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Ask an Expert: Dr. Susan Goldin-Meadow, University of Chicago

In this installment of our Ask an Expert interview series, Tiggly sat down with Prof. Susan Goldin-Meadow. Dr. Goldin-Meadow is the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on the study of non-verbal communication, specifically gestures related to cognition, development, education, and linguistics.

Tiggly: Your work has been focused on gestures. What is the import of gestures?

Professor Goldin-Meadow: Our hands are always with us but often ignored and sometimes even shunned! I think about hands not only as things to build things with but also as things to represent information with.

I’ve been interested in gesture in part because it can reveal the thoughts of learners, both adult and child learners. Often those thoughts cannot be found in the learners’ speech. In fact, learners typically don’t even know that they have these thoughts, and teachers don’t necessarily know it either. If teachers are able to “read” a learner’s gestures, they have the potential to learn about these hidden thoughts just by looking at the learner’s gestures. Getting learners to gesture not only provides a window that could be useful to teachers, but it can also have a direct effect on the learners themselves. Once learners express their unspoken knowledge in their hands, the knowledge appears to have a life of its own and begins to change the way they r think.

Tiggly: What is the relationship between action and gesture? Is it important for children to have experience acting on real objects?

Professor Goldin-Meadow: Actions have a direct effect on the world, but gestures are representation of those actions. For example, when you rotate a picture you are performing the rotation action on that picture, which changes the orientation of that picture. But if you do a rotation gesture with your hand, you are not actually rotating the picture––you are representing the rotation. Gesture is symbolic, action is not.

Turning to the relation between action and gesture, we are currently doing studies on the question right now. We’re trying to figure out whether gesture and action have different effects on learning. We have nice evidence that we are just writing up suggesting that gesture can be more effective than action in getting children to abstract and generalize what they have learned about a math problem. That doesn’t necessarily mean that action is not useful, but action may, at times, be more limiting and more constraining than gesture.

We’re playing with the idea that gesture as a type of action has a special place in learning because it can help children generalize away from the task that they are doing––in so doing, it extends their knowledge.

Tiggly: Tell me about the role of gestures in language development. Is it more important for kids to see the gestures or is it important for them to do the gestures themselves?

Professor Goldin-Meadow: We don’t know much about that question with respect to language learning because it is hard to manipulate the gestures of a young child. We’ve been trying to encourage kids to gesture, in particular, to point at objects, and we have some evidence that doing so increases the number of words children later use in conversations with their parents.

In general, I think that seeing others’ gestures and doing one’s own gestures both can have an impact on learning. We have done some work on mental rotation in 5-6 year olds showing that doing gesture is more effective than seeing gesture, but this may (and probably does) vary by task.

Tiggly: For developing certain spatial skills such as mental rotation, is it important for children to have the experience of rotating real objects or do you think performing the rotation gesture could be as effective as the actual action?

Professor Goldin-Meadow: That’s the work we’re doing right now. We’re using an iPad to explore whether doing a movement that has a visible effect is more (or less) effective than doing the movement without a visible effect––the first is like action, the second like gesture. We’re doing these studies on mental rotation tasks and also on tasks involving the abacus.

We’re also looking at whether the movement is most effective when it instantiates the principle underlying the task. For example, you can push a button to get the object to rotate or you can move your hand to rotate the object on the iPad. We’re exploring right now whether one is more effective than the other in learning the task itself and in generalizing beyond the task.

I think it’s important to understand these issues because electronic devices are now being used routinely in educational situations. We need to know one way or the other whether the movements that learners make on these devices have an impact on learning.

Tiggly: Are the movements on a tablet a form of gesture?

Professor Goldin-Meadow: That’s a good question. They are not spontaneous motions produced along with speech and, in this sense, are not gestures. But they may function like gestures in terms of learning.

Tiggly: What are your recommendations to parents if they want to be better observers of their children’s learning?

Professor Goldin-Meadow: I think paying attention to gestures is a good thing, and I think many parents do this naturally. Looking at gesture can be particularly revealing when children have not yet begun talking––the child’s gestures can tell parents what the child is thinking, which gives the parents a way to tailor their own talk to the child’s interests at the moment.

In a study on conservation of number, for example, we found that some children who did not understand conservation of number (i.e., that the number of objects does not depend on the length of the row) would display an incipient understanding of conservation in their gesture––they produce a “mismatch” between the information conveyed in gesture and in speech. These children, when given instruction in conservation, are more likely to profit from that instruction than children whose gestures always matched their speech.

The children who showed mismatch between their speech and gesture when explaining a concept had the information somewhere in their repertoires but did not yet have access to that information––they were ready to learn the concept. I think paying attention to these children’s hands can help us to know much more about their thoughts, which allows us to give children who are ready to learn the kind of input they need to progress to the next step.

Tiggly: In one of your papers you say that kids who gesture more, or whose parents gesture more, are generally better in vocabulary. What forms of gestures? Is it pointing to objects or making a shape with their gesture that resembles the object? Does the form even matter?

Professor Goldin-Meadow: I think it depends what kids are learning. We have some evidence that pointing gestures can help young children. But when you’re thinking about teaching and learning conservation, it’s not about pointing per se, it’s about strings of gestures that express strategies for solving the problem. I think the important thing to note is not the form of the gestures but what the gestures mean.

Tiggly: You recommend parents and teachers to encourage children to gesture. How can they do that? Is it a matter telling kids to move their hands?

Professor Goldin-Meadow: We have some very nice evidence from our math studies that when we tell kids, “OK, next time when you explain this problem I want you to move your hands while you’re doing it,” the kids do better––they still solve the problems incorrectly but we can see the beginning of insight into the problem coming out in their gestures. These implicit (and correct) ideas seem to be brought out by asking children to move their hands.

I think parents need to pay attention to their kids’ gestures and perhaps try to elicit gestures. If you really are not understanding what a child is saying, you can ask the child to use her hands. This tends to work with children but not always with adults, who often start behaving in unnatural ways. But it’s worth a shot! Usually when people are explaining something and you ask them to gesture, it helps them to articulate their ideas, and it also provides you with a window onto knowledge that they have but don’t have full access to.

Tiggly: Do you have any advice for developers who are designing activities for youngsters on iPads?

Professor Goldin-Meadow: I hope we will have some advice soon. My intuition is that the movements that we ask kids to make on these tablets ought to instantiate the principle underlying the task we want to teach. But we need some good evidence to back up (or reject) that intuition.

For example, if it’s an addition task, we could have the child produce a movement that brings two numbers together and moves the sum to the correct location––as opposed to a button pushing movement that gets the job done without displaying the trajectory that the numbers take. That’s the study we are planning right now. We are trying to see whether you have to actually do the movements to be useful or whether you can push a button and have the answer appear.

If we find that the movements themselves are helpful, then that’s what I would recommend to people who develop activities on these technologies. But I don’t feel ready to recommend anything yet. I’m really interested in this question and think the answer will be relevant to any technology that asks users to move their hands in a certain way.

Tiggly: In one of your interviews you said, “Technology can limit our gestures when we use a keyboard but the new forms of technology bring back movements and gestures.”

Professor Goldin-Meadow: Right. Which would be great because I think that the movements elicited in these context may be symbolic more than they are functional. On the iPad, the movements are somewhere in between because they are actually getting the job done. We can also have movements on the iPad that don’t create the answer but represent the process of coming up with the answer. The iPad provides us with a nice tool to try to figure out what gesture is doing when it helps us learn.

Team Tiggly