Children who use their hands to gesture during a math lesson gain a deep understanding of the problems they are taught, according to a new research.
Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology designed the study in particular to answer whether abstract gesture can support generalisation beyond a particular problem and whether abstract gesture is a more effective teaching tool than concrete action.
“We found that acting gave children a relatively shallow understanding of a novel math concept, whereas gesturing led to deeper and more flexible learning,” said the study’s lead author, Miriam A Novack, a PhD student in psychology.
The researchers taught third-grade children a strategy for solving one type of equivalence problem.
The students were tested on similar equivalence problems to determine how well they understood the underlying principle.
The researchers randomly assigned 90 children to conditions in which they learned using different kinds of physical interaction with the material.
One group of children picked up magnetic number tiles and put them in the proper place in the formula. Another group mimed that action, and a third group was taught to use abstract gestures with their hands to solve the equations.
The third group was taught to produce a V-point gesture with their fingers under two of the numbers, metaphorically grouping them, followed by pointing a finger at the blank in the equation.
The children were tested before and after solving each problem in the lesson, including problems that required children to generalise beyond what they had learned in grouping the numbers.
Though children in all three groups learned the problems they had been taught during the lesson, only those who gestured during the lesson were successful on the generalisation problems.