Nathan researching links between gestures and how students learn about mathematics


Nathan receives grant to research links between gestures,
how students learn about mathematics 

Education researchers have long examined the best ways to help students learn mathematics more efficiently and effectively.

What’s unique about some of the most recent work on this topic is how scientists are taking a look at the role our bodies, and particularly our hands, play in changing our thinking.

In particular, there is growing research that shows how gestures not only represent ideas but can actually influence mathematical reasoning.

Mitchell Nathan quoteUW–Madison’s Mitchell Nathan is on the leading edge of this work and recently received a grant worth nearly $1.4 million to further examine the links between gestures and how people think and learn about math. The research project through the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) is titled, “How Dynamic Gestures and Directed Actions Contribute to Mathematical Proof Practices.”

Nathan, a professor of the learning sciences with the Department of Educational Psychology, says that emerging research on cognition and mathematics education shows that math ideas can be learned through action-based interventions. Nathan has already published studies that indicate people who make certain motions while conducting mathematical reasoning tasks are more likely to get correct answers.

In addition to an empirical basis for Nathan’s latest study, he explains that there also is a theory in the field of embodied cognition that we are not simply pure mental, software kinds of thinkers.

“The theory is that we actually engage our bodies in many of the intellectual activities that we do, even though we tend to think of them as mental or ‘in our heads,’” says Nathan, who directs the Center on Education and Work. “It appears gestures contribute uniquely to our ability to think, especially when talking about complicated things.”

The IES-backed project Nathan is principal investigator of will explore how students’ speech patterns and movements affect their understanding of mathematics. Over the next four years, the researchers will conduct six different studies in high schools and colleges throughout Texas and Wisconsin.

UW–Madison’s Peter Steiner, also a faculty member with the Department of Educational Psychology, is a co-principal investigator on this grant, as is Candace Walkington. Walkington conducted a post-doctoral fellowship with Nathan at UW–Madison from 2010-12, and today is an assistant professor of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University. The team is also working with SMU Guildhall, a leading digital game-development program.

The Hidden Valley video gameAt the heart of the new study is “The Hidden Village,” a motion-capture video game the team developed. The game, which was designed for a computer with a Microsoft Kinect 2 motion-capture camera attached, features an episodic story paired with directives for arm movements. “The Hidden Village” helps foster learning by pairing motions with geometry proofs.

The research will examine whether such actions can create and influence learning, thinking and mental organization. This mind-body partnership, called “embodied cognition,” is driving new approaches to learning subjects such as math.

“Much of math education is about learning rules and procedures but geometry proof is different,” says Nathan. “Students have to learn how to think conceptually about why certain statements about shapes are true, and how to explain it to others so they are convincing. We think that level of mathematical understanding is embodied.”

Nathan cautions that such research is early, basic science. But he adds that this project offers tremendous potential to open doors to new areas of inquiry.

“We’re looking for information that can fit into a larger piece of the greater whole about how we process information and how we share information with others,” says Nathan.

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