Sunday, January 25, 2009

Arm-waving in class is good

I wave my arms a lot. Maybe too much, given how often chalk flies out of my hands. Fortunately, that might be a good thing pedagogically, according to a recent column in the Journal of Geoscience Education (Kastens et al., 2008).

Because structural geology is, at its core, a spatial discipline, I'm constantly using my hands to try to help students see what I'm seeing in a rock, or on a map, or in a thin section. Sometimes that means pointing at things when I name them. (Those are "deictic gestures" to people who study them, and they're useful for helping students understand what I'm talking about, even if I'm using words that are new to them.) And sometimes I use my hands to mimic a shape: a fold, a tilted rock layer, a pair of offset sides of a fault. (Those are "iconic gestures.")

It's good to hear that the hand-waving is useful, but I worry a little about applying some of the advice for instructors. It makes sense – point at things, keep the gestures consistent with the words, use gestures to show shape or movement, act out instructions, make sure students can see the gestures. But I wonder whether some of my gestures are just too weird or confusing, especially because I have a bad habit of confusing left and right (or east and west, and it doesn't help to have lived on both coasts of North America). I also worry, sometimes, that I'm asking awkward things of students when I enlist their help in modeling some shapes. (It's hard to show multiple planes and the lines that are perpendicular to them with only two hands, and for better or worse, I am not Kali.)

The advice about instructor gestures made sense, but it was the advice about student gestures that I found most thought-provoking. The authors suggest paying attention to the gestures students make – when students make gestures that don't match their words, they're at a point where they could learn. Forcing students to gesture apparently doesn't work (which is too bad for me – I frequently ask students to show me the orientation of a layer with their hands). But setting up situations where students are more likely to gesture – making them explain a map, or show one another the reasons why they think a rock formed in a certain way, can be good. (It sounds like I need to keep doing some of the time-consuming activities in my intro class – discussions in which the students work with one another on confusing samples or diagrams.)

But I probably should avoid dropping the chalk, or falling over the garbage can – at least, unless I'm acting out the experience of an earthquake.

Reference: Kastens, K.A., Agrawal, S., and Liben, L.S., 2008, Research in Science Education: the role of gestures in geoscience teaching and learning: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 54, p. 362-368. (Although many columns in this series are available online, this one is not, at least as of January, 2009.)


MJC Rocks said...

Actually I break my chalk continuously, to the extent that my students sometimes count chalk fatalities. On the other hand, I like your point. I use hands most prominently for plate boundaries, and I often have the students do the same motions...a separate tactile learning experience. I haven't quite danced on the desktop yet....

Michael said...

As another inveterate arm-waver (and someone who has difficulty giving a presentation while standing still), I sympathise and will try to track down the journal article (as future ammunition).

An anecdote on this topic, showing that it seems to be a widespread habit: some years ago, when I was working for a mid-size British oil company, they commissioned an artist (these were the good old days)to put together three paintings for the new lobby of the office. Since one painting was to illustrate the work of geologists, the artist came and spent some time simply sitting in on discussions and meetings to observe who we were and what we did. He told me afterwards that the single compelling impression was the extent to which we all used our hands - and it was hands that featured in the finished work.

Anonymous said...

There's just no way to consistently handle vector cross products in Euclidean geometry applications (e.g., electromagnetic waves, Poynting vector, pretty much any cross product in a Euclidean space) properly without using your right hand to visualize, not until AFTER you already understand cross-products. So I praise my students when i can see them using their right hand.

It's so powerful a visualization that to not use it is to hamstring yourself.