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Bold gestures that support learning - interesting research for facilitators

Bold gestures that support learning - interesting research for facilitators

I’m a great one for using my hands when I’m trying to communicate, and I find that the more self-conscious I get about this trait the poorer my communication gets. I was aware of this, but hadn’t given it too much thought until I recognised that one of the negative effects of the past 18 months is the extent to which the many hours of Zoom calls has changed the way I interact. It’s the impact of being able to see myself on the screen while I’m talking, this makes me acutely aware of how I look and that, in turn, makes me conscious of my customary use of (often expansive) gestures which I use to back up my verbal communication. I’ve become much more static when I’m communicating and I think that I’ve become a poorer communicator because of it, and I don’t think I’m alone….

This sudden awareness of the change was provoked when my colleague, Graham Cook, sent me an article recently. The article is by Annie Murphy Paul and focusses on one chapter of her latest book “The Extended Mind” which considers research by Martha Alibali, one of the world’s leading researchers on gesture and learning. Reading this was a bit of an “A-ha” moment for me in that it really helped me to understand that my (and others’) gestures are not just arm-waving, but have a very deliberate and positive role in communicating. Some of the effects we may see are:

  1. Gesture externalizes our thought processes.
  • A teacher’s gestures externalise their thinking so that students can use it to scaffold their own thinking.
  • A student’s gestures externalise their thinking so that a teacher can use it to become more informed about the state of their understanding.
  • A student’s gestures externalise their thinking so that they themselves can use it to support and advance their thinking.
  1. Gesture allows for more sophisticated thinking to emerge. 
  • Gesture reduces our cognitive load, thereby freeing up mental bandwidth for higher-level thinking.
  • Gesture allows thinking to progress even when the relevant words are not yet available to the speaker; indeed, gesture can help bring those words into being.
  1. Gestural mimicry is a powerful platform for learning.
  • Students can mimic their teacher’s gestures, thereby appropriating their teacher’s more advanced cognitions
  • Students can mimic (or otherwise respond to) their classmates’ gestures, engaging in what psychologists call “collaborative gesture.”

For me, as a facilitator and designer of learning, these are hugely important bits of data. I’m still thinking about what they mean about how we use virtual learning channels like Zoom, but I already know that the bank of static faces I see on my screen are really not conducive to effective learning. It also tells me that the very active, multi-channel learning I experience in an experiential learning setting is massively more powerful than keeping learners confined to desks and limiting their movement. (People …are more than 50 percent more likely to remember a point we make when a gesture accompanies it; students who incorporate gestures into their study habits remember almost 40 percent more of the material than students who don’t. Annie Murphy Paul)

As long as we’re still wholly or partially dependent on virtual classrooms there are things I need to consider for integration into my practice as a facilitator:

  • Modelling gesture and movement to encourage students to do the same.
  • Moving a little further from the screen to allow more movement into my facilitation and encouraging students to do the same.
  • Looking for opportunities to get students to adopt more movement “Show me…” rather than accepting a purely verbal response.
  • If I’m sending students into breakout-rooms then I’ll invite them to relax and find their own ways to have fun learning while completing the task.
  • Utilising learning tools that encourage the use of gesture and movement in virtual, face-to-face or hybrid learning environments.

In relation to that last bullet point RSVP Design has some tools that are perfect in encouraging gesture and movement: Images of Organisations ,Colourblind, Colourblind Plus and Simbols are very effective in this area.

The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie Murphy Paul was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on June 8 2021

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