Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Susan Goldin-Meadow at the University of Chicago has a lab named after her there in honor of her ground-breaking work in non-verbal communication, particularly gesture... use of the hands in speech. I've mentioned Susan's work before in the blog but it is good to revisit old notions that are gaining in relevancy each day. From Susan:
“Why must we move our hands when we speak? I suggest that gesturing may help us think - by making it easier to retrieve words, easier to package ideas into words, easier to tie words to the real world. If this is so, gesture may contribute to cognitive growth by easing the learner's cognitive burden and freeing resources for the hard task of learning.

"Moreover, gesture provides an alternate spatial and imagistic route by which ideas can be brought into the learner's cognitive repertoire. That alternative route of expression is less likely to be challenged (or even noticed) than the more explicit and recognized verbal route. Gesture may be more welcoming of fresh ideas than speech and in this way may lead to cognitive change.”

In essence, the movement of the hands helps in the movement of thought and the creation and framing of ideas. Even more important, Susan ties gesture to the exploration of new ideas and creativity, which the brain is not yet able to express as language. A simple limerick from Susan's website explains it:
If your brain doesn't meet high demands
Here's some gestures to loosen your glands.
Put ‘em up in the air,
Shake ‘em like you don't care.
You'll be smarter if you use your _________.
Answer: HANDS
So hands stilled in classrooms is the dumbest of notions. We have gone off the deep end in American education. Children need to be active, doing art, making things from wood. If a simple gesture can be such a powerful thing, imagine what it means when those gestures are tied together in the physical expression of ideas, the summation of which are useful and beautiful objects that can last a lifetime.

And of course, the great irony is that what hands research is telling us is that the simple observations of educational theorists like Comenius, Pestalozzi and Froebel from the 18th, and 19th centuries were right and that the forced efficiencies of 20th and 21st century education are so ineffective as to damage children's confidence as learners.

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