Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hands in Motion: Gestures and Learning

Know someone who “talks with his/her hands”? If so, you may want to pay closer attention to those gestures. The hands may tell you what the actual words will not.

That’s right, sometimes it appears that our hands are aware of something before we are conscious of it ourselves. In Mirroring People, neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni ( 2008) offers the following example:

…When we cannot find the proper word to express ourselves, hand gestures can help in the retrieval of the missing word. At other times, gestures provide information that the words themselves do not provide. For instance, kids often use a dual format to explain the math concepts they are learning. One problem-solving procedure is stated with words, a different procedure with gestures. In fact, these speech-gesture mismatches indicate a transitional, expected phase in the learning process. Say a child is asked to solve the problem 5 + 4 + 3 = _ + 3. Her incorrect verbal response (“I added the 5, the 4, the 3, and the 3, and I got 15”) may not reveal any awareness of the concept of an equation. However, if her hand moves under the left side of the equation, then stops, then moves again under the right side of the equation, the movement reveals that her mind is starting to grasp the concept that an equation has two sides that are separate but somehow related…” (p. 80).

While the student appears unaware of the concept of equations, her hands indicate the understanding is under construction.

Recently, Science Daily reported on a University of Chicago study that suggests gesturing aids students in learning, not just recall. In the study, students were taught gestures at the same time the teacher presented new concepts in math. The results: “Students who repeated the correct gesture during the lesson solved more problems correctly than students who repeated the partially correct gesture, who, in turn, solved more problems correctly than students who repeated only the words” (ScienceDaily, 2009).

This study suggests that gestures are not only valuable for aiding recall of previously learned material, but also for constructing understanding of new concepts. Gestures aid learning!

What does this mean for the classroom? For starters, we should encourage our students to use their hands when expressing themselves, especially when they communicate complex ideas. Second, we should examine our instructional material for concepts that may capitalize on gesturing to aid learning. By teaching students the gestures as part of the presentation, we may empower them to construct deeper understanding of these concepts and to do so more quickly than with words alone.

Get students' hands moving. Gesturing aids both recall and learning—two cognitive activities at the center of education.

Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring people: The new science of how we connect with others. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

ScienceDaily (2009). Gestures lend a hand in learning mathematics; hand movements help create new ideas. Downloaded from


Anonymous said...

That's really cool. Thanks for sharing.

Some friends of mine teach their 2.5-year-old baby sign language. The toddler has about 60+ signs under his belt, and can ask pretty complex questions and make pretty elaborate statements using them. Some of it requires parental guesswork, but the kid is definitely going to grow up to be a "talks with his hands" kind of guy.

I like the idea of teaching gesture to go along with concept. So many phrases involve the idea of gesture: "extend the hand of friendship." "raise fists in anger." I wonder how I will use this in my history class next year.

Anonymous said...

I thought of another angle on this, which I outlined briefly in my blog: In India, gestures to facilitate learning are called mudras. This technique is actually thousands of years old.

Thanks for calling my attention to it, so I can begin to use it in the classroom.

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Andrew, love your insights and thinking! I once attended an event where a presenter was trying to get the audience to learn and understand the relationship between a sequence of historical events. He had come up with gestures to represent each major event. We repeated the sequence with the gestures. It was amazing how much we absorbed through the combination of idea and gesture. Please let me know if you find uses for your history class. Would love to share them with others!

Johanna Stirling said...

Fascinating! Actually your whole blog is.

I teach English as a foreign language and recently I have started to do some online teaching (without a webcam). It makes me realise how much I use gestures in teaching - both for clarifying and checking learners' understanding. Sometimes I'm really stuck when I'm online and can't speak with my hands.In fact I find that I use the gestures anyway, although my student can't see them - it helps me to articulate. Maybe I should encourage her to too ... but then maybe she already does - I must ask her.

Your blog is really informative, interesting and very, very thought-provoking. Would you mind if I made a suggestion? It would be really handy to have a list of 'labels' or tags so it is easier to search for specific subjects rather than have to go through the archive by date (in Blogger go to Layout, Add a gadget, Labels).

I'll be back!

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Johanna, thanks for the kind words. I've taken your advice and added the labels gadget. Hope this encourages you to return frequently!

Paul Bogush said...