For me, this is a social justice issue or a neuro-diversity issue because there’s so many students out there who are only being evaluated on their ability to put letters in an order that makes sense to other people.

Matthew Henley

When Matthew Henley '13 came across an educational psychology course at the University of Washington, his response was, “That sounds interesting. I like teaching and I’ve been taking classes in psychology, but I didn’t know these things were combined as an academic discipline.”

Henley, a professional dancer and dance instructor came to the UW to pursue his MFA in dance. During his master's coursework he enrolled in a variety of psychology and neuroscience classes. This side interest took center stage, though, when he discovered educational psychology. After completing his MFA and upon the suggestion of Professor Ginger Berninger, he began pursuing a PhD in Learning Sciences and Human Development.

Although Henley completed an undergraduate degree in religious studies and had a professional dance career in New York City before his doctoral studies at UW College of Education, a common thread unites what at first appear to be different interests.

“I’m deeply interested in how people make meaning in their lives,” Henley said. “Once I found that as the core, the other interests fell into place.”

Like so many other aspects of culture, Henley said, religion and dance are all about meaning-making, and exploring educational psychology became a seamless transition to another lens on the same topic.

“It seems to be a cohesive and holistic way of coming to understand meaning-making in people’s lives through the lenses of culture, body and mind,” he explains.

Today, Henley continues the research he started during his PhD studies while also teaching a variety of courses at all post-secondary levels as an assistant professor in the Department of Dance at Texas Woman’s University. TWU, offering one of five doctoral programs in dance in the U.S., considers dance to be in both the humanities and in the social sciences.

“We’re one of the few schools where there’s this opportunity for social science or educational research on the topic of dance at the doctoral level,” he said. “For instance, I teach a dance education and research course. Being able to bring all of my training from the [UW] College of Education to a new generation of dance researchers is an incredible opportunity.”

In 2015, the Woodcock-Muñoz Foundation, associated with the Woodcock-Johnson Test of Cognitive Abilities, made a gift to TWU to establish the Woodcock Institute for Advancement of Neurocognitive Research and Applied Practice. Henley received one of the institute’s first grants to forward his research with an emphasis on better defining frameworks for cognitive ability as it manifests in the dance classroom.

His research focuses on building bridges in the language between three areas: educational psychology, dance education and the world of standardized intellectual assessment.

He was concerned that the language used by the dance education community might automatically marginalize the field in the eyes the intellectual assessment community and, in turn, in the eyes of people who determine funding and policy.

“All I had to do was change the language of ‘bodily-kinesthetic intelligence’ to ‘proprioceptive aptitude,’” Henley said, and the TWU faculty members involved in intellectual assessment suddenly understood.

Henley explained to them that proprioception and kinesthesis are modalities for the manipulation of information to solve problems. It is the manipulation of movement qualities rather than letters or numbers.

“For me, this is a social justice issue or a neuro-diversity issue because there’s so many students out there who are only being evaluated on their ability to put letters in an order that makes sense to other people or organize numbers which can then be manipulated to find answers,” Henley said. “And, yes, those are valuable skills that develop ways of thinking, that are absolutely vital for our culture, but there’s lots of other ways to exist successfully, happily and wholly in our culture which are served through other sensory channels.”

Matthew Henley

For Henley, it starts at the local level.

“If I can make one student feel better about herself and see that she has value and worth and to not see herself as dumb but as capable, then done! I’m happy with that!”

At a larger level, Henley wants to see his research take a more quantitative orientation that can affect advocacy and policy. He also wants to see the nature of intellectual assessment change.

“I feel like, in a lot of ways, our educational system, even through college, narrows down what people see as the possibility of what they can do with their lives,” he said. “The further you get in your life, and I think particularly for those of us who stay in education longer, you begin to find out the wild careers that are out there.”

“Maybe there’s some kid out there who’s obsessed with the ocean, loves to draw and was interested in science but never knew they could combine all of those things into one job,” he said, using an example of medical drawings for marine biology textbooks.

An ideal standardized test, Henley believes, would include artistic or practical activities.

“There would be some assessment to which the assessors could say, ‘Wow, this student did kind of poorly on the language part, but look at this painting. Look at the clear use of texture and color and line and how he counterbalanced the framing of the painting.’ Or a student would go in and take a standardized test of intellectual ability and would have to cook a meal. Again, the assessors could say ‘Oh, this tastes so amazing! This student must have great gustatory aptitude.’”

Henley’s goal is for students of all ages, to recognize their unique aptitudes and see how those can be used in the service of creating a happy and productive personal and professional life.

“I want people to recognize their own strengths, build a way, structurally, in the education system through assessment, through curriculum, through language, through policy, where all students recognize the strengths that they have and see those as potential ways not just to earn money but to contribute something valuable to the world.”

Story by Olivia Madewell, marketing and communications student aide.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications