Early childhood education can often seem like one of the most over-researched fields imaginable. So many parents are so concerned with the fate of their progeny, that it’s natural for research to focus on more effective ways to teach kids. Yet the process of learning is also so complex that it can be difficult for studies to come up with conclusive results.
University of Chicago researchers Melissa Singer and Susan Goldin-Meadow have done extensive research on the role of gesture in teaching, finding that teachers spontaneously use gestures to teach, and that the use of gestures increases when children are having difficulty with a topic. Surprisingly, they also found that very often these gestures did not match the verbal lesson being given by the teachers.
Were the teachers failing their students by teaching contradictory lessons? Or does a combined approach make learning even more effective? To answer these questions, Singer and Goldin-Meadow came up with an impressive study of teaching methods for third- and fourth-grade math (“Children Learn When Their Teacher’s Gestures and Speech Differ,” Psychological Science, 2005).
The goal of the study was to find an effective method for teaching the principle of equality—to solve an equation such as this one:
4 + 5 + 8 = _ + 8
There are many ways to teach this principle, but Singer and Goldin-Meadow focused in on two. In the first method, students are told that 4 + 5 + 8 equals 17, and they must figure out what would make the other side of the equation equal 17 as well. In the second method, students are told that 4 + 5 can be grouped together; all they need to do is find the number that 4 and 5 add up to. Corresponding gestures for showing each of these methods were also devised.
Students were then divided into three groups: Groups that were taught with speech only, groups that were taught with matching speech and gesture, and groups that were taught with mismatched speech and gesture. Each of these groups was in turn divided into groups that were taught only one method using speech, or groups that were taught both methods using speech. All groups were tested after instruction, with the following results:
The students with by far the best results were those who had been taught only one method using speech, with a mismatched gesture: when the teachers’ hand gestures suggested an alternate method of solving the problem. Students who were taught two different strategies using speech were no better than students learning only one method with a matching gesture.
Singer and Goldin-Meadow argue that students who are taught both methods using speech become confused, but when the alternate method is shown in gesture, it clarifies the problem for them and offers an additional approach they can use when solving it. It seems fortunate indeed that these conflicting patterns of speech and gesture also seem to be the approach teachers naturally tend to use. Elementary school is hard enough as it is!