2017 Masters Thesis University Osnabrück, Germany: Movement Method to convey physics curriculum to children with autism

An explorative study with 4 British children between 5 and 8 years old. 


Examiners: apl. Prof. Dr. phil. nat. Alfred Ziegler
and Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Joachim Wollschläger
Osnabrück, June 2017

The movement method is a non-directive way of kinetic learning specially designed for children with autism. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is seen as a profound developmental disorder of the nervous system and is characterized by challenges with social interaction, communication and repetitive and stereotypical interests and behavioural patterns. Because of a huge variety concerning the characteristics along the autism spectrum, learning methods require high individuality and flexibility. There are often found tree main difficulties in teaching autistic kids, which can partly be explained by neuroscience, research on autism and learning processes these days. First of all learning settings that are not optimal for the autistic child can cause stress, which makes learning impossible. Presumably the reason lies in the different perception of sensory stimuli and a missing filter for incoming information. Those bad sensory triggers activate the amygdala in the brain to release the stress hormone cortisol which is known to impair learning. This goes not only for some sensory trigger, but also for social interaction and communication. Secondly autistic people often respond differently to social extrinsic motivation because of a malfunctioning reward system in their brain. But this type of motivation is often found in regular learning settings in schools e.g. competition for social acknowledgement of the teacher, hope for good grades or fear of not fulfilling external expectations. But many autistic kids do not respond well to those motivational factors, but to a greater degree they are motivated by their special interests which are often not allowed in schools. Thirdly there are learning difficulties because of a different activity in their prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum with the result of differences in perception, cognition, neuronal information processing and thought patterns. One explanation of the intense world theory is detailed processing and the difficulty to generalize knowledge and transfer it into a different context. But especially for competences such as problem solving, planning and organizing how to act, these skills play an important role. Unfortunately learning materials are often not perfectly adapted to the way how autistic children perceive the world and process information.

The main question of this thesis is how the movement method effects the acceptance of the offered learning materials and the learning achievement of children with autistic behaviour. Contrary to the movement method common methods for teaching autistic children like ABA or TEACCH are based on behaviouristic ideas including classical conditioning and use highly structured learning settings with as few stimuli as possible. Although those methods have been used for a long time, there can be found much criticism in literature. Also the standing conference of the ministers of education and cultural affairs in the federal republic of Germany recommends a high structure and distinct demands in teaching autistic children.

Although not sufficiently scientifically researched yet, the movement method shows a big potential for teaching autistic children in relation to neuroscientific research about learning and autism. In addition to this, its main idea has also been developed independently by different people working in this field. The three main aspects of the movement method are first of all kinetic learning which can be subdivided in Learning with movement and Learning through movement. Secondly the movement method aims at intrinsic motivation by connecting the learning content with the child´s special interests. And thirdly negative sensory trigger in the learning environment should be eliminated, because those can cause stress reactions. Those shall be replaced by positive and calming sensory stimuli in the social and physical environment. To get answers to this question, four english kids with autistic behaviour between the age of five and eight took part in this exploratory study on the movement method. Altogether 16 playdates have been planned, accomplished, recorded, transcribed and analyzed by determined criteria. Generally speaking it could be shown that the kids accepted the offered learning material in the movement method very well.

As you can see clearly in the Gantt diagrams, the kids moved a lot during the playdate. Both, Learning with movement and Learning through movement occur during the playdates. In Learning through movement the movement itself gives access to the content that is learned. In many situations the kids spend time with physics when having a little break of movement. RATEY ET AL. (2008) points out that during high physical activity the energy supply in some brain regions is too low to learn properly, but that moving before learning releases neurotransmitter that suit the learning process.

The common difficulties which often occur in teaching autstistic children were observed extremely rarely during the playdates. The kids seemed to be happy and balanced except a few exceptions. They laughed, were curious and interested to spend time with the physics teaching materials. Neither tantrums nor huge stress reactions were observed. Only small stress reactions occurred. E.g. in situations of social interactions with other children, when the tablet didn´t function properly or in situations when bad sensory triggers occurred, which the teacher didn´t avoid because she didn´t know about them before. Furthermore child1 seemed to be very anxious at the beginning of the first playdate because she had never been in this environment and didn´t meet the people before. But after a few minutes she calmed down. Child2 was stressed because of the transition to leave at the end of the playdate. This also shows how much he liked the session of the movement method.

It succeeded to motivate the kids to engage with the learning materials. They were intrinsically motivated because of the connection between the learning content and their special interests most of the times. Particularly Child2´s desire is to do some research on electrons or Child3´s desire is to take home the timer to time the speed of his sea creatures in his paddling pool, this shows how the kids are intrinsically motivated. Especially at the beginning of the playdate it seems to be important for the relationship between the child and the teacher, that the teacher shares and appreciates the special interests of the child. But in a few situations extrinsic motivation was used in addition to the intrinsic motivation. E.g. the mother of child1 could extend the attention span when she promised her daughter to flip her on the trampoline later. Learning difficulties regarding a different perception and cognition of the child were not found in this study. Probably this is not only because of the high flexibility of the movement method and the guideline “follow the child”, but also because the movement method has a non-directive approach and gives the child lots of freedom of decisions regarding the way of learning. At the same time the teacher gives input to turn the child´s attention towards the physics frequently, which worked successfully many times during the playdates. Many times it could be observed that the kids themselves involved physics materials or topics into their play. The movement method allows to include the children´s ideas and the method prevents that the teacher stays with his fixed plans or does not reach the child with his teaching. For example the teacher deviates from the plans when it turned out that the planned topics were too difficult for Child3´s math skills. Also the planned “confirm-it” to test the knowledge were accepted by the children and additionally they confirmed their knowledge spontaneously some times. In particular the treasure hunt “confirm-it” activities seemed to please them without letting them feel any pressure of being tested. In terms of learning achievement there is need for optimization in the movement method and in the methods that were used in this thesis. Because the ”confirm-it” phases do not allow distinct conclusions about the learning achievement of the child. In some cases the “confirm-it” phases can show misconceptions and in other cases they show learning achievements. Personal preferences and joking often makes it difficult for the teacher to judge whether the child understood the topic or not. In addition to that it is often not clear whether the child has deeply understood the topic or just repeats the technical terms. Perhaps this is related to the short observation periods in this thesis, which was about two times two hours per child. Probably the knowledge hasn´t properly settled during that short amount of time. Presumably a longer observation period is necessary to observe deep learning achievement in the child´s behaviour.

The high potential of the movement method to teach autistic children successfully could be supported by this research in the practical use of the method. But further studies are recommended to optimize the method and to do some research in more detail. Comparative studies between autistic children that are taught in regular school settings and those that are taught in the movement method would be interesting. And a more detailed look on the movement itself and its effect on the learning process would be interesting, too. Furthermore detailed research on the “confirm-it” phases during a longer observation period is recommended.

This scientific knowledge would be useful to develop a concept to structure the movement method in the long term. Moreover it might be worth consider adapting the national curricula of different subjects for the movement method and develop exemplary lessons for different topics. This would make it easier for teachers to use this method.


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