School & District Management

Classroom Gestures Studied for Effects on Learning

By Debra Viadero — September 07, 2005 5 min read
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Hand motions seen as teaching tools and clues to comprehension

A 6-year-old girl is shown a short, fat glass and a tall, thin glass. Which one, she is asked, holds more water? The tall glass, she replies, not grasping that they both hold the same amount. Yet, as the child explains her answer, she makes a revealing gesture, cupping her hand to show that she recognizes the short glass is wider.

Scholars say gestures may signal how well pupils grasp such basic ideas as how the shapes of glasses affect the volume of water they hold.

The movement is what researchers call a “mismatch” between words and actions.

“When students are learning, they gesture extensively, and their gestures reveal things they understand or are trying to grapple with,” said Martha W. Alibali, a professor of psychology and educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Ms. Alibali is among a small but growing cadre of researchers who are taking a close look at the gestures people make and the role that they play in the classroom. When the pupil cups her hand, or the teacher points to the blackboard, thoughts and ideas are being communicated, often unconsciously, those experts contend, and those silent movements can enhance or hinder learning.

The new research follows decades of studies in linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and other fields examining how gestures function in other contexts, such as everyday conversations. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, a few scholars began to zero in on gestures that occur in the learning process.

Such studies have shown, for instance, that teachers gesture all the time in different ways, and that sometimes those gestures convey erroneous information.

For example, Canadian researcher Wolff-Michael Roth, in observing a high school physics classroom, noticed that a teacher explaining how electrically charged objects lose their charge would move his hands from an object to the floor, as if the electrons were leaping down off the object.

“Actually, electrons move in a whole train that moves just a bit,” said Mr. Roth, a professor of applied cognitive science at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “But what sticks in our minds, often better than words, are images. If teachers use gestures that are inappropriate, then they put ideas into kids’ minds that they don’t really want there.”

Show and Tell

Whether teachers’ gestures are accurate or not, students do seem to pick up on them.

In one 1999 experiment, psychology professor Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues at the University of Chicago asked eight teachers to instruct 49 3rd and 4th graders, one-on-one, on strategies for solving mathematical-equivalence problems. An example of those kinds of problems, typically difficult for that age group, is 4 + 5 + 6 = ___ + 6.

The researchers found that students could better repeat the strategies they were taught if the teacher’s words and gestures were congruent than if the teacher had not gestured at all.

Students were less likely to do so, however, when the teacher’s physical movements conveyed contradictory information. In the above-mentioned problem, for instance, some teachers would individually point to all the numbers on both sides of the equation while telling students to add just the 4 and the 5 to get the sum.

Another example from a study by Ms. Alibali: Researchers showed 25 preschoolers videotaped lessons on the notion of symmetry. Half the children watched tapes in which the instructor gestured and spoke. The rest of the children saw tapes in which the teacher made no gestures.

The investigators found that students learned more, in the sense that they scored higher on a test of symmetry than they had before, from the videotapes incorporating both speech and gesture.

“There’s lots of other evidence that gestures do matter,” said Ms. Alibali. “But it’s pretty challenging to quantify that, and I’m not sure how much they do matter.”

Teachers, too, can learn from gestures students make, such as the hand-cupping motion made by the child confronted with short and tall water glasses.

Ms. Alibali and Ms. Goldin-Meadow contend that “mismatches” between students’ verbal responses and their gestures signal that they are “ready to learn” a concept.

Their studies have shown that children who make such mismatched gestures, with a little more instruction, more easily master the concepts being taught than students who don’t gesture at all when they give a wrong answer, or those whose gestures and verbal responses are both incorrect.

In the water-glass task, for instance, such a child might hold her hand out flat in the air, palm down, to show that she is focusing on the glasses’ height. As students master a concept, researchers say, they replace their gestures with appropriate language.

Teachers who pick up on these subtle cues can tailor their instruction accordingly, say Ms. Goldin-Meadow and Ms. Alibali. Similarly, some experts also believe that teachers who are conscious of their own gestures and those motions’ effect on students could use them more deliberately to promote learning.

To a degree, some teachers may already do that, consciously or unconsciously. Ms. Alibali, for instance, videotaped a 6th grade math teacher introducing her students to algebra concepts. Watching the tapes later, the researchers noticed that the teacher gestured more frequently when discussing more abstract ideas or when students asked questions.

Some Scholars Skeptical

Ms. Alibali, for one, would like to do studies that identify the kinds of teacher gestures that might be most effective with students. Other scholars, though, say they are skeptical of such efforts.

“When you’re articulating your ideas, gestures are usually not a conscious part of the way you do so,” said Noel D. Enyedi, an assistant professor of psychological studies in education from the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s not exactly clear to me that you’d want to teach teachers to gesture in a certain way.”

But experts agree that the studies are opening a new window on learning. “We’ve had this almost exclusive look in education at language,” said Mr. Roth, the Canadian researcher. “I think that’s been to the detriment of some of these other ways we’ve learned to communicate.”

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