Wednesday, September 27, 2006

There is a great deal of information that points to the significant role of the hands in learning. Anyone who has paid a modicum of attention to observing his or her own learning experience, would know that “hands-on” is the key and won't need experts to tell you what you can see for yourself. But for those who don’t know their hands from a hole in the ground, there are some important things happening that tell us that we have it ALL wrong in most modern classrooms. Some of the research being done in a variety of areas tells us that we have grossly misunderstood the role of the hands in thinking and the development of intelligence.

The first item I’ll point to is the research that concludes that the playing of instrumental music in school has a significant effect on the development of math proficiency. I think it is particularly interesting to consider the role of the hands in the playing of music. It was Frank Wilson’s involvement in music that lead to his book, The Hand: How its use shapes the brain, language and human culture, and while this particular research doesn’t specifically address the hand’s role in learning, instrumental music is clearly hands-on. Was it the music that made the difference, or the use of the hands in playing the music? It would take more extensive research to prove one way or the other. I strongly suspect that both have effect, the music and the hands that play it. The book describing the research can be found for download at The Arts Education Partnership Website. "Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Social and Academic Development," was sponsored by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Department of Education and was written by James Catterall, Karen Bradley, Larry Scripp, Terry Baker and Rob Horowitz. It is truly astounding how rarely the United States Government is able to take its own advice. It is a clear case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

A second interesting bit of study involves the use of gesture. Susan Goldin-Meadow at the University of Chicago, author of books about the use of gesture, language and intelligence, hypothesizes that the movement of the hands actually facilitates the movement of thought in the brain. One book you might enjoy is Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think

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.”

A third interesting bit of research is Baby Signs by Linda Acredolo, Ph.D. and Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D.
Their research into the use of hand signs in communication with toddlers has started a movement among parents wanting to give advantages to their own children. The results of the research show that:

At 24 months, the children taught sign language were on average talking more like 27 or 28 month olds. This represents more than a three-month advantage over the non-signing babies. In addition at 24 months the research subjects were putting together significantly longer sentences.

At 36 months, the children on average were talking like 47 month olds, putting them almost a full year ahead of their average age-mates.

Eight year olds who had been research subjects scored an average of 12 points higher in IQ than their non-signing peers.

It has become very clear that our understanding of the hand/brain system and the role the hands play in learning is far from complete. In the meantime, we are doing harm to our children by requiring them to sit idly at desks with hands stilled.

As a teacher, I have too little time to keep up with all the interesting things happening in the hand world, and I welcome your participation through comments or email to help keep us all informed.

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