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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Using our hands to change our minds

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Jean Piaget was a master at observing the routine behaviors children produce as they go from knowing less to knowing more about at a task, and making inferences not only about how children understand the task at each point, but also about how they progress from one point to the next. This article examines a routine behavior that Piaget overlooked—the spontaneous gestures speakers produce as they explain their solutions to a problem. These gestures are not mere hand waving. They reflect ideas that the speaker has about the problem, often ideas that are not found in that speaker's talk. Gesture can do more than reflect ideas—it can also change them. Observing the gestures that others produce can change a learner's ideas, as can producing one's own gestures. In this sense, gesture behaves like any other action. But gesture differs from many other actions in that it also promotes generalization of new ideas. Gesture represents the world rather than directly manipulating the world (gesture does not move objects around) and is thus a special kind of action. As a result, the mechanisms by which gesture and action promote learning may differ. Because it is both an action and a representation, gesture can serve as a bridge between the two and thus be a powerful tool for learning abstract ideas. WIREs Cogn Sci 2017, 8:e1368. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1368

This article is categorized under:

  • Psychology > Language
  • Psychology > Learning
A nonconserver producing gestures that match her speech. The child says, ‘They're different because you spreaded them apart,’ while producing a gesture that mimics the experimenter's movements.
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Gestures children were taught to produce during a math lesson. Children were instructed to produce a V‐point under the first two plastic numbers and then point at the blank. (Reprinted with permission from Ref Copyright 2014 SAGE Publications)
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Actions children were taught to produce during a math lesson. Children were instructed to pick up the first two plastic numbers and then hold them under the blank. (Reprinted with permission from Ref Copyright 2014 SAGE Publications)
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A child taught to produce a partially correct grouping strategy in gesture. The child says, ‘I want to make one side equal to the other side,’ while producing a V‐point under the 4 and 9, two numbers that should not be grouped and summed; after producing the V‐point, the child points at the blank. The gesture is partially correct in that the V‐handshape instantiates grouping and is followed by the point at the blank, which highlights the fact that the equation has two sides.
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A child taught to produce a fully correct grouping strategy in gesture. The child says, ‘I want to make one side equal to the other side,’ while producing a V‐point under the 2 and 4, the two numbers that can be grouped and summed to give the correct answer; after producing the V‐point, the child points at the blank.
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A nonconserver producing gestures that do not match her speech. The child says, ‘They're different because you moved them,’ while indicating in gesture the one‐to‐one correspondence between the checkers in the two rows.
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