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Abstract gestures help children absorb math lessons, study finds

Abstract gestures help children absorb math lessons, study finds

mathAs a member of a minority group characterized by fluency in classical ballet pantomime, studies of gesture pique my interest. So I was delighted to come across research from the University of Chicago finding that children who used specific abstract hand movements during a math lesson were able to absorb the class lessons deeply and generalize the concepts they had learned.

Published in Psychological Science, the study (subscription required) compared three learning methods, each requiring a different level of physical interaction in solving a math problem, in 90 third-graders. As described in a university release:

In one group, children picked up magnetic number tiles and put them in the proper place in the formula. For example, for the problem 4 + 2 + 6 = ___ + 6, they picked up the 4 and 2 and placed them on a magnetic whiteboard. Another group mimed that action without actually touching the tiles, and a third group was taught to use abstract gestures with their hands to solve the equations. In the abstract gesture group, children were 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 generalize beyond what they had learned in grouping the numbers. For example, they were given problems that were similar to the original one, but had different numbers on both sides of the equation.

Children in all three groups learned the problems they had been taught during the lesson. But only children who gestured during the lesson were successful on the generalization problems.

The study’s lead author, Miriam Novack, a PhD student in psychology, said, “We found that acting gave children a relatively shallow understanding of a novel math concept, whereas gesturing led to deeper and more flexible learning.”

Previously: Peering into the brain to predict kids’ responses to math tutoringNew research tracks “math anxiety” in the brain and We’ve got your number: Exact spot in brain where numeral recognition takes place revealed
Photo by woodleywonderworks

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