Does your child need a wide berth when they are engaged in a passionate discussion? Do their arms hit vases when they are talking about their day at school? Do you sometimes think (despite being truly familiar with their hereditary landscape) that they might be Italian?
If the answer to any of these is “yes,” then your child might have an advantage when they are learning math, because according to the results of a University of Chicago study, children who gesture in their lessons might develop a deeper understanding of math.
“We found that…gesturing led to deeper and more flexible learning,” said Miriam A. Novack the lead author of the study said.
The authors of the study worked with 90 third-graders on helping them solve an arithmetic problem, which was modeled for them using magnetic tiles on a white board. The first group was allowed to interact with the magnets, the second group mimed the action without touching the tiles, while the third group was taught to use hand gestures to find the answer. In particular, they were instructed to produce a v-point gesture with their fingers under two numbers on the board which mentally grouped them.
The students used these techniques to solve a variety of problems. Some of the equations went beyond the knowledge that the children had just acquired. And while children in all of the groups could solve the equations that they were taught, only the children who gestured in the lesson could solve the problems which forced them to generalize.
“Our findings provide the first evidence that gesture not only supports learning a task at hand but, more importantly, leads to generalization beyond the task. Children appear to learn underlying principles from their actions only insofar as those actions can be interpreted symbolically,” the authors said.
Previous studies have supported these claims. Psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow, who is a senior author of the aforementioned study, is a long-term proponent of gesturing in education. “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,” Professor Goldin- Meadow, said, in a media release.
Professor Goldin-Meadow believes that gesturing boosts learning when a gesture conveys something different from speech. If a child’s gesture and speech are mismatched, then that could mean that the child has a deeper understanding of a topic than their speech might reveal.
Children also feel freer when they communicate using gestures because their gestures aren’t challenged.
“Nobody ever says, ‘Excuse me, but that gesture was wrong,'” Professor Goldin-Meadow said.
Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one. She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.