Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Whole Brain Teaching Wednesday! Gestures

“Signs are to eyes what words are to ears. “- Ken Glickman    

     At the core of many WBT strategies is the use of hand gestures while teaching to solidify main concepts/idea/vocabulary. If you have ever watched any of Chris Biffle's lesson videos on the WBT website or their YouTube Channel you'll notice that he gestures almost the entire time he speaks! Before we go any further, I want to clarify that WBT encourages the incorporation of effective iconic/representational and metaphoric gestures that are meant to portray a thought or idea as compared to deictic gestures that are used in pointing. What I've noticed on many blogs and on the WBT forum, however, is that the idea of gesturing while teaching can be a challenge for some teachers who are new to WBT. Some people feel it is too "silly" or a distraction while others feel uncomfortable getting used to gesturing while speaking and/or are unsure if gestures actually benefit learning.

     I think, however, that Wollf-Michael Roth (2001) makes an excellent point when he states that, "Gestures constitute a central feature of human development, knowing, learning, and communication across cultures; even congenitally blind individuals gesture when they communicate." Why then, are teachers and critics of WBT so apprehensive about the use of gestures in the classroom?

     An aspect that may make some teacher's uncomfortable is how to incorporate clear, appropriate and effective gestures that assist student's understanding as opposed to confusing the student, which can happen! This means that deciding to incorporate gestures into our teaching needs to be a thoughtful and purposeful process. For example, having multiple gestures for one idea or one gesture for multiple ideas is likely to confuse our students and results in them not making the connection between the gesture and the concept it is tied to. A great resource for teachers using WBT strategies and accompanying gestures is the gesture brain storming forum thread on the WBT website. Teachers have posted their ideas for subject specific gestures, themed gestures, modified gestures, anything you may need! This can assist teachers in planning and ensure that the gestures used are well thought out and appropriate for the concept they are linked to as opposed to thinking them up on the spot which can easily lead to confusion.

Accompanying gestures are a wonderfully easy way to differentiate instruction in the classroom by providing learning opportunities that appeal to multiple intelligences. Proposed by Howard Gardner, the theory of multiple intelligences speaks to the idea that there are different platforms of intelligence and that material can be understood and manipulated by people differently based on their specific intelligence. For example, a child who can recreate musical compositions by ear (musically intelligent) may not be able to effectively multiply (mathematically intelligent). As teachers, we need to keep in mind that our students are not going to all learn the same way and by presenting information through various means, we can better reach our students who identify with various types of intelligences. By incorporating gestures into our teaching our students are not only hearing and seeing the material (linguistic & spatial intelligence) but they also get to interpret the material though the movement of the gesture (bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence). In actuality, WBT incorporates strategies that benefit all of Gardner's multiple intelligences, but that's a subject for a different post!

     Once gestures have been incorporated into a classroom they can be specifically used to gauge student's comprehension of a topic. Are they using gestures correctly when explaining an idea or topic? Can they explain why a specific gesture is a good representation for that idea? To really get our students thinking ask them, "If you used this gesture without verbal communication could someone understand what it meant? Why or why not?". You could also have your students brainstorm an idea of an effective gesture when you present new information, having them specifically think about what the idea is and how it can best be represented. This encourages students to think of the idea in the big picture and make connections to previous knowledge. So by using gestures you are not only reaching the multiple intelligences that your student's may display but you can also encourage further reflection on the topics being discussed!

Medallions: Posts (15), Instant Bonus (2), Conference (1), Artistic Blog (1), Blog followers (95)
Background Research:

Gesture's Role in the Learning Process
Susan Goldin-Meadow
Theory into Practice , Vol. 43, No. 4, Developmental Psychology: Implications for Teaching (Autumn, 2004), pp. 314-321
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Gestures: Their Role in Teaching and Learning
Wolff-Michael Roth
Review of Educational Research , Vol. 71, No. 3 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 365-392
Published by: American Educational Research Association
Rope Them in With Hand Gestures
The Reading Teacher , Vol. 64, No. 4 (DECEMBER 2010/JANUARY 2011), pp. 282-284
Published by: International Reading Association


  1. WOW - thank you for this well thought-out post! I really like how you said that gestures - if not well thought-out can confuse rather than help! Great point! Something to solidify in my teaching for next year!! Last day of school with kids today!!

    1. Thank you Liann! I'm glad you noticed that because I think that that is where some of the criticism can stem from because, like anything in teaching, if it is not well thought-out and purposeful it can easily lead to confusion which can, in turn, lead to people believing its not effective. It is something that I need to work on too as I tend to just stick with a basic set of gestures when I know I can use more.
      Congrats on finishing off the year, your students are going to miss you so much!!

  2. I took a speech class and the teacher told us that it is important to use gestures, or "speak with your hands," during speeches, to keep the audience's attention and not look like you're just standing around. I never gave much thought to actually planning out gestures, though! Very interesting idea!

    1. If you could see me teach Angel I am was a "hand-talker" before I even found WBT haha! I think many people using gestures in public speaking though are only using deictic gestures to point or embellish a certain idea. I know that's what I did anyways. Iconic gestures are meant to represent the actual idea.

  3. I love gestures, but it can also be a struggle for me to get my kids to use them. I teach in Taiwan and the kids are very scared of losing face and being laughed at by their peers.

    1. I can see how that would be a problem! We had some student teachers from our program do their student teaching placements in Thailand this past spring and they said similar things as well.

  4. I would love to see some algebra teachers using hand gestures to teach different concepts. Does anyone know of any math teachers who've posted videos of teaching using gestures?

    1. Laura here are some links to Whole Brain Teaching videos from math classes, two from high school and one from elementary! You can view all the videos on Chris Biffle's YouTube Channel as well.

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