Teaching with gestures

When we hear someone talk, we don’t just listen to their words. We combine what they’re saying with their body language and any other information we have to put together a fuller picture of what’s being communicated.

The same thing is going on when teachers communicate ideas to students in a classroom setting. After all, learning is just a specific kind of communication. Specifically, the gestures teachers use during lessons influence how students learn.

A new study published in Cognitive Science has shed light on how gestures influence learning using a computer-generated, animated math teacher. The researchers created two different version of the math teacher – both used the same facial expressions, posture and words to explain the same concepts, but one used hand gestures and the other didn’t.

When children participating in the study were given math problems to solve drawing on the new material they’d learned, children who were taught by the gesturing math teacher solved the problems more quickly and remembered more of the material than children taught by the non-gesturing math teacher. Moreover, children who’d learned from the gesturing teacher were able to apply their knowledge in a more general way and transfer it into other contexts.

Taken together, these findings suggest that children learn material more thoroughly and internalize it better when their teachers use gestures.

Previous research has shown that teaching with gestures also helps students consolidate their knowledge over time. A 2013 study looked at how children between the ages of 7 and 10 responded to a videotaped math lesson taught either with gestures and speech or with speech only.

Immediately following the lesson, the children were tested on what they’d learned. And, you guessed it, the ones who’d been taught with gestures performed better.

But here’s where it gets even more interesting: the children were then tested again 24 hours later. While the children who’d learned from speech only didn’t do any better than when they’d been tested immediately following the lesson, the children who’d learned from speech and gestures pulled even farther ahead. That is, their grasp on the material got even better over the intervening 24 hours, suggesting that they’d been processing what they’d learned and consolidating their knowledge during this time. In other words, gesturing doesn’t just help students learn better in the short-term, it helps them learn in a way that lasts.

More generally, gesture seems to be closely intertwined with verbal communication. What we say is tightly linked to what we do – so much so, in fact, that children’s use of gesture at 14 months predicts their vocabulary size at 42 months.

The speech-gesture connection isn’t exclusive to children either. When adults who’ve solved a puzzle that involves moving disks explain the rules of the puzzle to other adults who haven’t yet solved the puzzle, the trajectories in which those adults then move the disks is influenced by the gestures of the people who explained the rules. In fact, if the people explaining the rules originally solved a real, three-dimensional version of the puzzle, the second group of people moves the disks the way they’d move real, three-dimensional disks even if they’re asked to solve a computer version of the puzzle.

The takeaway of all these studies is that the gestures you make when you talk aren’t just something you do for fun. They’re actually an important kind of communication.

In a classroom environment, this nonverbal communication can be the difference between students learning and not learning the material. So if you want to be the most effective teacher you can, or if you just want to be a better communicator in general, pay attention to what your hands are saying.

Image: FreeImages.com/Sufi Nawaz