Gestures in the reduction of Cognitive Load 17 May

I read a recent article on the role of Gestures in cognitive function and learning, and it seemed to me that the ways in which we use technology, especially through gestures and haptic interfaces is something that can benefit this line of research.

The Mirror neuron system is there for us to watch our fellow humans complete a task. We observe them, we observe their gestures, their actions and their skillset, and through the Borrowing and Reorganizing principle, integrate this new knowledge and skill into our own memories.

There is a difference though between observing gestures and making these gestures and replicating these actions ourselves thought. In the paper I read, the researchers posit that when students were learning fractions, if they were able to manipulate objects to create a sense of proportion, ratio or other related idea (splitting a group of objects in two to illustrate the concept of one half), they were able to learn and retain this concept much easier than those who did it in a more abstract manner, such as just of paper using the arabic number system.

How can this be incorporated into the interfaces we use for learning. So much math education is based around the abstract. In online and hybrid courses I’ve seen over the years, very little of it is hands on, or through instructional manipulatives. It’s all word problems or numeric equations, and if you think about it, these don’t illustrate the concepts of math very well.

The above image is so abstract and without ties to our every day experience. It is a metaphorical representation of a physical thing, but in order to understand the representation, one must first understand the concept of the physical. We are, after all, a species that didn’t have writing until a few thousand years ago, and for the majority of our time on this planet had no need for it. We could manipulate objects long before we could write.

Imagine then, if we used concrete concepts in math education, not abstract. The above example of is a pie or a slice of pizza. The danger here is that when we learn something in a specific context, it’s difficult to apply it to other situations. This is the core of our ability to problem solve. Having an understanding of an idea or concept, that is agnostic to the context, and therefore applicable to any situation.

So how can we apply this when teaching math or another idea. Do we go for the concrete, context specific, then branch out, or do we go for the concrete agnostic? The agnostic has been proven to work better according to the research. Though more studies are definitely needed in this area, it does present an interesting opportunity for instructional manipulatives on tablets and other touch based devices. We could easily ask a child to split a pizza or pie in to quarters, but it would be more useful to do it in an agnostic manner, but would that be as fun for them?

Kids love playing with objects they are familiar with, and food they like. Building agnostic concept learning into a tablet app or learning experience, then taking it to the next level and asking learners to apply it to objects or concepts of which they are interested in or more regularly interact with is probably the best way to go.

The lesson would go like this: Learners interact with generic shapes and use gestures to learn and understand the concepts, then they are asked to apply this concept to fruit, pie, pizza, longitude, latitude, socioeconomic issues, facebook friend distribution or other personally relevant situations.

This is definitely an interesting thing to explore and to built into Math apps in the future.



Pouw, W. T. J. L., Gog, T., & Paas, F. (2014). An Embedded and Embodied Cognition Review of Instructional Manipulatives. Educational Psychology Review, 26(1), 51–72. doi:10.1007/s10648-014-9255-5


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