University of Chicago psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow has been fascinated by the mysterious effect of gesticulation on learning and memory. She seeks to identify why people who talk with their hands tend to learn faster and remember longer than others.
Initially, Goldin-Meadow studied deaf children of hearing parents, or what she calls “home signers.” These children were not schooled according to standardized sign language, but had crafted their own signed speech. Goldin-Meadow has gone on to focus on gesture and learning. Importantly, the gesturing Goldin-Meadow studies is not signing, but what she calls “co-speech gesture,” that is, hand movements combined with speech to communicate ideas.
She and her colleagues at the Goldin-Meadow labaratory have observed that children are more likely to remember the name of objects when they point (a type of gesture) at them. This can be seen in the classroom, where the gestures children choose may indicate their readiness for learning.
Goldin-Meadow’s research has found that children may first show they understand, through gesticulation, before they can verbally communicate understanding. For example, a student may point to the correct answer for a math problem her teacher has written on the chalkboard, but verbalizes incorrectly, revealing a ‘mismatch’ in learning.
How to make use of mismatches in learning
According to 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.”
The student’s teacher could make this a powerful learning opportunity by making explicit the student’s understanding. She could lead her student through a co-speech gesture, pointing to, and correctly verbalizing the answer to solidify the new knowledge. Goldin-Meadow confirms that gestures are “part of the learning conversation.”
Any difference between concrete gesture and abstract gesture?
Goldin-Meadow’s research also reveals gesturing to be discrete from action. It’s one thing, for instance, to point to an object (gesture) and another to move an object (action). The distinction seems to make all of the difference, according to one of her studies in which she and her colleagues set up three groups of students to get closer at learning strategies.
In the “action” group, students were instructed to physically move plastic numbers on a whiteboard. In the “concrete gesture” group, students were asked to mime that same movement, but without touching the numbers. Finally, Goldin-Meadow had students in the “abstract gesture” group, use their fingers to create a peace-sign to show that they wanted to add the numbers on the whiteboard.
The findings show that students of both the concrete gesture and abstract gesture group showed better understanding on the follow-up questions where they were asked to solve problems based on their knowledge of the math principle covered in the study.
Goldin-Meadow explains that gesture, “allows a space for abstraction.” When the mind is freed up from having to adhere to the, “particulars of an item, of a problem, a word, or an experience,” it can focus on processing new information.
Though Goldin-Meadow has produced substantial provocative research, experts are still uncertain about the exact mechanisms at work when we combine gesticulation and speech. She postulates that gesturing serves to off-load some of the cognitive stress of learning, or the total mental energy a student uses to pick up novel information and commit it to working memory.
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