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People's hand movements more than just help communicate their thoughts: They actually help them learn, said University of Chicago developmental psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow, PhD, in a Board of Scientific Affairs invited address at APA's 2005 Annual Convention.

"Not only does gesture reflect our thoughts, but it may play a role in changing our thoughts," said Goldin-Meadow. "Children who gesture during instruction are particularly likely to learn, especially when they gesture along with speech."

Why might gesture promote learning? Studies by Goldin-Meadow suggest that it:

  • Encourages experimentation. When you urge children to gesture, they add different problem-solving strategies and ideas to their repertoire. For example, they might show with their fingers that one container is wider than another, helping them solve a conservation problem. Such epiphanies are more likely if you encourage gesturing.

  • Reduces cognitive load. Children who gesture while solving a math problem can afterward recall more words from a word list they viewed before solving the problem. Just like writing down a math problem offloads mental effort, so might gesture, because it's "external--it's out there," said Goldin-Meadow.

In addition, learners' gestures give instructors key insight into their learning stage--information that can help instructors move learners from partial to full understanding.

The hands say what words don't

Gestures provide the strongest learning boost when they communicate something different from speech, according to Goldin-Meadow's research. A mismatch between a child's spoken explanation and gestures--for solving a math problem, for example--indicates for learning readiness, she explained.

For example, a child might incorrectly say that you solve the problem 7+6+5=_+5 by adding up all three of the first numbers, but at the same time the child might correctly point to only the first two numbers.

In such a mismatch, explained Goldin-Meadow, the gesture expresses extra problem-solving information a learner knows, but doesn't verbalize.

"The gesture marks the learner as on the verge of change," said Goldin-Meadow. "Mismatch is a transitional state between one in which gesture and speech are both incorrect, and they match, and one in which gesture and speech are both correct, and they match."

'Part of the learning conversation'

Also key to the learning process, instructors pick up on children's mismatched gestures and use them to help students reach breakthrough, suggest studies like one Goldin-Meadow conducted with the University of Chicago's Melissa Singer, PhD, on 38 third- and fourth-graders.

Instructors used more math problem-solving strategies, and more of their own mismatches, when teaching mismatchers, found the study, published in 2003 in Developmental Psychology (Vol. 39, No. 3, pages 509-520).

"Gestures are part of the learning conversation," said Goldin-Meadow. "Through gesture, you, the instructor, may be able to see my visible thoughts and, accordingly, change how you interact with me. So gesture may play a role in shaping my learning environment."

In turn, children are more likely to learn how to solve a math problem when teachers themselves produce gestures that mismatch their speech, indicates other recent research by Goldin-Meadow and Singer--a study of 160 third- and fourth-graders published in February in Psychological Science (Vol. 16, No. 2, pages 85-89).

Goldin-Meadow suspects--and hopes to confirm in future research--that gesture may benefit learning this way by visually conveying information. For example, you can more clearly depict Florida's location vis-à-vis Maine with your hands than your mouth. Also, she said, people may feel freer to communicate through gesture because others don't challenge it the way they do speech.

"Nobody ever says, 'Excuse me, but that gesture was wrong,'" said Goldin-Meadow, with a smile.

Further Reading

For more on Goldin-Meadow's research, go to goldin-meadow-lab.uchicago.edu. For a research summary, see the May issue of TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences (Vol. 9, No. 5, pages 234–241).