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Gestures, Mathematics & Making Space for Ideas

  • Reflections on teacher learning, where ideas come from, the role of research, how opportunities can easily be lost

The last year has cast a spotlight on teachers and teaching like no time before.   Children learning at home has opened a window into pedagogy for people who maybe did not give it much thought before.  As parents’ have gained an insight into what it might be like to be a teacher, but without all the training, teachers may also have come to question aspects of their own pedagogy and given thought to just what are the elements of their practice that have the most impact on learning and what learning will have taken place when there has been a distance between children and teachers?

Some may think it is easy to teach.  I’ve heard people described as ‘a natural’ as if being a teacher is something you are born to do and it needs no work. Others understand to become a teacher requires study at university and a little in school experience.   But that just provides the label of ‘teacher’ , the craft of teaching takes far longer – and the study never ends.  Teachers, like other professions, such as doctors, need to continue learning about their subject and developing their craft for the whole of their careers.  Yes, there probably will be some natural inclination toward being a teacher, some innate skill and passion to work with young people.  There is formal study at a university level.  But the art of teaching takes time and develops over many years, continuously learning from experience, deliberately reflecting upon that experience, reading, and learning from others through various collaborative approaches, reading research, actively participating in research – and learning from mistakes made along the way.   A teacher may teach the same age children, the same concept, a year apart, but it will not be exactly the same lesson.  Often I look at a I lesson I taught a year ago and think, ‘Oh my, I didn’t teach it like that did I?’  It’s that constant drive to improve, to learn more, to do it better, to have greater impact, that makes a teacher.

I wonder which of the above has the most impact on a teacher’s pedagogy – what is most likely to lead to changes in practice?  Is it looking to research, reading about something that appears to have potential, then trying this out, reflecting on the impact, and then adopting that approach into practice?  Or is it the other way around – noticing from experience that something is impacting positively on learning, then looking for the possible research to back this up, and if none exists, then becoming involved in action research oneself?

A particular example has made me ponder on this recently. I use gestures when I teach maths, I use gestures when I talk to adults about maths.  I have even been using gestures whilst facilitating online workshops with teachers of maths.  But why?   I was not trained to do this. I did not read about it and then adopt it. It crept into my practice, almost without me noticing, and what is more, it has spread from my practice, to the practice of colleagues. But how?

To some extent I have always used gestures to some extent when talking.  As a mother, I used gestures, probably more exaggerated ones, with my young sons, especially when helping them to learn a new word, or a rhyme or reading a story.  I imagine most parents do the same, without any conscious thought or planning behind it.  My second son had special needs, and my use of gesture was then carefully planned and deliberate.  I had an urgent sense of purpose as I learnt how to use Makaton and Writing with Symbols, just to communicate (not thinking of maths specifically). I extended my use of signs and gestures in my work with pre-school children and found simple gestures and hand-signals useful with all young children, not just those with special needs. Working in school, silent hand signals were used within behaviour management approaches (again not thinking of maths).

During teacher training a tutor commented casually on my use of gesture when teaching, but did not include it in written feedback, so I gave it no further thought.

After being inspired by Pie Corbett and his Talk 4 Writing training, I began consciously planning the gestures I’d use in my teaching of English and found it had a huge impact.  But still, I was not considering the deliberate use of hand signals and gestures in maths lessons.

A few years on, after a few developments in my career, I now focus on mathematics and work with the NCETM and Maths Hubs.  My reading now is focused on maths specific pedagogy and I have introduced approaches into my teaching from my study, from research, from involvement in action research myself.   As a Mastery Specialist Teacher, I learnt how to scrutinise maths teaching in detail, unpicking every element and reflecting upon impact.  Collaboratively planning and teaching lessons, hosting open lessons and post-lesson discussions became regular practice.  Teachers from other schools began to ask the use of hand signals after observing maths lessons.   At first I was surprised as I had not deliberately planned to use gestures in my lessons, but I became more aware I was doing it as so many visitors were asking about it.   Not BSL or Makaton, not Pie Corbett’s suggested hand signals, but gestures that came naturally as I introduced new words or explained things.  For example, when using the term ‘vertical’ I would motion up/down, or across my body for ‘horizontal’.  When modelling subtraction, I had started using gestures, when discussing part/whole diagrams I would be using gestures …. and so were the children.   Observers noted, young children, speaking in full sentences and using precise mathematical vocabulary (with understanding) whilst also using gestures.   Strange now as I think of it, but although realising this was happening and it was having a positive impact on learning, because it was not something I had come across at the time in my reading, I treated it as an aside and researched it no further.  There were so many other things to introduce, to try, to research.

I was later introduced to a Dr of English from the University of Birmingham, who wanted to research the impact of gestures used in teaching.  She spent some time in school recording maths lessons across different year groups, and same day intervention sessions with children.  This was the first time I had purposefully set aside some time to investigate this aspect of teaching.   It was interesting to discover, from studying the lessons, that teachers, in different year groups across the school were using gestures just like me – the same gestures.   When asked where these came from, who trained the teachers to use them.  My initial answer was, ‘I have no idea’.   Despite being aware of my own use of gesture at that time, I had not delivered training for other teachers or suggested they use gestures.   When questioned, for some teachers it was planned and they were aware they were deliberately using gesture, others were not. A little probing revealed, ‘… because I have watched you teach so often, and I guess I just picked it up’.    It emerged I had unintentionally spread an approach across the school.   It is surprising how opening classroom doors for other teachers to observe lessons can share the practice you want them to notice, but it can share other, unintentional aspects of pedagogy also.   The preliminary research carried out revealed that when teachers were asked consciously not to use gestures in their explanations and questions, children did not use them either and, in these lessons, children’s explanations were not as accurate, not as detailed, and more children were identified as being insecure by the end of the lesson and needing same day intervention.   Whereas in the lessons where the teacher could use gesture freely, the children did also and their explanations, understanding, engagement, seemed enhanced.  Unfortunately, at the time, that research project was not awarded the funding required to take it any further.     I did however continue to use and promote the use of gestures in the teaching of maths with teachers I worked with, making a mental note that one day, I would find the time to investigate this further.

This year I got to hear Emily Farron from the University of Surrey share her work on spatial reasoning.  When she raised the topic of gesture – to enrich communication and help children to understand spatial concepts and learn spatial words, this immediately resonated with me.  An approach I had instinctively adopted into my pedagogy years ago, was ‘a thing’ – there actually was some real research behind it.   Intrigued, I then contacted teachers I’ve worked with over the years, right back to when I first qualified and asked, if they use gestures in maths teaching and so far, they’ve all said, yes.  Probed as to why, they told me the idea came from me, and after they had tried it and it worked, they continued.

I have read so much about the use of manipulatives in the teaching of maths, but until recently I had not read much on the use of gesture – possibly because I had dismissed it as unimportant, or because it had not been highlighted to me sooner as being significant.  I am now fascinated by this and my reading is developing my understanding as to the how and why it works – as well as the impact it can have on attainment.

As maths learning returns to classrooms, I wonder if the use of gesture could support children as they return to school, to focus on mathematical language and explanations. I feel this would be an interesting time for some action research.

Other questions are on my mind:

Why did I not make the connection sooner about the use of gesture and maths learning?

Why did I not do further research into this years ago?   How do teachers decide what to devote time to and what to dismiss?   Is there protected time for teachers to research topics of interest?

Does it matter that I did not?

I used gesture anyway, so does it matter that I did so intuitively and without plan or design?  I even managed to positively impact on the practice of others who adopted the use of gesture into their teaching.

Does it matter that our influence on others is sometimes unintentional?

Do actions need to be deliberate for there to be positive impact?

What if I am no longer teaching at a school, colleagues are no longer observing me teach, and this aspect of my pedagogy was not formally researched, recorded, and adopted into practice by the school, as I move away and other teachers influenced by me also move, then the use of gesture will decline – and with it, the way it enhanced learning.

So, I would say, yes, it does matter, because otherwise we face opportunities lost.

Working, may reduce the risk of missing important elements of teaching approaches that could have significant benefits to pupils. Less opportunities lost.


When I use the term ‘pedagogy’ I am referring to the practice of teaching and the methods used in teaching.

When I use the term ‘gesture’ I refer to physical action using hands and arms, but without holding objects.

Author Helen Hackett

Maths Lead

Excelsior MAT

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