When Clear Instruction And Visual Aids Are Not Enough

Why Gesturing is Far More Important Than You Ever Thought

Technology is moving quickly into every child’s education. The computers are filled with text and pictures, cartoons and drawings. Yet, in spite of all the amazing things that technology can do, some kids still don’t “get it.” What are some possible missing ingredients?

The more you know about learning the better. Here’s one item to consider: the nonverbals by the instructor are often missing from the menu in many kinds of technology. Gestures reveal unspoken messages and can reflect additional knowledge in both child and adult learners.

For example…

Years ago, UCLA pioneer Albert Mehrabian did landmark studies on nonverbal communication. He was the first to put numbers to the research, showing that the majority of ALL interpersonal communication is from nonverbal messages (1967). He described the tonality, facial expressions and a host of other nonverbal avenues that influence the message.

Just a subset of all possible nonverbals, gestures have been recently studied in the role of classroom learning. Gestures can also play a role in changing how the child or the adult REPRESENTS thoughts, either directly or indirectly.

Because gesturing reflects thoughts, it’s also an early marker of a change in thinking or emotional state. In this way, it can be used as a DIAGNOSTIC tool, since many problems will show us as improper, or missing, gestures. When students cannot gesture a thought, they may be having trouble conceptualizing it, too. In fact, gesturing (or its lack) may be the first sign of future developmental difficulty. And because gesturing can change thought, it may prove to be useful in the home, the classroom, and the clinic as a way to alter the pace, and perhaps the course, of learning and development.


Children frequently gesture when they explain what they know, and their gestures sometimes convey different information than their speech does. This suggests that gesturing is indeed a vehicle through which children express their understanding. The knowledge children express uniquely in the form of gestures is accessible on other tasks, and in this sense, is not tied to the hands.

Gesturing might encourage children to extract meaning implicit in their hand movements. If so, children should be sensitive to the particular movements they produce and learn accordingly. Recently, investigators manipulated student gesturing during a math lesson. Children required to produce correct gestures LEARNED MORE than children required to produce only partially correct gestures, or NONE AT ALL. Hence, research findings suggest that a child’s body movements are involved not only in processing old ideas, but also in creating new ones.

Why do gestures work? One theory is that gesturing actually lightens cognitive load while a person is thinking of what to say. There is scientific support for this theory (see all of the references below). Another possible reason (my own theory) is that it makes the brain work harder to CHANGE THE REPRESENTATION from an abstract idea to a CONCRETE thought, hence, they learn better.

Telling children to gesture encourages them to convey previously unexpressed, implicit ideas; which, in turn, makes them receptive to instruction that leads to learning. Previous studies have shown that gesturing improves learning. In summary, researchers found that children told to move their hands in a fully correct rendition of a particular problem-solving strategy (grouping) during a math lesson solved dramatically more math problems correctly. More in “Applications” below.

Want better math scores? Lean in and let’s “flesh out” what we learned from the studies above.

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Teaching Strategies: The Use of Social and Emotional Activities

Valentines, Feelings and Affect: The Use of Social and Emotional Activities

Here’s how they work together: The emotions research always starts with the classics. An older, brilliant study done was done by emotions pioneer Paul Ekman. You may know the Fox TV series “Lie to Me” is based on his skill set and life’s work. Ekman found that when we artificially generated certain facial expressions, it induced the corresponding ‘genuine’ feelings (Levenson, et al. 1990). Act a certain way, and the emotions will follow.

But this door goes both ways. This means, getting kids emotionally aroused can enhance their physical effort (Schmidt, et al, 2009). And when we enhance both, like combine the emotions of social contact with shaking hands, we remember the event better (Nielson and Jensen, 1994). Emotions and physiology are fully linked.

Translated, when we arouse emotions in our kids, they are more likely to get off their ‘you know what’ and start engaging more. Even when seated, emotional responses enhance our memory of the details of the event. But wait; it gets better. If you can focus on engaging the class leaders (the ones that others follow), you have a good chance of bringing on board the rest of the students. Why? Have you ever noticed that when one person yawns, others around often yawn? Actually, some research suggests that emotions are contagious (Wild, et al.2001).

Now, when you put all this together (mind, body, emotions, class leaders and peer pressure), you can get classroom miracles. How?

There’s a whole new field developing. It’s called cultural neuroscience. It’s the field of how cultures change our brain. Your school creates a culture. A classroom will have a culture whether you orchestrate it or not. Many teachers actively shape their culture, while those that struggle complain about their class culture.

Successful schools consciously shape their cultures while the schools that struggle complain about “how the kids are these days.” A great primer on this field was Wexler’s book Brain and Culture (2006).

Recent studies show that when you use rituals well, you can shape behaviors. In fact, rituals can activate students to do things that require personal sacrifice (wow) because of the peer-power and social effects. This allows teachers to erase problems with task activation, socializing and discipline. The bottom line is that anthropology is now being influenced by neuroscience. Well, you know I love the research, so here it is on our emotional, social and physical states, and the brain’s activation for functionality and organizing dynamics.

REFERENCES Brown RA, Seligman R. Anthropology and cultural neuroscience: creating productive intersections in parallel fields. Prog Brain Res. 2009;178:31-42. Cahill L, Haier RJ, Fallon J, Alkire MT, Tang C, Keator D, Wu J, McGaugh JL. (1996) Amygdala activity at encoding correlated with long-term, free recall of emotional information. Proc Natl Acad Science U S A. Jul 23;93(15):8016-2. Levenson, RW, Ekman P, Friesen WV. (1990) Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity. Psychophysiology. Jul;27(4):363-84. Nielson KA, Jensen RA. (1994) Beta-adrenergic receptor antagonist antihypertensive medications impair arousal-induced modulation of working memory in elderly humans. Behav Neural Biol. 1994 Nov;62(3):190-200. Phan, KL, Wagner T., Taylor, SF, Liberzon, I (2002) Functional neuroanatomy of emotion: A meta-analysis of emotion activation studies in PET and fMRI. Neuroimage 16: 331-348. Schmidt L, Cléry-Melin ML, Lafargue G, Valabrègue R, Fossati P, Dubois B, Pessiglione M. (2009) Get aroused and be stronger: emotional facilitation of physical effort in the human brain. J Neurosci. Jul 29;29(30):9450-7. Wild B, Erb M, Bartels M. (2001) Are emotions contagious? Evoked emotions while viewing emotionally expressive faces: quality, quantity, time course and gender differences. Psychiatry Res. Jun 1;102(2):109-24. Wiltermuth SS, Heath C. (2009)Synchrony and cooperation. Psychol Sci. Jan;20(1):1-5.

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