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Hands-on Math Insights: Teachers' mismatched gestures boost learning

As teachers instruct a child, they typically use their hands as well as their voices, but only certain gestures pack a powerful educational punch, a new study suggests. Grade-schoolers best learn how to solve a particular mathematics problem when a teacher's gestures convey different information than his or her words do, say Melissa A. Singer and Susan Goldin-Meadow, both psychologists at the University of Chicago.

The combination of hearing one problem-solving strategy in speech and seeing another in gesture fosters more math insight than speech and gestures describing the same strategy do, the researchers propose in the February Psychological Science.

Results are worst when the teacher verbally describes two problem-solving strategies, with or without accompanying gestures. Youngsters in these situations may be encountering too much verbal information presented too quickly, Singer and Goldin-Meadow theorize.

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