Using Gesture to Support Spatial Thinking

Kristin Gagnier, Johns Hopkins University

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.


This page first made public: May 28, 2015

Summary

This activity highlights the value of gesture in communicating spatial information. It consists of two short exercises. In the first, students are asked to pair up and describe to their partner how to navigate from one place to another in their home town. In the second, a volunteer is asked to sit on his or her hands and describe how to tie a bow with a piece of ribbon. In the first exercise, students spontaneously gesture; in the second, the volunteer will very much want to gesture and may be unable to complete the task under the restriction given (sitting on their hands).

Learning Goals


At the end of this exercise, students will:

  • Understand that gesture is a useful tool for communicating spatial information.
  • Understand that some spatial information is extraordinarily difficult to convey without gesturing.

Context for Use


This exercise is intended as an introduction to the utility of using gesture to convey spatial information and spatial relationships. It can be used in preparation for any other exercise in which students will be asked to use gesture to communicate spatial information, particularly if the instructor suspects that students may be reluctant to do so, or may think that gesturing is unnecessary.

Description and Teaching Materials


This activity highlights the value of gesture in communicating spatial information. It consists of two short exercises:

  1. Students pair up. Each person is given a couple of minutes to explain to their partner how to navigate (on foot or by car) from their house to the high school they attended. Then bring students back together and ask if anyone noticed anything? Someone will have noticed that they and their partner use their hands to "illustrate" their description. This exercise demonstrates how useful gesture is for conveying spatial information.
  2. Ask for a volunteer. The volunteer is instructed to sit on his or her hands and tell the class how to tie a bow with a piece of ribbon. If the volunteer starts trying to point (with his or her elbows or head, for example), point that out to the class. The volunteer may find the task impossible without gesture. This exercise demonstrates that some spatial information is extraordinarily difficult to convey without gesturing.

After students have completed these two exercises, tell them that cognitive science research shows that gesturing can facilitate reasoning about spatial concepts (Goldin-Meadow, 2011). One explanation for why is that gesture allows for cognitive offloading (Goldin-Meadow et al., 2001). The idea is that the cognitive resources that can be devoted to any one task are limited. Gesture supports spatial thinking by freeing up cognitive resources, so that more can be devoted to other tasks, such as memory and problem-solving.

References and Resources


Goldin-Meadow, Susan (2011). Learning Through Gesture . Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, v. 2, n. 6, pp. 595–607.

Goldin-Meadow, Susan, Howard Nusbaum, Spencer D. Kelly, and Susan Wagner (2001). Explaining Math: Gesturing Lightens the Load: Psychological Science, v. 12, n. 6, pp. 516-522.