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Susan Wagner Cook uses hand gestures to teach math to third grade students. The students look at an unfinished equation printed on the whiteboard:
4 + 3 + 6 = ___ + 6
Dr. Cook says, “I want to make one side [sweeping her left hand under the left side of the equation] equal to the other side [as she sweeps her right hand under the right side of the equation].”
These third graders are ready to learn this concept: that the total value on one side of an equal sign should be the same as that on the other.
Research is showing that teachers who use gestures as they explain a concept are more successful at getting their ideas across. And students who spontaneously gesture as they work through new ideas tend to remember them longer than those who do not use their hands.
An article in the Washington Post recently featured Cook, who is a post-doctoral student researching an emerging field which looks at neuroscience, cognitive psychology and education together.
Her work with elementary children is helping to find out whether the gesturing done spontaneously by many quick learners is simply a reflection of the fact that they are “getting it” or is actively helping them learn.
“Everyone gestures,” says Cook. “People start gesturing before they can talk, and they keep gesturing their entire lives.” Even blind people gesture when they talk, as do people chatting on telephones — an indication that the gestures are not for the listener. At times, it seems, the gesturing has nothing to do with communication.
Your arms waggle as you try to describe something ineffable. Your hand jiggles up and down as you struggle to retrieve a word. These are the kinds of gestures that offer a window on the link between body and mind. Recent years have given rise to an International Society for Gesture Studies, a scientific journal called Gesture, and a newsletter called Manufacts.
Dr. David McNeill, professor emeritus of psychology and linguistics at the University of Chicago (a hotbed of gesture studies, where Cook did her seminal work on the educational value of gestures), says, “I’ve really been struck by how sophisticated and focused the field has become.”
Researchers have moved away from the old model of the brain as a sophisticated computer, a model that came to prominence in the 1950s. “People have started to realize there’s something wrong with this model,” says Arthur Glenberg, a gesture researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “We’re not just dealing with zeros and ones. We’re biological beings, and we ought to consider how we deal with the real world and take seriously the fact that we have bodies.”
Researchers have found that the part of the brain that controls hand movements is often active when people are doing math problems. “As though you’re counting fingers,” Glenberg says. And parts of the brain responsible for speech are often active when people gesture — more evidence of the link between language and movement, aside from formal sign language.
Such observations as these have led to a number of experiments to test the idea that gestures might help with memory and learning. Glenberg has shown that when elementary and middle school students are asked to move objects about as they read a story they score better on tests about what happened in those stories.
And Cook’s latest work goes further, showing that even abstract gestures can enhance learning.
In a classroom, she had some students mimic her sweeping hand motions to emphasize that both sides of an equation must be equal. Other students were told to simply repeat her words: “I want to make one side… equal to the other side.” And a third group was told to mimic both her movements and her words.
When students were quizzed weeks later, the two groups that were taught the gestures were three times more likely to solve the equations correctly than were those who had learned only the verbal instructions. Cook and her colleagues reported the results in the July 25 issue of the journal Cognition.
Previous studies had shown only that students who spontaneously gesture learn better. That left it uncertain whether gestures simply reflect an emergent understanding, or whether they help create it. The finding that even “concocted” gestures improve scores allows us to make the scientific argument that gesturing is causing an improvement in learning. In a report last year with the University of Chicago’s Susan Goldin-Meadow Cook concluded, “Children may be able to use hand gestures to change their minds.”
The question of how it works is still unsolved. One idea is that gestures help a listener focus in on what is being said. But experiments by McNeill, in which a teacher makes gestures that don’t match what’s being said, suggest that gestures have effects on their own, independent of speech.
Yet another possibility is that gestures lighten the cognitive load during problem solving, leaving more mental power for memory. In one study, people were asked to memorize a list of words and also explain a math problem. Those who were allowed to gesture while explaining the math did better on the memorization than those who were told not to move their hands.
In addition, gesture and speech may also work best on different kinds of information. “The meaning of speech is clear, but in some cases it may be too precise,” Cook says. “Gestures may be better at conveying broader concepts.”
sole source: Washington Post article by Rick Weiss, August 6, 2007.
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