How teachers’ gestures help students learn

Lots of research has shown that students learn better when their teachers’ words are accompanied by gesture. A new study offers insight into when, and why, gesture is helpful.

Researcher Casey Hall of the University of Chicago notes that gesture represents implicit, non-declarative knowledge: information that we “know” but can’t put into words. When it is paired with explicit, declarative instruction delivered via the teacher’s words, it forms a one-two punch that boosts learning.

(Consider what it means to know how to ride a bike. You know how to do it, but you can’t explain it. That’s implicit knowledge. Now think about when the Declaration of Independence was approved: July 4, 1776. That’s explicit knowledge, knowledge you can verbalize.)

Hall found that the most effective instruction pairs explicit, declarative knowledge delivered in words (“This is how you do X”) with gestures that capture the implicit, non-declarative dimension of the task.

Interestingly, Hall notes that declarative knowledge and non-declarative knowledge are handled by two distinct memory systems, which depend on the activation of different brain areas.

The takeaway: “Gesture promotes learning better when accompanied by explicit, declarative instruction.”

“Gesture as a Bridge Between Non-Declarative and Declarative Knowledge”

Casey Hall, in a dissertation for the University of Chicago


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