Giving Students a Hand: William James Lecturer Goldin-Meadow Shows the Importance of Gesture in Teaching

Susan Goldin-Meadow
APS Fellow and Charter Member Susan Goldin-Meadow, The University of Chicago, is head of the Goldin-Meadow Laboratory, which focuses on the study of non-verbal communication, specifically gesture.

In the face of an American school system increasingly stressing results over method, APS Fellow and Charter Member Susan Goldin-Meadow recently presented research on the relationship between learning and gesturing that could, quite literally, put a powerful instructional tool at a teacher’s fingertips.

“There’s information in gesture that’s unique, that’s not found in speech, and that could be useful if you want to instruct a child,” said Goldin-Meadow, The University of Chicago. “If you’re a teacher and you never open your eyes, you’re not going to know that this kid is on the verge of understanding a particular concept.”

Goldin-Meadow suggested these conclusions at the APS William James Distinguished Lecture “Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think,” during the 2004 Eastern Psychological Association Meeting.

“Gestures are a really good marker for readiness to learn,” Goldin-Meadow said. “When children are ready to learn they produce different kinds of gestures than when they are not ready to learn.”

Goldin-Meadow has focused on identifying the moment when children are on the verge of learning. However, it is her theory toward gesture that makes her research so innovative and essential: “I want to show that gesture may do more than reflect our thought — that it might actually play a role in causing our thoughts, in changing our thoughts,” she said.

There are essentially two types of gestures displayed by children engaged in the learning process — gesture-speech match, in which the gesture matches what’s indicated by the words, and gesture-speech mismatch, in which gesture and speech do not seem directly related. Perhaps contrary to expectation, Goldin-Meadow found that mismatched gestures more successfully foreshadow learning.

“When you do a math problem that’s packed into your head, one way to get around that is to write the problem down,” she said. “This way you can off-load some of that cognitive work.” Incorporating a processional of motions all her own that included hand-flips, active thumbs, and fist pumps, Goldin-Meadow argued that gesturing might be one way of alleviating that cognitive burden.

“Gesturing might off-load some of the cognitive work that you’re doing onto your hands by externalizing it, so you have the cognitive energy left over to do the learning,” she said.

One experiment testing children on Jean Piaget’s conservation factor found that gesture-mismatch children were more ready to learn than those employing gesture-match. Children were seated in front of two equal rows of checkers and asked if each row contained the same amount. The checkers in one row were then spread apart and the children were asked the same question. Goldin-Meadow’s research showed that while the children all answer the first question correctly, answers vary dramatically for the second, and the explanations behind this second answer hold part of the key to understanding the importance of gesture.

One child said, “They’re different because you spreaded them out.” While answering, the child made the gesture for spreading, which indicates a gesture-speech match.

Another child said, “They’re different because you moved them.” However, this child aligned the checkers in one row with the other while answering. This answer is a gesture-speech mismatch, and though it was incorrect, the child’s hands indicated the answer his words could not.

“He’s getting a glimmer of conservation, but only with his hands,” Goldin-Meadow said.

To test this conclusion further, Goldin-Meadow gave fourth graders a more difficult mathematical equation: 6 + 3 + 4 = __ + 5. The kids almost invariably put 13 in the box, but once again it’s the explanation behind the answer that could hold the key for identifying children on the cusp of learning.

One child who answered 13 pointed to the six, three, and four, a sign of gesture-speech match that shows with the hands how the mind achieved the answer. Another child said she added up the six, three, and four, but she actually points to the five on the other side, suggesting that at some level she understands there are other variables involved than the ones she originally considered.

After identifying the mismatchers, Goldin-Meadow consequently made a more remarkable finding: “The kids who went through mismatch could extend their knowledge to a new problem much more likely than those who didn’t,” she said. “This is the first sign we have that gesture has played a real role in the learning process. You can learn more deeply when you gesture than when you don’t.”

“Gesture encourages experimentation, and it saves cognitive effort,” she said. “Gestures are not just reflecting your thoughts, they’re actually changing your thoughts.”

In one experiment designed to solidify this finding, kids who were specifically told to gesture came up with more problem-solving strategies than those who were told not to gesture. In another, children were asked to recall memorized words after explaining how they solved a math problem. As before, children told to gesture remembered more when those told not to gesture.

If gesturing really facilitates an expansion of brain faculties, as Goldin-Meadow suggested, by moving some information normally reserved in verbal areas to spatial sections, it may actually lighten a person’s cognitive load. Or, said Goldin-Meadow, “It might convey things you aren’t able to verbalize.”

Whatever the reason, the efficacy of gesturing overwhelmingly suggests to Goldin-Meadow an enhanced pedagogical technique available instantly, at no cost.

“You can go to a teacher and say, ‘When you explain that, move your hands.’ This will encourage learners to experiment and produce information in gesture, which in turn may help them learn a problem,” said Goldin-Meadow. “When children see gesture, they’re more likely to use gesture, and, importantly, kids who use gesture learn.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.
In the interest of transparency, we do not accept anonymous comments.
Required fields are marked*