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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Kinesthetic Symbols: Harnessing the Power of Gesturing

Special Article

Gesturing Predicts Cognitive Leaps. Gesturing predicts that students are ready to make a cognitive leap. In a classic Piaget conservation task, water is poured from a short, wide beaker into a tall, thin beaker and children are asked where there was more water. Those that have acquired conservation of liquid say the amount of water is the same; those that have not, say the tall thin beaker held more water. Gesturing predicts which children will show more improvement when they are subsequently taught! Among the children who lacked quantity invariance, when asked to explain their reasoning, those who spontaneously showed with their hands the decrease in width of the taller beaker, showed the greater improvement following subsequent training.17

Teacher Gestures Improve Student Achievement. Instruction that includes speech and gestures produces more learning than speech alone.18 Students who mimic their teacher’s hand gestures while solving math problems are more likely to obtain correct solutions.19 Preschool children who watch an instructor produce meaningful gestures while teaching about symmetry obtain the symmetry concept better than those who receive the same instruction without gestures.20 First grade students obtain conservation better from a videotaped lesson if the instructor uses gestures.21 Observing teacher gestures facilitates different types of learning.22

Teacher Gestures Facilitate Student Retention and Transfer. Not only do teacher gestures improve immediate acquisition of content, they also improve consolidation and retention of content and transfer of concepts to new problems. In a very tightly controlled gesturing study, experimenters gave second and third grade students instruction in mathematical equivalence via videotaped lessons in which the instructor either used gestures while teaching or gave the equivalent audio instruction without gestures.23 Students were given a pretest, and those who could not solve the math equivalence problems were included in the study. Students were tested immediately after instruction and then 24 hours later. To test retention and transference, the delayed post-test included not only problems like those on which the students were instructed, but also problems that required transferring the concept of equivalence to a different type problem.

Many students mistake the equal sign as a sign to add numbers.24 When students are taught to add with problems like 8 + 6 = ___ many interpret the equal sign as a merely a sign to display a sum, not understanding that it is a sign to show equivalence. Many students obtain the correct answer, but they have only procedural knowledge; they lack conceptual knowledge. That is, they do not understand the equal sign is a sign to make the two sides of the equation equivalent. To test for acquisition of conceptual knowledge, the researchers used problems like 8 + 6 + 2 = ___ + 2.

In the instruction video the instructor said, “I want to make one side equal to the other side. Eight plus six plus two is sixteen, and fourteen plus two is sixteen. So, one side is equal to the other side.” For audio only instruction, the instructor kept her hands to her sides. For the audio plus gesture instruction, whenever the teacher said the words “one side,” she swept her left hand back and forth beneath the left side of the equation, and whenever she referred to “the other side” she swept her right hand back and forth beneath the right half of the equation.

When gestures are added to instruction, students not only learn better, they retain the concept better, and are better able to apply the concept in a new context.

Results: Students who were instructed with gestures performed better than those who received the same instruction without gestures. They performed significantly better on the immediate posttest, delayed posttest (24 hours later), and on transfer tests. See graph: Teacher Gestures Improve Achievement & Transfer.

There are two very important implications to note about these results beyond simply that gestures boost achievement. The results strongly support the conclusions that: 1) gestures foster consolidation of new learning during sleep, or at least retention of new learning, and 2) gestures foster concept attainment.

“Students instructed with gestures perform better on the immediate posttest, delayed posttest, and on transfer tests.”

Gestures Increase Retention. The brain consolidates new learning during sleep.25 It may be that gestures help in this consolidation process: The audio plus gesture group showed higher performance following sleep whereas the audio only group did not. (Difference between the two groups at immediate testing was p < .01; Difference after sleep, p < .0001). We cannot say with certainty that sleep consolidation is the cause of the increased retention in the gesture group, but it seems likely. At minimum we can say with certainty: Gestures increase retention.

Gestures Foster Concept Attainment. The results of the transfer test are particularly telling. During instruction and during the immediate posttest, equations contained the same numbers on the right and left side of the equation. Problems were of the following type: 7 + 2 + 9 = 7 + ___. Students could learn to solve these problems with procedural, but not conceptual knowledge. That is, they could learn to ignore the numbers that were the same on both sides of the equation (the 7’s in the example) and simply add the remaining numbers to get an answer. They could obtain the right answer without having grasped the concept of equivalence. To test for transfer of the equivalence concept, the second grade students were given problems in which no number was repeated on both the right and left sides of the equation. For example, their problems were of this type: 4 + 5 + 7 = 3 + ___. Further, the third grade students were given a test of even further transference. They were given multiplication problems of this type: 6 x 2 x 3 = 6 x ___. That gestures facilitated transference to both types of new problems indicates that gestures are not merely a procedural aide; gestures actually foster concept acquisition!

Tip: Teach with gestures. Use Kinesthetic Symbols to demonstrate a concept. Teach students your kinesthetic symbols and how to create their own.

Student Gestures Accelerate Achievement. Children learn more if they gesture while learning.26 It is not simply that better students gesture: Controlled research proves that teaching students to gesture while acquiring new information and skills improves comprehension and retention.27 Students who are instructed to move their hands like their instructor’s gestures are better able to verbalize the mathematical reasoning behind the gestures, even when that reasoning is never verbalized by the instructor.28

Symbolization of Content v. Hand Movements. Researchers designed an experiment to test if the positive effect of gesturing is due to simply creating more active engagement via hand movements or if it is due to symbolization of the content. They instructed third and fourth graders in a math problem-solving strategy using three conditions: No gestures, hand movements that did not gesture the problem solving strategy, and hand movements that gestured the problem solving strategy. Students who were instructed with the correct hand movement gestures learned more than children required to produce partially correct gestures or no gestures.29 The interpretation is clear: Gains from gesturing are caused by symbolizing the concept kinesthetically, not just by hand movements. The researchers concluded, “We may be able to lay foundations for new knowledge simply by telling learners how to move their hands.”

Hand movements are processed in a very different way than gestures. The brain integrates gestures with speech to enhance meaning; hand movements during speech are not integrated with speech.30

Student Gestures Increase Retention of Learning. By having students gesture during the acquisition of a math concept, the concept is retained longer. In the same experiment just described, on immediate recall following instruction, the group that did not gesture learned the concept as well as the group that did gesture. However, at a 4-week follow-up test, those who were taught to use gestures performed better than those who were not, indicating gestures help consolidate learning into long-term memory.30 This finding using student gestures parallels the finding that teacher gestures also lead to more retained learning.

Why Gestures and Kinesthetic Symbols Boost Comprehension and Retention

Gestures represent a parallel communication system. Whereas language is processed primarily in the left hemisphere, gestures are processed primarily by the right hemisphere.32 To say it crudely, gestures say it another way. They use a different symbol system, enriching the communicative message. Kinesthetic Symbols communicate aspects of the curriculum that are difficult or even impossible to communicate with words alone.

Short-term memory can retain only a limited amount of information. By practicing a sequence of gestures, the sequence is moved from short-term to procedural memory. We say there is “memory in the muscles.” Actually muscle memory is merely procedural memory. When first learning a sequence of actions there is considerable activity in the motor and somatosensory cortices of the brain to encode and carry out those actions. There is also considerable action in the prefrontal and frontal areas of the brain as we have to direct and maintain our attention on the task. As the task is repeatedly practiced, however, activation in those areas decreases and we see an increased activation of the basal ganglia and cerebellum, sites responsible for procedural memory. At that point, we can run off the sequence of actions without prefrontal activation, without thinking. We say the behavior is “overlearned” or that we have obtained “unconscious competence.”  To use a computer analogy, we move the behavior from RAM to hard drive where it can be run off without occupying short-term memory.

We all have experienced this process when we learned to ride a bike, drive a car, or use a computer keyboard. At first we had to think about those actions, but now we can perform those actions without thought or while thinking about something else. So too is it with Kinesthetic Symbols. Because kinesthetic symbols are associatively linked to verbal content, a student triggers semantic recall as they enact a set of kinesthetic symbols.

To ensure that link, it is important that when students first acquire a kinesthetic symbol for a word or concept, we have students verbalize the meaning of the symbol while they are performing it. Neurons that fire together wire together. By having students make the symbol while simultaneously verbalizing its meaning, we ensure dendrite connections are formed between the motor cortex movement and the temporal lobe verbalization.

After the kinesthetic symbol is associated with the meaning of the symbol, our content is literally stored in more places in the brain. It is in the motor cortex (the movement of the symbol), the temporal lobe (the verbal meaning of the symbol), as well as in the visual cortex (the sight of the symbol). Not only is our content stored in those three places, it is stored in the dendrite interconnections among them! Through the use of Kinesthetic Symbols we are actually rewiring the brain in ways that make our content more memorable!

In Conclusion

We have known for years that teaching with Kinesthetic Symbols is powerful, promoting learning and retention. The research on gesturing provides empirical evidence proving that teacher and student gestures provide increased comprehension, recall, and transfer of concepts. For years, educators have relied almost exclusively on the verbal and visual symbol systems to communicate concepts. We can improve student outcomes dramatically by communicating also with gestures and teaching with Kinesthetic Symbols.


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