Gestures Convey Message: Learning in Progress

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 6, 2007

Susan Wagner Cook stands at the front of a third-grade classroom, an unfinished equation printed neatly on the whiteboard.

4 + 3 + 6 = __ + 6

"I want to make one side," she says, as her left hand sweeps under the left side of the equation, "equal to the other side," she continues, now sweeping her right hand under the right side of the equation.

It's a concept that third-graders are just ready to learn: The total value on one side of an equal sign should equal that on the other.

Some kids get it quickly as Cook goes through her carefully choreographed tutorial. Others take longer. But what none of them know is that they are subjects in an experiment that is helping scientists understand one of the most familiar and yet mysterious components of human behavior: the hand gesture.

Teachers who use gestures as they explain a concept -- such as the hand sweeps that Cook uses to emphasize an equation's symmetry -- are more successful at getting their ideas across, research has shown. And students who spontaneously gesture as they work through new ideas tend to remember them longer than those who do not move their hands.

Now Cook's work with elementary schoolchildren is helping to find out whether the gesturing done spontaneously by many quick learners is simply a reflection of the fact that they are "getting it" or is actively helping them learn.

Her findings, along with others in the emerging field, could open new vistas in neuroscience, cognitive psychology and education. They may even bring a modicum of science to such pressing questions as: What is it with those Italians?

"Everyone gestures," said Cook, a postdoctoral student at the University of Rochester, deferring at first on the Italian question. "People start gesturing before they can talk, and they keep gesturing for their entire lives."

Even blind people gesture when they talk, as do people chatting on telephones -- proof that gesturing is not necessarily for the person who is listening. In many cases, it seems, gesturing has nothing at all to do with communication.

But then, what is its purpose?

Before trying to answer that question, experts say, think beyond the gestures that might spring to mind -- the extended middle finger of the aggressive driver or the athlete's pumped fist, the meanings of which can be read as plainly as words on a page.

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