+ Using Gestures to Learn Math

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Gesturing can perhaps help students develop new ways of understanding math.

For a long time scholars have known that movements help retrieve information about an event or physical activity associated with action.

An article by Susan Goldin-Meadow, Susan Wagner Cook and Zachary A Mitchell in Psychological Science is the first to show that gestures not only help recover old ideas, they also help create new ones.

The article, titled “Gesturing Gives Children New Ideas About Math,” provides information that can be useful for teachers, say the experts.

Lead author and psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow says,

“This study highlights the importance of motor learning even in nonmotor tasks, and suggests that we may be able to lay the foundation for new knowledge just by telling learners how to move their hands.” 

For the study, 128 fourth-grade students were given problems of the type 3+2+8=___+8.

None of the students had been successful in solving that type of problem in a pre-test. 

The students were randomly divided into three instruction groups.

  • One group was taught the words, “I want to make one side equal to the other side.”
  • The second group was taught the same words along with gestures instantiating a grouping problem-solving strategy — the silent demonstrater’s  V-shaped hand indicating 3+2, followed by a fingerpoint at the blank (group and add 3 and 2 and put the sum in the blank).
  • The last group was taught the words along with the gestures instantiating the grouping strategy but focusing attention on the wrong numbers — the silent demonstrater’s V-shaped hand indicating 2+8, followed by a fingerpoint at the blank.  The experimenter demonstrating did not explain the movement or comment about it.

All of the students were given a test in which they solved new problems of this type.  They then explained how they reached their answers. 

Students who repeated the correct gesture during the lesson solved more problems correctly than students who repeated the partially correct gesture; but the latter group of students solved more problems correctly than students who repeated only the words.

The number of problems children solved correctly could be explained by whether they added the grouping strategy to their spoken repertoires after the lesson, Goldin-Meadow said.

Because the experimenter never expressed the grouping strategy in speech during the lesson, and students picked it up on their own as a new idea, the study demonstrates that gesture can help create new concepts in learning, the researchers feel.

“The grouping information students incorporated into their post-lesson speech must have come from their own gestures.  Children were thus able to extract information from their own hand movements.  This process may be the mechanism by which gesturing influences learning.”

More research is of course needed.  But this is an idea worth trying in classrooms and at kitchen tables!

sole source: online article from Science Daily on 2/26/09.  www.sciencedaily.com .  Drawn from an article by Goldin-Meadow, Wagner Cook and Mitchell in Psychological Science, “Gesturing Gives Children New Ideas About Math.” 

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