Hands-Out Teaching

I found that when I gestured, students listened. Gestures are, after all, visual cues. And 90 percent of information entering the brain is visual. (For more on this read Eric Jensen’s Brain-Based Learning).

No wonder you often need more than words to cut through the fog. When students see meaning in hand movements, more of their brain and memory systems are activated. Some students need to see it before they can learn it. So teach with your hands out, where students can see.

Psycholinguists have identified three types of co-speech gestures that can help you make ideas visible to students:

  • Iconic gestures create images in the air to show concepts. I remember Mr. Parker, my geometry teacher, using his arms to show parallel lines and types of angles—right, acute, and obtuse. With my students, I often used gestures to show that deductive thinking starts with the big idea (my hands apart at shoulder-height) and then works down toward the specific (my hands together at waist-height). Then I’d demonstrate inductive thinking with opposite gestures. I’d bump my fists together to show conflict and interlace my fingers to show collusion.
  • Beat gestures follow the rhythms of speech. They add emotion and emphasis to words. My eighth-grade government teacher, Mr. Wooten, was the master of beat gestures. He held our attention by drawing unjust gerrymandering lines into the air and smashing his fist into his hand because of his frustration at the slow, slow change after the Brown v the Board of Education. When he couldn’t get a point across to us, he’d clap his hands to the side of his head and look at us beseechingly. So we tried harder. Mr. Wooten’s brain and hands worked together to pull us in.
  • Deictic gestures direct attention, making words clear. At London Middle School, I loved watching Corliss Schwaller in action. Her hands moved with her mouth. Her fingers would number the points . . . first, second, third . . . To move students for group work, she’d point as she told them where to go. And while reading to students, her hands would interrupt the words, almost like sign language. Watching her, students almost didn’t need her words.

These teachers taught me that it was good to pay attention to my hands. Gestures, I could tell, were valuable tools. And so I tried to let my brain and my hands work together to make my ideas visible. When I talked, they could watch my hands move alongside my words.

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