Gesticulation aids Calculation

March 16th, 2009 | Sources: Economist


Just about everyone gestures in meaningful ways when they talk.

Heck the Big O once playfully recounted that his kneecapping chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had lost some middle finger as a teen while slicing beef at Arby’s and it “rendered him practically mute.”


But can it be that gesturing actually helps people think?

Yes, according to Susan Goldin-Meadow who reported her findings at the recent meeting of the AAAS.

Goldin-Meadow showed children a blackboard containing an equation like this: 3 + 4 + 5 = x + 5, and asked them to solve for x.

In the equation, the number immediately to the left of the equal sign is the same as the last one on the right, so x equals the sum of the first two numbers on the left.

Goldin-Meadow knew that kids just learning math don’t necessarily see things that way; they solve the problem by adding the three numbers on the left and going from there.

In previous experiments, Goldin-Meadow observed that kids use gestures when describing how they solved math problems.

To determine whether the hand movements actually helped kids think things through, she taught kids in 2 groups the short-cut way to solve these equations. She asked kids in the first group to gesture all they wanted during the lesson, and those in the second to refrain from doing so.

Kids in the first group learned more from the tutorial than those in the second. Also it seemed, kids in the first group often touched or pointed to the equation’s first two numbers on the left.

So in a follow-up experiment, Goldin-Meadow used this gesture explicitly in teaching another group of kids, call them Group A. She taught a Group B by pointing to different numbers in the equation, and a third group using no gestures.

Kids in Group A learned the most, followed by those in Group B. In last place were those who learned without the gestures.

The conclusion was that gesturing improves thinking, and even incorrect gestures have value.


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