On Stirring Numbers and Waltzing Galaxies: How Movement Can Help Us Learn about Abstract Concepts

For me, reading has always been something of an improvised dance. Or rather, an improvised dance in which I have complete control over the tempo, rests, and repeats in the score. Words like notes weave the intricate melodies and harmonies of sentences and paragraphs. Central arguments become grand crimages-20escendos, culminating in climactic chords. Particularly poignant or complex phrases implore me to linger, listen closely, unpack the manifold layers. And for the entirety of this orchestration, my hands never stop moving to the cadences and lilts of the prose.

These eccentric reading habits have earned their fair share of wary sidelong glances; after all, there probably aren’t many people you know who gesticulate wildly as they peruse the pages of a Campbell textbook on introductory biology. But given the chance, who wouldn’t wish to find some way to animate the oft-dry words of scientific text? Why just read about the cell and its bustling inner world when you can conjure up its invisible sphere right before your eyes – a nucleus here, some mitochondria there, and would you look at the cisternae on that Golgi body! With a few flicks of the wrist, the cell suddenly becomes beautifully vibrant, teeming with activity and bursting with life.

While it should come as no surprise that cells are quite the lively bunch, it can be easy to forget their dynamic nature while staring at a textbook page full of static print. Peers would often ask how I could memorize so many inane scientific concepts; until recently, I never really had a great answer. Science never seemed all that dull to me, but obviously this was not the majority opinion. Then it hit me, as a hand that so wildly gesticulates about glia and galaxies is want to do: perhaps it was the movement that helped me remember. After all, whenever I was explaining the most recent scientific idea I had fallen madly in love with – to a friend, to my dog, on an exam – I would call upon the same dances I had created to explain the ideas to myself in the first place.

“That’s all well and good for science”, you may be thinking at this point, “but what about something as abstract as an algorithm? How can a movement bring a math problem to life?” Since the title of this post promised numbers, you shall not leave empty-handed. The question of whether motion can help people learn math is the very thing that researchersImage Cook, Mitchell, and Goldin-Meadow sought to answer in their 2008 study with the pithy yet fitting title: “Gesturing Makes Learning Last.” It’s probably already fairly evident, but just in case you missed it, their results pointed to a pretty promising finding that movement and math go hand in hand with good learning.

For their experiment, the researchers wrangled together a group of 84 third and fourth grade students to teach them math (the nerve of these scientists!) The kids were placed in one of three groups: the speech group, the gesture group, or the combo gesture and speech group. Now here’s the fun part. All three groups were taught the same set of math problems that were some variation on the theme of  “4 + 9 + 3 = 4 + ___, now fill in the blank”, a concept which none of them had learned prior to the experiment. The differences lay in what group they had been randomly assigned to. For the speech group, the children were told to repeat the phrase “I want to make one side equal to the other side”; for the gesture group, the children were asked to make a motion of sweeping one hand under the left side of the equation, then under the right side; and for the speech and gesture group, they got to do both. Lather, rinse, repeat a few more times, then they were released to solve a few problems on their own, still reciting the phrase or performing the gesture they had learned before. Thus ended phase one of the study.

Four weeks later, on a normal school day, the teachers of the 84 study participants gave them a handout: math problems just like the ones they had solved in the experiment. No mention was made of the study, nor did the children have to recite a phrase or make a gesture – they simply completed the test and handed it back in in. But while the tests they were given were all the same, the scores turned out to be quite different. The kids in the groups who got to do a little math dance solved significantly more problems correctly than the children who had only moved their mouths. A choreographed concept, it seemed, was better for memory than a math-filled monologue.

A simple study and a beautiful finding, but why should it be true that motion, math, and memory make such a lovely trio? One possibility is that motion makes your working memory load a little less. When you’re first learning a concept, your brain is working Imageovertime to pack in a lot of novel information; add movement to the mix, and you’re representing the new knowledge in two places now – in your body as well as in your mind. By waving your hands around a bit, you’re putting less drain on your brain to hold onto a lot of information all at once, and you suddenly have a little more cognitive energy freed up to focus on making the memories last.

Another explanation is that movement helps you remember tough ideas by externalizing the abstract, substantiating things that seem frustratingly intangible. By waving a hand underneath an equation, a tricky mathematical concept is suddenly made concrete, motioned into your present reality. The problem is now one that lives in the world rather than solely in the mind, and it’s become a little bit easier to grasp with the hands that helped it dance into existence.

So if the results of the study show such promise and motion really does help students learn math, should we all start doing the Academic Macarena and make a move towards movement in the classroom? Short answer: it probably wouldn’t hurt. Even if it turns out that pairing motion with equations like the ones in the study is the only combination that works to increase memory through movement, and even if it isn’t the only answer for better learning in school, adding a bit of motion to an otherwise inert day would certainly be a welcome change. Not to mention, how fantastic is the image of a shimmying class of calculus students?

Just picture this: strolling through the quiet halls of an elementary school, you hear the distant voice of a teacher talking about the structure of DNA. You come nearer to the classroom, expecting to see students furiously scribbling in their notebooks the elucidations of base pairs, sugar-phosphate backbones, and hydrogen bonds. As you peer through the window, though, you curiously find that not a soul is seated. Instead, your eyes are greeted with a sea of hands waving and weaving double helices, pairs of hands pairing base pairs in the air, tracing the lines of hydrogen bonds between them. It might sound a little strange at Imagefirst, but when you think about it, it kind of makes sense. After all, DNA is a motion-filled macromolecule, always replicating and dictating, unwinding and transcribing. Why shouldn’t the way we learn about it be just as gorgeously dynamic?

 

References:

Cook, S. W., Mitchell, Z. & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2008). Gesturing makes learning last. Cognition, 106, 1047-1058.

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