Taking the Steps Beyond

Keynote speech at the SWCTN Immersion Showcase

My name is Benjamin Dunks and I am an Immersion Fellow and also a recipient of the Immersion Prototype fund.

To finish this morning off, the Network have asked me to talk a little about my own journey to getting to where I am currently at with working with Technology in the way I do, and to explore a little a different idea of technology in terms of its application to solving issues in areas of the world that might not normally have this kind of interest or, probably more importantly, access to the technology we are working with. Basically, what if what we are doing isn’t about the technology. What if what we do is simply using the technology in ways that are effective for us.

And specifically, what is the journey to using technology to examine and measure the exploration of the act of creating. The exploration of what happens if we are able to capture the process of making and creating complex movement and choreography, and then subsequently explore the impact of that.

Before I start I have to be clear with you all that a journey like this doesn’t happen flying solo. There are many different people who have informed me and my work, who have opened doors when I didn’t even realise there were doors, who have been influential across a range of areas, whether tech related, seeing connections, introductions, challenging conversations, amazing encouragement. And in particular over the past 4-5 years, Emma McFarland and Chris Hunt have been crucial partners in exploring and discovering the ideas I am going to talk to you about today.

So this journey begins about 7 years ago when, as Artistic Director of Attik Dance, I started to explore the impact that complex and creative improvised movement has on the cognitive learning capacity of children in Primary School. If you work in dance and you work with dance in Primary Schools, you know that there is an impact on children from what you do. Everyone who works in this way will have many stories of parents, teachers, teaching assistants, pulling you aside after a couple of weeks in a school and saying ‘I don’t know what you are doing, but my child/this child/ is different because of it. They are calmer, more engaged in school, more engaged at home……. You name it.

So in reading of a big funding award to a primary movement programme in Belfast, I set about researching as much of the literature as I could find on the impact movement has on learning. And what I discovered was that complex movement is difficult to measure. And not only is it difficult to measure, getting causation of impact on cognition from a complex movement intervention is hugely challenging. Not impossible, but very challenging.

And this idea kept coming up for me. How do we measure the movement we are doing, in particular considering how complex the movement we are doing is? So when I started my research the most complex movement study on cognition was done in 2012, and further researched in 2016. This is a study getting pupils to do a variety of different activities using both left and right hands and feet to bounce a volleyball and dribbling a football.

When I read this my heart sank. If the most complex they are measuring is bouncing a volleyball and dribbling a football at the same time, which is quite a challenge, how the hell is anyone supposed to measure what I get these children to do, which is multi-limb, multi-levelled, jumping, sliding, always moving 3-dimensional complexity.

I put it to academics at various institutions. They were interested but were flummoxed by the complexity problem. Ultimately they tapped out, unable to get a grip on how these different movement relationships interacted, how these relationships then linked to current research and ultimately how this could all be framed in terms of increase in cognitive potential.

So this is when I met Chris Hunt. Chris had met Emma McFarland, who at the time was the Innovation Producer for Attik Dance and one of the world’s greatest networkers. Emma had been deep diving into new technologies, design processes, user-design processes and innovation and Chris’ brought a mix of an amazing breadth of knowledge of technology and innovation allied to a personality that really fit with the two of us.

I wanted to measure the general movement of the children in my sessions. And specifically I wanted to measure the activity of the dominant wrist. This is a general measure of gross motor activity, and the literature is clear about the link correlation between an increase in gross motor activity to an increase in working memory, and working memory is a foundation of learning. So Chris introduced us to the idea of working with Accelerometers as the tool to use to measure

Actually what we also initially wanted to measure was the stillness in the children after my session. There was a solid reason for this. At the end of my programme of work at Mount Street School in Plymouth one of the teachers basically stopped me from packing up, pointed to her students, who were standing in a line against the wall ready to go back in to class and were in an amazing sort of zen state meditation. This was possibly one of the most challenging primary school classes in Plymouth at the time. And she said ‘They are only like this when they have danced with you. I have never had this happen to any of my classes before, They are so still and so focussed. This lasts for about an hour and a half and they do incredible work. I don’t know what it is about what you do, but don’t stop’.

So when someone shows you the impact you have had like that, you want to measure it, right? You know what you are doing, but you really want to properly know what you are doing, be able to somehow map it and understand it in a more complex way, then know whether that mapped process is shareable and scaleable.

And then this is where it gets tricky, because as an artist, there is a limit to the resources you are able to work with to develop these ideas. There is a limit to the technology you have access to, there is a limit to the understanding of your potential partners in schools, suddenly you are on a mission to be exploring and playing with this creative movement and dance programme with an education sector that has been sucked dry of any iota of support for innovation, let alone for the incredible things that the arts and creativity does for learning and the development of young people.

That isn’t me badmouthing schools by the way. I think Primary School teachers are some of the great heroes of our world. They are in a system that just doesn’t allow them to do what they can do.

We used the accelerometers, we measured the change in movement and activity throughout the 5 weeks of the programme. But we didn’t measure the stillness. In fact we couldn’t measure the stillness, because we needed multiple systems in place. Sometimes the classroom of the class we just worked with was on the other side of the school. So if you are working with bluetooth accelerometers, requiring a system to send to in the near vicinity, and you have a new class coming in, it all gets a little complicated and actually impossible to make happen. A lack of resources, basically, and hitting the limits of the world we are operating in.

We did begin to show the increased activity by the way, and we got some great visualisations out of what we were doing.

Around the same time I co-created and ran a pilot research programme with Erica Eaton from the University of St Mark and St John exploring the impact on heart rate of a parkour programme I had developed for schools. This was essentially a 45 minute programme that could be taught as part of the PE curriculum, mostly in secondary schools and in some primary schools. We worked with year 8, 9 and 10. We used heart rate monitoring kit that came out of the stone age, and worked with 3 schools, with a total of 76 participants. We wanted to see what the impact this programme had on average heart rate across sessions, time in various zones of heart rate and whether this satisfied the national curriculum guidelines for PE in schools.

Our final paper is going to review in the coming months, but suffice to say our results are what we expected and then some. Average time with heart rate at or over 50% of maximum heart rate in a 50 minute ‘normal’ PE class is 4 minutes. Average time for us was 26 minutes. Average time with heart rate at or over 80% of maximum heart rate for the same time frame is 45 seconds, our average was around 8 minutes. I could go on.

And also at the same time, we bought a motion capture suit and started exploring the possibilities of mocap outputs with my youth dance company, which is based at Dartington. Initially I was interested in working with the mocap to create interesting animations, translating my dancers movement into little 20 or 30 second cool ideas.

But what actually came out of working with the motion capture suit was the potency of it as a tool by which training and the levels of skills attained through dance training could be measured, viewed and evaluated by not just me but by the dancers wearing it. And another thing happened when they viewed the capture of their movement. Because it is a robot looking animation representing them, the dancers don’t see themselves, they see an objective body moving in an interesting way. This is the first time in my working life I have been able to have an objective conversation with dancers about their movement and without them hating watching themselves. This stepped removal is really profound, and something I may come back to in the future.

The point of all of this is that the measurement of complex movement activities that have a significant impact on those participating in them, and that can have a profound impact on health and potentially on cognition, is doable, if you have the right tools, the right colleagues who can deliver on those tools in terms of technology and the ability to be able to read the data that you are gathering. And you also have to be able to pivot when what you are doing tells you to pivot.

As you will have gathered by now, I am deeply passionate about movement, about how we can use these extraordinary bodies we have in such interesting and complex ways in order to further facilitate our learning, our ability to think, our physical and mental fitness (the two are inextricably linked) develop our skills and ability to do things we can’t yet do and take us to new places. And alongside this, as the dancer standing up here, who doesn’t like a total funk down to a tune that just gets you moving? What a joy that is. The Kitchen is the best venue I think.

So this brings me to the beginning of the Renaissance programme, where we met Hazel Alexander, the Community Worker with Plymouth Community Homes and who Emma McFarland met at an event in Plymouth. Hazel had been working for a little while with barbican legends, a group of incredible older women in Plymouth, and on hearing what we were doing with primary pupils, thought it would be interesting to bring that programme to the Legends. Hazel was already sold on dance and movement. She does ballet 5 days a week and totally understands what movement does to the body and the soul. If you come to our prototyping session at the Arnolfini this afternoon you will get to meet both Hazel and some of the Legends

So we started sessions with the legends and at the beginning of our second session they started talking about falling, their fear of it, that friends of theirs had fallen with big consequences, that it was something that was ever present in their minds, when they went out, when it was raining, how far they were going, what the footpath surface was like, all these elements.

And of course the first thought is, what about the movement programme I am doing with them could I develop in order to build strength and their movement capacity in order to help them not have these concerns?

And alongside this were other questions. How quickly will they pick up these ideas? How quickly will they build strength, how quickly does an older body do these things? Popular culture tells us that we hit an age and we are no longer plastic physically or mentally. You know ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. What total bollocks.

Within two sessions they had changed. Their strength was different, their movement skill was different, their proprioception, their ability to feel those differences, was more advanced.

And after I saw this happening, and I was able to do some research on the focus of other falls programmes that are out there, talk to different experts in the field around what interventions should be focussing on, I started to think about the programme that I have now developed. Because it was then, walking down that avenue of possibility, that the Immersion Fellowship programme came along.

Here was the opportunity to explore the tool.

And this is what I have been doing. Exploring how these technologies, as the tool for enquiry, can begin to support the delivery of answers to my questions. Maybe not even answers, actually at this stage, just a sense that we can measure something this complex, that these technologies can capture complexity in a way that is satisfying.

And so far this is what has happened. One of the interesting outcomes of working with Camera, the motion capture suite at Bath University, has been working with Dr Polly McGuigan, who is Deputy Head of Department, Department of Health, Centre for the Analysis of Motion, Entertainment Research and Applications. She did the biomechanical analysis of the motion capture footage, looking at the balance of Gillian, Gloria and Penny as it evolved over 6 weeks.

We had amazing conversations about the complexity of what we are trying to measure, the fact that, with this movement programme, there is no baseline measure of movement for any of it. In a normal study there might be a sequence of movement that everyone does at the beginning and the end to establish markers and controls. There is no sequence like that in my sessions. Which means we can’t compare groups. We can only compare individuals with themselves.

And while this doesn’t sound particularly positive or helpful for the future, the reality is, this is where the world is going. The world is beginning to cotton on to the reality that everything is moving toward individualisation in all things. While there might be some exercises, certain foods, medicines, that could generally be ‘prescribed’, we are moving toward a world where our individual differences are beginning to be acknowledged and taken into account in the design of interventions.  This is just the beginning.

So using these technologies to understand the movement development of our participants, but also to understand that person’s evolution as the individual they are, is very exciting.

And this is just the beginning. Chris Hunt and I were involved in the very first motion capture of a Parkinson’s dance programme in August of last year. This was a world first, and we captured the physical change happening in a Parkinson’s patient as a result of a dance class.

The complexity of movement as an incredible tool for intervention, for cognition, for strength, for confidence, for health, is out there for us to explore and to measure and to spread.

Finally, none of this has been possible without the Creative Technology Network seeing my vision and ambition, backing me in two forms of funding, supporting my process, challenging my ideas and being visionary themselves. I would also really like to thank my colleagues Emma and Chris for their incredible work and my fellow Immersion Fellows, who are deeply inspiring with their visions and ambitions for the world. Thank you and have a great afternoon.