Quick, a pop quiz – Which of the following is best at helping 3rd graders develop deeper understanding of math concepts?
A. Moving magnetic tiles on a white board,
B. Mimicking the action of moving the tiles, without actually touching them, or
C. Using hand gestures like pointing and making a V shape with their fingers
The answer: C, using hand gestures.1
A team of researchers at the University of Chicago took a group of 90 kids in 3rd grade and taught each of them a math concept using one of the methods mentioned above.1
The researchers found that kids in all three groups learned how to do the math problems, but the kids in the hand gestures group developed a deeper understanding of the actual math concept.
How do we know? The kids who were taught using hand gestures were better at applying the math concept to a different, but related, type of math problem.
Hand gestures may help kids focus:
Actions and gestures are both proven ways to support learning, but hand gestures may help a child develop a deeper level of understanding. The reason may be that gestures help kids focus, whereas objects like magnets can create a distraction.1
Give it a try:
The kids in the study learned the following type of math problem: 2+3+6 =___+6
A teacher taught the kids to make a v-gesture to “group” the first two numbers and then point to the blank space to indicate where to place the sum of the numbers they grouped. After the teacher provided instruction, the kids followed the same process themselves (using both words and gestures).
One size does not fit all:
The researchers cautioned that the results may not apply to younger children. They also mentioned that kids who are struggling with a math concept may benefit from successive techniques – for example, first using magnetic tiles and later progressing to hand gestures.
You can read the full research article here for free.
Novack, M. A., Congdon, E. L., Hemani-Lopez, N., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2014). From Action to Abstraction. Psychological Science, 25(4), 903-910. doi:10.1177/0956797613518351