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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Learning through gesture

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When people talk, they move their hands—they gesture. Although these movements might appear to be meaningless hand waving, in fact they convey substantive information that is not always found in the accompanying speech. As a result, gesture can provide insight into thoughts that speakers have but do not know they have. Even more striking, gesture can mark a speaker as being in transition with respect to a task—learners who are on the verge of making progress on a task routinely produce gestures that convey information that is different from the information conveyed in speech. Gesture can thus be used to predict who will learn. In addition, evidence is mounting that gesture not only presages learning but also can play a role in bringing that learning about. Gesture can cause learning indirectly by influencing the learning environment or directly by influencing learners themselves. We can thus change our minds by moving our hands. WIREs Cogni Sci 2011 2 595–607 DOI: 10.1002/wcs.132

Figure 1.

Examples of children explaining why they think the amount of water in the two containers is different. Both children say that the amount is different because the water level is lower in one container than the other. The child in the top two pictures conveys the same information in gesture (she indicates the height of the water in each container)—she has produced a gesture‐speech match. The child in the bottom two pictures conveys different information in gesture (she indicates the width of each container)—she has produced a gesture–speech mismatch.

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Figure 2.

The proportion of children who improved when given a lesson in conservation (left graph, Ref 10) or mathematical equivalence (right graph, Ref 11), as a function of the child's status as a matcher (white bars) or mismatcher (blue bars) prior to the lesson. The lesson was administered by the experimenter. (Based on data from Refs 10 and 11.)

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Figure 3.

The number of problems children solved correctly after a lesson in mathematical equivalence, as a function of the mismatches the child produced on the pretest and during the lesson: no mismatches at all, mismatches only during the lesson, mismatches on the pretest and throughout the lesson. None of the children had solved any problems correctly on the pretest. The lesson was administered by a teacher who had observed the child explain to the experimenter the solutions he or she gave to the pretest problems. (Adapted from Figure 1, Ref 26.)

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Figure 4.

The number of different mathematical equivalence problem‐solving strategies mismatching and matching children had in their repertoires, classified according to the modality in which the strategy was produced: uniquely in speech, in both speech and gesture (not necessarily in the same response), uniquely in gesture. (Based on data from Ref 27.)

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Figure 5.

The number of different types of correct strategies (top graph) and gesture–speech mismatches (bottom graph) teachers produced when instructing children who produced no mismatches at all, children who produced mismatches only during the mathematical equivalence lesson, and children who produced mismatches on the pretest and throughout the lesson. (Adapted from Figure 2, Ref 26.)

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Figure 6.

Mean number of problems children solved correctly after a lesson in mathematical equivalence, as a function of the instruction children received during the lesson: children were either taught one strategy in speech (left bars) or two strategies in speech (right bars). In addition, the spoken strategies in the instruction were either accompanied by no gesture, matching gesture, or mismatching gesture. None of the children solved any problems correctly on the pretest. (Adapted from Figure 1, Ref 34.)

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Figure 7.

The top graph displays the mean number of problem‐solving strategies children added to their repertoires on a second set of mathematical equivalence problems, as a function of the instructions given in this set: told to gesture when explaining their solutions, told not to gesture, and given no instructions about their hands (control). The bottom graphs display a replication of this finding with two groups (told to gesture, told not to gesture; left graph), and the mean number of problems these two groups of children solved correctly after they were given a lesson in mathematical equivalence (right graph). (Adapted from Figures 1 and 3, Ref 40.)

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Figure 8.

Regression lines relating performance on the 4‐week follow‐up to performance on the immediate posttest, as a function of the modality children were told to use when expressing the equalizer strategy during the lesson: in speech alone (β = 0.33, ns); in speech and gesture (β = 0.92, p < 0.0001); in gesture alone (β = 0.80, p < 0.0001). (Adapted from Figure 2, Ref 41.)

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Figure 9.

The top graph displays the mean number of problems solved correctly on the posttest after the lesson, as a function of the gestures children were told to produce during the lesson: no gesture, partially correct gesture, and correct gesture. The bottom figure displays a mediation analysis demonstrating that the effect seen in the top graph (i.e., the effect of gesture condition on posttest performance) disappears when the number of children who added the grouping strategy to their spoken repertoire is included in the analysis. (Adapted from Figures 2 and 3, Ref 42.)

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Figure 10.

The proportion of short and long word lists that children (left graph) or letter lists that adults (right graph) remembered while simultaneously explaining how they solved a math problem and either gesturing or not gesturing while doing so. Children remembered more one‐ and three‐word lists while gesturing than while not gesturing. Adults showed a ceiling effect on the two‐letter lists, but remembered more six‐letter lists while gesturing than when not gesturing. (Adapted from Figure 1, Ref 45.)

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