationships with learning by engaging on multiple levels. In taking up the notions within literature and research in the arts that have long advocated for the potential of the arts and embodiment to enrich and connect affective and cognitive domains (Belfiore 2011; Eisner 2004; Ewing 2010), this research explores how CBL might engage students from disadvantaged backgrounds on multiple levels and assist them in developing a belief that ‘school is for me’ (Munns and Martin 2005). In developing a theoretical base for this work, we are drawn to theories of embodiment, creative practices and integrated arts practice.

Embodied and arts approaches to teaching and learning

Creative practices are inherent in a range of pedagogical approaches and have been named in various ways such as arts-based learning, drama-based learning (Cawthon and Dawson 2009; Dawson and Kiger Lee 2018) or arts integration (Hardiman et al. 2014). The common thread amongst these approaches is that they are student-centred and knowledge is constructed through creative endeavours. Arts-based pedagogies in education offer not only the acquisition and development of the imagination, creativity and aesthetic appreciation but also ways of solving problems through divergent and lateral thinking. Concerns are raised around the increasing omission of arts-based practices in favour of high stakes testing and the way they may turn many young people away rather than towards learning (Thomson et al. 2019).

Arts-based pedagogy relies on diversity of opinion, dialogic meaning making and embodied practices. Thompson and Harbaugh (2013) suggest that higher order thinking skills are enhanced through these practices. Pedagogy enables students to engage creatively, acquire skills and provide multiple modes of expression that gives purpose to learning and a reason to engage. Drama-based pedagogy (DBP) is an example of embodied, arts integration pedagogy that uses theatre and dramatic strategies within the learning of curriculum areas (Dawson and Kiger Lee 2018). As a pedagogical approach, DBP includes “the use of interactive games, improvisation and role-play to critically engage teachers and students” (Cawthon and Dawson 2011, p. 4). In the local context, we have adopted the acronym Creative and Body-based Learning (CBL) as an umbrell a term for arts-based and movement practices within classroom pedagogical practice.

Embodied approaches have also been argued as a way of engaging students in learning (Dewey 1938; Nguyen and Larson 2015) as they utilise the body as an instrument for learning and knowledge construction (Freiler 2008). Price and Shildrick (cited in Freiler 2008, p. 38) state that “instead of the body being positioned as a bar to knowledge, knowledge is produced through the body and embodied ways of being in the world”. As a socially just practice, embodied approaches have the potential to make complex abstract concepts personally meaningful and thus bridge the gap between knowledge and practice. Latta and Buck (2008) suggest that ‘sense making’ evolves through our bodily experiences. Similarly, Wagner and Shahjahan (2015) advocate for multiple modes of knowing and learning that encompass the body. As such, if we are to be more inclusive of the ways in which students may explore and demonstrate knowledge, there is a need to recognise embodiment as part of the learning process that connects the body’s experiences with understanding of the mind. In exploring the possibilities for delivery of curriculum that applies embodied pedagogies, Nguyen and Larson (2015, p. 342) found that learning best occurs when the ‘whole learner’ is engaged in knowledge construction. According to Ivinson (2012), the body can act as a resource to access knowledge, and learning is strengthened through multi-sensory experiences.

Drawing on these distinct bodies of literature, we maintain that emotions and creativity enable a sense of belonging and the possibility for designing hopeful futures. Embodiment and creativity offer potential to engage students meaningfully in learning (Freiler 2008; Nguyen and Larson 2015; Vicars and Senior 2013). By including students’ personal, embodied and imagined understandings, we disrupt the deficit paradigm and transform students' understanding of themselves as agents of change. Restorative (social) justice begins with engagement through affect and imagination. Pedagogical approaches that mobilise learning by connecting the mind, body, emotion and imagination provide a socially just approach that might work to disrupt the performative process of neoliberalism.

Design and methodology

Creative and body-based learning (CBL)

CBL was developed as a local South Australian initiative utilising the strategies and principles of drama-based pedagogy (DBP) developed by Dawson and Kiger Lee (2018) and extended them to include multiple movement and art forms (Garrett and MacGill 2019). In this two-year research project, we focussed on using CBL to redesign pedagogical practices in mathematics. It was argued that the CBL approach to mathematics should be experiential, rather than sedentary and abstract, where students experience learning in ways that engage them physically, socially, affectively and cognitively. As students progress through a range of creative, artistic and embodied strategies, teachers prompt students to unpack their learning through a ritualised practice of evaluation called DAR (Describe, Analyse, Relate) (Dawson and Kiger Lee 2018). Here, students engage in dialogue that asks them to ‘describe’ (what they have done), ‘analyse’ (what learnings became visible) and relate (to other contexts) to help make connections between action and meaning. By empowering students to engage in learning that connects cognitive and creative processes with the actions of the body, potential exists for students to access powerful codes of schooling, like mathematics, regardless of their social standing.

This research investigated the impact of CBL on teachers’ pedagogical practices and engagement in mathematics for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A qualitative participatory action research approach was employed to investigate the impacts of CBL at two case study sites, each with two participating teachers and their classrooms. Questions central to the research included the following:

  • How do teachers take up and utilise creative and body-based strategies in the teaching of mathematics?

  • How do students respond to CBL pedagogies in terms of engagement in mathematics?


Four teachers were involved in this study, two at each school site, both in the areas of persistent disadvantage and diverse communities. Sunny-view and Beach Primary are both located in the southern suburbs of Adelaide and both classified as a category 2 (out of 7) school, the second most disadvantaged category. Student populations at both schools included above 15% Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, up to 40% with disabilities, up to 23% with English as a second language and up to 80% of the school populations were eligible for school card assistance. Two teachers at each school were nominated by their principals for participation in the year-long study. Tayla (Reception/Year 1 class) and Karen (Year 4/5 class) were nominated from Sunny-view and Kelsey (Reception/Year 1 class) and Felicity (Year 6/7 class) from Beach Primary. The study was approved by both university and state education ethics committees. Informed consent was gained prior to conducting the study and teachers agreed to take part in the study with full knowledge of the research, dissemination of findings and consequences of participating (Somekh and Lewin 2005). In this paper, we have used pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of participants and school sites.

The CBL professional learning program

The CBL professional learning program took place over the period of one year and was mobilised by both academics and local artists experienced in CBL strategies. The program was initiated with a two-day professional learning ‘intensive’ that focussed specifically on the learning of mathematics. In drawing on initial drama-based strategies, participants were introduced to a range of activities that included ‘Activating dialogue’ strategies where verbal, written and embodied dialogue were used to connect prior knowledge to new concepts; ‘Theatre games’ that used personal, social and group skills to rehearse understandings; ‘Image work’ strategies that used the body or objects to develop concrete representations of abstract ideas; and ‘Role work’ activities that invited learners into problem-solving scenarios (Dawson and Kiger Lee 2018).

Further two-hour workshops occurred in monthly intervals across the year at the Sunny-view school site with a larger group also involved in the project as well as two full-day ‘sharings’ in July and November. Further CBL strategies were shared at these workshops as well as focus group discussions regarding their use and impact in terms of student engagement. Teachers also partnered with local artists on seven occasions to redesign pedagogical practices in mathematics. Lessons were co-developed and drew on CBL strategies that were enriched by local artists’ drama, dance or visual arts repertoires. The intention of the professional learning program was to provoke teachers to broaden their pedagogical practices and engage with the creative and embodied approaches as instruments of learning and modes of representation. The artist–teacher relationship was intended to contribute to teacher confidence as well as quality of the learning experiences. The underpinning principles of CBL taken from DBP in terms of being constructivist and critical were extended to the research process where teachers were invited to co-construct knowledge by developing their own ‘action research’ questions as well as forms of data collection meaningful to their sites and context. Ongoing support for teachers’ action research projects was provided by academics at the monthly workshops.

Data collection and analysis

A participatory action research approach was applied to enable teachers to utilise CBL and gather data that were highly contextualised to their site. The researchers worked with each teacher to determine what Munn’s (2007) domains of engagement looked like in the context of student learning. Each teacher investigated one of Munn’s (2007) domains with a research question that focused their investigation relevant to their classroom environment. Noticeably, the various investigations into cognitive, operative or affective domains indicated their interdependance further supporting Munn’s (2007) theory. In relation to the action research process, the teacher gathered the data in their own contexts and through interviews researchers investigated connections across the broader context.

Data collected by teachers were analysed by predominantly looking for change in student engagement. Munns (2007) outlines that substantive engagement is represented by the learner connecting operatively, cognitively and affectively with learning. As such, this framework informed the interpretive lens used by teachers to consider changes when applying CBL to the teaching of mathematics. Data were then collected by the researchers in the form of interviews with teachers around their experiences in utilising CBL strategies with their classes. These were analysed using an interpretive lens to identify patterns, insights and understandings (Patton 2002). The focus for analysis included the following: (a) How teachers utilised and engaged with CBL strategies; and (b) Impacts of CBL on student engagement in mathematics.

Interview data along side teacher collected data were then analysed by researchers with a view to identify possible underlying mechanisms that enabled CBL to ‘work’ as well as how CBL impacted the experiences of teaching and learning for students and teachers (Dawson and Kiger Lee 2018). Arts and body-based approaches to teaching and learning were built in collaboration with the teaching artists over the two-year research period and became liberating for both students, teaching artists and teachers as confidence grew and the familiarity and purpose of CBL strategies became clearer. Examples and quotes are presented from segments of the data gathered and used to support and provide evidence of findings.

Collectively, the multiple forms of data gathered by teachers were brought together to form the general findings from the two different school sites. Teachers’ findings were then further clarified with the researcher in interviews once per term. The reader can draw similarities and differences between cases as well as make connections through contextual examples of specific themes. As the inquiry was conducted with two schools and four teachers, there is no claim for empirical generalisability, but a presentation from these unique contexts that acts to increase understandings for others working in similar settings to consider (Gilmore and McDermott 2006).

Results and discussion

Working with CBL

In the presenting findings, we describe how teachers implemented CBL pedagogies and the variety of ways that students and teachers experienced this pedagogical change. Although individual contextualised findings are presented and discussed, key themes that arose within teachers’ action research projects also formulate the discussion of ideas. Specific examples from teacher data collection and interviews are then used to support these findings.

Teachers applied CBL strategies in a variety of ways, however, interview responses suggested that CBL broadened their opportunities for exploring mathematics concepts in physical and creative ways. Tayla and Karen from Sunny-view Primary (SVP) initially used CBL strategies as ‘get to know you activities’ so that students could become familiar with embodied ways of interacting within the classroom. Units of work around number and algebra were then layered into CBL strategies to pre-test and teach mathematical concepts. At Sunny-view, both classes came together in a ‘buddy’ lesson where older students assisted younger students to make sense of the mathematical concepts. Although Kelsey and Felicity from Beach Primary (BP) worked independently with their classes, there were similarities with Sunny-view Primary in that they engaged with a number of the CBL strategies before adding mathematical concepts so students were comfortable with the approach and strategies. Kelsey and Felicity (BP) taught lessons relating to number, algebra, pattern, measurement, shape, time, location and transformation.

As the project progressed, teachers began to see CBL as part of their ‘pedagogical toolkit’ where physical and creative approaches were increasingly embedded into their daily routines. Comments such as “how can I make this more CBL?” from Felicity (BP) and “what CBL (strategies) could I use to teach this part of the curriculum?” from Karen (SVP) reflected a renewal and broadening of pedagogical practices. Working with the body and creative activities seemed to encourage deeper and more meaningful learning experiences that connected with student lifeworlds and invited them to become ‘insiders’ to the ‘communities of practice’ around mathematics (Lave and Wegner 1991; Durrant and Green 2000).

As teachers began to utilise CBL in the teaching of mathematics, a range of impacts were evident for students. Significantly, all four teachers noticed increased engagement with learning, even for their most reluctant students. Kelsey (BP) stated that through CBL “everyone became actively involved” suggesting that students were feeling safer and were more willing to participate in mathematics lessons. In this way, CBL worked to ‘include’ rather than ‘exclude’ students through an ethic of care (MacGill 2008; Noddings 2001; Rolón-Dow 2005) that promoted maths as a collaborative rather than individual endeavour.

Tracking engagement

Munns’ (2007) model of engagement was used to identify how students might demonstrate meaningful engagement through the three domains of operative, cognitive and affective engagement. Teacher interviews as well as data collected by teachers gave indication of various and different forms of engagement being enacted by students during CBL activities. Whilst findings across all four classes showed similarities by way of an increase in engagement, the way engagement was observed varied.

Operative engagement as defined by Munns (2007) is concerned with ‘being on task’ and is often observed in student behaviours, persistence and actions. In this study, operative engagement was generally indicated through an increase in the number of students showing a desire to participate and staying on task in mathematics lessons. For example, Kelsey (BP) described her students with an increased willingness to “have a go”. Similarly, Karen (SVP) stated that when using CBL, her students “want to do maths”. Tayla (SVP) commented that “the kids want to get in the middle (of the game) and do it” and that the students were “hoping to be the next one to have a turn” and “beginning to take ownership (of their learning)”.

According to Munns (2007), cognitive engagement is demonstrated through connections made in learning as well as demonstrating understanding of concepts. In this study, Karen and Tayla (SVP) observed that once students were able to use their body in learning they appeared to be “letting their body do some of the thinking for them” and they seemed to “just get it”. Felicity (BP) argued that structured, direct and ‘very academic’ forms of teaching did not necessarily allow her students to demonstrate their cognitive capabilities and her students often appeared disengaged. However, in describing a lesson that applied CBL she explained that when students could use their body creatively to represent and describe shapes they appeared to demonstrate greater understanding of the concepts. Felicity stated “as soon as they put it in their body, and they’re actually engaged in what it is, they just seem to get it”.

Cognitive shifts were also noted in dialogue between students where mathematical language could be shared and interpreted collaboratively. The ‘buddy’ system at Sunny-view Primary provided opportunities for children to engage with other students of different ages. Karen (SVP) suggested that there was something “extra that they get from working with each other”. Felicity (BP) also felt that the social interactions prompted through CBL strategies enabled her year 6/7 s to develop greater understanding by building upon each other’s experiences. She stated, “There’s gaps in their learning that we just cannot hope to fix and they’re fixing it with each other by these amazing conversations that they’re having, building connections with one another”.

Affective engagement refers to the emotional connections that students make with their learning (Munns 2007). In this study, teachers noted affective engagement in terms of “enjoyment”, “fun” and “joy” in moving bodies and creating ideas. Student emotion was also evidenced in body language and facial expressions. Felicity (BP) explained that initially in mathematics lessons her students appeared disengaged. She stated “you’ll see … faces and body language that just say I hate this”. In reference to CBL she stated “then you see them dancing and having a great time … and smiling”. Affective engagement such as this brings a kind of energy into learning previously missed and spurred students to take risks, speak out and share ideas.

For Munns (2007) all three forms of engagement are necessary for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to form strong and enduring relationships with school. Increasingly, our teachers gave evidence of these three forms of engagement when utilising CBL approaches. Consequently, in our interviews with teachers, we were interested to explore more deeply the mechanisms that allowed CBL to ‘work’ and ‘include’ otherwise reluctant learners in powerful codes like mathematics.

The workings of CBL

Interview data from teachers indicated that when students could use their body, be creative and reflect on learning, they had multiple points of entry into exploring a mathematical concept and thus greater opportunities to be successful. For example, Tayla (SVP) suggested that “the whole school community find dialogue hard” but when using CBL strategies, mathematical understanding could be “demonstrated in a range of ways”. Students made sense through movement, creativity and expression and then connected their understandings with relevant vocabulary.

Felicity (BP) provided another example with her Year 6/7 s when exploring concepts of shapes. She stated that with CBL “they can show it with their body, they can tell you, they can act it out, they can tell a partner, they can dance it out”. Similarly, Karen (SVP) indicated that CBL “has given the kids so many more ways to show what they have learnt”. She stated that when students were asked to represent their understanding they knew that I can talk to you about it, I can show you using my body… I can write it down”. Here, CBL was providing students with ways to overcome barriers to the learning of mathematics that had previously existed. This resonates with Tall (2003) who also found that embodied pedagogies were useful in engaging students who were traditionally intimidated by mathematical concepts and allowed them to demonstrate greater understanding and ability. Felicity (BP) suggested that when creative and embodied ways of learning were employed, more students were able to make sense of a concept. She stated, “They can dance it, they can stamp it, and they can play musical instruments to show their understanding of fractions or ratios. The more connections they make, the more … that snowball effect gets really exciting”.

CBL recognised students as, what Ivinson (2012) describes as, multimodal beings that benefit from connecting with learning in a range of ways. By providing students with multiple ways to show understanding, CBL supports social justice approaches as well as arguments for multi-sensory learning as a means to enhance cognition (Eisner 2004; Greene 1995). Coupled with this is the use of the imagination in CBL that works to entice interest, curiosity and the anticipation of something wonderful about to happen (Ewing 2010).

Whilst many students found mathematical concepts difficult to understand early in the year, Karen and Tayla (SVP) observed that once students were able to utilise their bodies as a tool in learning they appeared to engage and trust their bodies to unravel complex problems. Karen talked (SVP) of an instance where her class revisited a concept that students had previously struggled with and stated that “we had a game of ‘bippity-bippity-bop’, and they got it”. Embodying learning also assisted students at Beach Primary to make sense of abstract concepts. Felicity (BP) provided an example of this when she stated:

One of my students was sitting there and he was looking at … multiple choice questions on the screen, and he was … trying to remember what the word was, and it wasn’t until he actually, physically did that and he went ‘that’s a reflex angle’ and he clicked on it straight away.

Whilst Tayla (SVP) became committed to “the getting up and moving of their bodies to help them (remember)”, Kelsey (BP) focussed on one student (David) who she felt was more able to experience success when he could “use his body to express (feeling and emotion)” as he often became frustrated and even violent when required to be still. Another example, provided by Felicity (BP), referred to one of her students who “hadn’t showed me any sort of sign that he understood any of those concepts (prime, composite, odd and even numbers) until I took it outside (and used CBL pedagogies)”. Findings here resonate with Erdoğan and Baran (2009, p. 84) who argue that mathematical understanding in children can be enhanced by “performing and experiencing knowledge”. This is especially important for those from complex and disadvantaged backgrounds where language might not be easily accessed or a preferred mode of communication.

Activating dialogue and making their own connections

Activating dialogue with students became a critical component of engaging students in meaningful learning. Activating dialogue involves strategies that enourage students to participate informally and formally in conversation collectively around relevant themes or topics. For Tayla and Karen (SVP), the Describe (what we did) Analyse (our learning) and Relate (to other contexts) (DAR) reflection was a process that encouraged students to make their learning more explicit through breaking down their learning moments into structured conversations under each of the DAR headings. Tayla felt that “in the DAR they are … verbalising what they have learnt and how they use it …”. Karen thought the DAR process was one of the: “things that has made the biggest impact on our kids … in particular talking about how does this relate to real life”.

Felicity (BP) initially expressed concerns that “the DAR does take time” and that she wasn’t “doing the DAR properly, that I feel like I need a script until I’ve got it”. Later in the year, however, she recognised that the ability to reflect and explain understanding “builds such a good foundation” and provides opportunities for “authentic student voice”. Another teacher observing Kelsey (BP) stated that: “… the fact that you use the DAR after their learning … actually gets them focussed … they know they have … a learning intention … as well”.

By engaging students in talking about their own learning, students can take ownership of how they creatively construct knowledge. In allowing students to verbalise how they have made sense of their experiences, teachers developed a critical space that challenges traditional classroom power constructions and gives students a voice to be heard (Cawthon and Dawson 2011).

Through creative embodiment of learning, and exploration of meaning in DAR reflections, students appeared to experience ‘aha moments’ that elicited a sense of success as well as opportunities to connect their learning to something meaningful in their world. Feeling successful motivated students to continue to engage, challenge themselves and take risks. Felicity (BP) suggested that CBL strategies created a culture in the classroom where “taking risks” was normalised and the class would learn together in a collaborative manner. She said that students “feel a lot safer about contributing compared to the beginning of the year”. Once students saw themselves as successful, they no longer engaged in behaviours that avoided participation. In a particular example with a challenging student, Felicity communicated to parents that their child, “…didn’t avoid today or didn’t run out the room or didn’t get suspended for hitting someone in sheer frustration…but … got up and actually had a crack and …showed ‘Hey I can do something here and I am going to show you what it is’”.

Feeling safe enough to become a learner resonates with Freire’s (1970) notion of ‘consciousness’ where students become increasingly aware that they can be successful and begin to see themselves as active learners rather than resisters in the classroom. Teachers also identified how students showed an even deeper understanding when they transferred learning to new contexts. Kelsey (BP) described a year 1 student demonstrating knowledge of fractions above an expected level:

We were eating fruit the other day and I always cut the fruit into quarters and one of the kids said ‘he’s got three quarters left of his orange to eat’ and I was like oh my gosh, that was a year 1 student … I’ve never seen that before.

Karen (SVP) suggested that seeing a connection with their lives helped students to place greater value on mathematics. Tayla (SVP) agreed and indicated that CBL was helping students to make connections between mathematics and their ‘lifeworlds’. In referring to comments that students in her class had added to their own reports she stated, “…Tyson’s comment in his report was ‘I need maths for soccer’. Shannon’s was ‘I need maths to be a plumber’. So it’s about … their own connections…it’s having that student voice ‘my learning is important to me because…’”. In aligning with Munns (2007), we suggest that students engaged more substantively as they developed a sense of belonging in the school community and showed that they valued their learning by connecting it with their personal experiences and future endeavours.


This study investigated the impact of Creative and Body-based Learning (CBL) approaches on students and teachers at two primary schools located in low socio-economic areas of Adelaide. Specifically, it explored how teachers utilised CBL approaches in redesigning mathematics for primary students. In being guided by a drive for social justice, the research focussed on how students who have not traditionally been served well by schooling might experience success in terms of the kinds of engagement identified by Munns and Sawyer (2013) as vital for ongoing connection with schooling.

As teachers in this study broadened their pedagogical practices in collaboration with teaching artists to include more creative and embodied approaches to learning mathematics, they collectively found that student engagement in mathematics learning improved. This was particularly the case for students who had shown prior reluctance and disengagement with mathematics. Teachers viewed students staying on task, persisting with problems and wanting to take turns in activities that activated dialogue, and used games, image work and role play in the delivery of mathematics. Interviews indicated that teachers also observed cognitive shifts in terms of increased use of mathematical vocabulary as well as making personal sense of mathematical concepts and transferring them to real-world contexts. This was particularly encouraged in the DAR reflective process where students were invited to ‘describe, analyse and relate’ their learning but also was evident more anecdotally in conversations.

Other cognitive advances were evident visually to teachers through the ways that students responded to tasks and positioned their bodies in space. Significantly, teachers also observed affective engagement, as seen in a broadening of positive emotional responses to mathematics learning. Emotions such as joy and happiness, increased confidence and pride and were noted by teachers for individuals and across classes. In aligning with Munns (2007) who advocates for high levels of all three forms of engagement, these findings highlight the potential of CBL to engage and connect students from disadvantaged backgrounds more substantively to schooling.

On analysing the mechanisms that enabled CBL to ‘work’ for these students, teachers described the way that working with the body as an instrument of learning allowed students a way to access mathematical learning not previously available. Teachers also felt that the creativity and heightened emotional responses inherent in CBL strategies provided more ways for students to express their knowledge and understanding to be successful. On highlighting the body’s power to feel, sense, respond and imagine, students were invited ‘in’ to the learning process, they became aware of their abilities and gained a sense of joy and satisfaction that promoted ongoing participation.

Through CBL, students can see themselves in ways that are relational to the broader context in which they are located. Each of the strategies offers space for students to engage physically, mobilise affect (feelings), stimulate thinking and imagine responses. It is at this nexus that students see themselves in relation to what they know, do not know and what they are learning. So too, in providing a collaborative learning community informed by their own understandings, feelings and creative ideas, students could come to see themselves as ‘learners’ rather than ‘failures’ in mathematics. These findings resonate with those of Deed et al. (2012) in relation to embodied pedagogies and Ewing (2010), Eisner (2004) Greene (1995) and Sengun and Iskenderoglu (2010) who argue the value of creative approaches to heighten emotional states and increase motivation to participate in mathematics.

Relationality is a central component of CBL that addresses the inherent structural inequalities such as racialised codes and performativity in the classroom (MacGill and Blanch 2013). Whilst many teachers attempt to overturn these processes and draw out students’ ‘funds of knowledge’, this is difficult to achieve through words. Creative and body-based practices offer opportunities beyond written language to listen with bodies, feel with emotions and engage with creative selves thus providing a unique way of operating in the classroom that is consistent with the aims of social justice.


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Appendix 1: Teacher action research; including key questions, data collected and data collection methods

Appendix 1: Teacher action research; including key questions, data collected and data collection methods

Site/teacher/age group Action research questions Data collected Action research project artefact
Sunny-view Primary: Tayla-year R/1 How might CBL help develop student’s conceptual understanding of mathematics? • Each term activating dialogue tasks was used to prompt how students felt about mathematics. This represented pre-dispositions towards mathematics and any changes throughout the year. Students were prompted by the sentence ‘when I think about maths I feel’ and their thoughts were recorded on post it notes
• The class kept a ‘floor book’ which was available for students to add to themselves. In this book they were encouraged to add examples of their own work or thoughts when they noticed mathematics being utilised to gain information about conceptual understanding
• Tayla conducted focus group interviews with students to further clarify conceptual understanding and feelings towards learning in mathematics
• Student work samples that they themselves added to the class ‘floor book’
• The ‘floor book’ also became a collection of ‘a-ha’ moments recorded by students as they added their thoughts relating to mathematics and moments in which they saw themselves using mathematics
Sunny-view Primary: Karen-year 4/5 How might CBL impact student dispositions towards mathematics? • Karen designed a template PowerPoint presentation for students to add their personal feelings and attitudes towards mathematics and themselves as learners over time
• Each term activating dialogue tasks was used to prompt how students felt about mathematics. This represented pre-dispositions towards mathematics and any changes throughout the year
• Karen also conducted focus group interviews with students to further clarify her observations of student engagement from their perspective
• Student personal PowerPoints structured by teacher and created by students were collected by Karen
Beach primary: Kelsey-year R/1 How might CBL be used with children to develop confidence and engagement in mathematics?
What impact might CBL have on the learning of a student with complex learning needs?
• Each term activating dialogue tasks was used to prompt how students felt about mathematics. This represented pre-dispositions towards mathematics and included any changes throughout the year. Students were prompted by two separate sentences. The sentence ‘words that represent maths to us’ was written on large ‘butchers’ paper and students verbalised their ideas which were written on the sheet by the teacher. ‘How we feel about maths’ was written on a separate piece of paper and students recorded their response using paint to create a hand print on the paper. A red hand print indicated a negative feeling towards mathematics and a green hand print indicated a positive feeling towards mathematics. This information was collected once per term
• Kelsey took photos of student work to monitor any development in conceptual understanding
• Kelsey kept teacher field notes tracking specifically one student’s (David) involvement in lessons. Movement charts indicated where David was during lessons and supporting notes of what he was doing tracked how he engaged or disengaged
• Semi-structured interviews with students were also recorded to clarify feelings towards the use of CBL in mathematics
• Diary including field notes and movement charts
• Photos of student work samples
• Video footage of student interviews
Beach primary: Felicity-year 6/7 How might CBL promote engagement in mathematics and schooling for students?
How might CBL be used with a year 6/7 class to engage myself back into teaching?
• Photographs to capture student emotion and engagement were taken in response to a series of prompts through activating dialogue tasks. Students were asked to hold a pose and facial expression that represented their thoughts and feelings towards a series of prompts such as ‘when I think about maths I feel’ and ‘when we use CBL I feel’. This was repeated at different intervals throughout the year, firstly to establish base-line and then track change
• Felicity also conducted focus group interviews with students to further clarify conceptual understanding and feelings towards learning in mathematics
• Felicity kept a diary to record her observations of students and reflect on her own practice and how these impacted her own engagement with teaching
• Photographs capturing student emotion and representation of affective engagement
• Notes from interviews with students
• Felicity’s journal

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Rankin, J., Garrett, R. & MacGill, B. Critical encounters: enacting social justice through creative and body-based learning. Aust. Educ. Res. 48, 281–302 (2021).

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  • Social justice
  • Embodiment
  • Creative learning