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Biography of Speaker

Dr. Godlin-Meadow is a Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology, Comparative Human Development, and the Committee on Education and the Co-Director of the Center for Gesture, Sign and Language at the University of Chicago. You can find more information about her here:

Dr. Godlin-Meadow Profile

Discussion Points of Talk

Susan Meadows was discussing her publication ‘Hearing gesture: How our hands help us think.’ Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2003. She started with mentioning Piaget, who was a master at observing the routine behaviours children produce as they go from knowing less to knowing more about a task, and making inferences not only about how the children understood the task at each point, but also about how they progressed from one point to the next. In this Susan examines a routine behaviour that Piaget overlooked—the spontaneous gestures speakers produce as they explain their solutions to a problem. These gestures are not mere hand waving. They reflect ideas that the speaker has about the problem, often ideas that are not found in that speaker’s talk. But gestures can do more than reflect ideas—it can also change them. In this sense, gesture behaves like any other action; both gesture and action on objects facilitate learning problems on which training was given. However, only gesture promotes transferring the knowledge gained to problems that require generalisation. Gesture is, in fact, a special kind of action in that it represents the world rather than directly manipulating the world (gesture does not move objects around). The mechanisms by which gesture and action promote learning may therefore differ—gesture is able to highlight components of an action that promote abstract learning while leaving out details that could tie learning to a specific context. Because it is both an action and a representation, gesture can serve as a bridge between the two and thus be a powerful tool for learning abstract ideas.

The hand can play a role in learning, which probably would not have surprised Piaget, who considered representations to be interiorized actions (more precisely, interiorized imitations). Gesture could well be a mechanism underlying this process of interiorization, which is at the heart of developmental change in Piaget’s (1945) theory.

Watching a teacher move her hands while giving a math lesson, or moving one’s own hands during the lesson, makes success after the lesson more likely, particularly if the hand movements convey information that is different from, but relevant to, the information conveyed in the teacher’s or one’s own speech. But the important point that we have discovered about these hand movements is that they have a more powerful effect on learning when they do not have a direct effect on the world but instead represent the world; that is, when they are gestures.

Like actions in the world, gestures that represent actions promote learning a task on which the learner was directly trained. However, unlike action-on-objects, gesture also promotes transfer to tasks that require generalization of the knowledge gained. As a result, even though the mechanisms by which gesture and action-on-objects promote learning may overlap, they cannot be identical. Gesture may focus attention on components of an action that promote abstract learning while leaving out details that could tie learning to a specific context, allowing gesture to have a bigger impact on generalization and retention than action-on-objects does.

By examining the gestures speakers spontaneously produce when they talk, a behaviour that has traditionally been below the radar not only for researchers but also for the speakers themselves, we have gained insight into the process of learning. Gesture is an action but it is, at the same time, an abstract representation. By providing a bridge between action and representation, gesture may be able to serve as a tool particularly well suited to learning abstract ideas


  • Gesture often reflects ideas that a speaker has but does not articulate in speech
  • Gesture goes beyond reflecting ideas and, like action on objects, can change ideas
  • Gesture and action both facilitate learning problems on which training was given
  • But only gesture promotes generalizing the knowledge gained to new problems
  • Gesture can serve as a learning tool for moving from particular to more general ideas

Attendance /No.of participants : 38


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