A new number in math: Use body moves to learn it better

  • PTI, Washington
  • Updated: Jan 29, 2015 14:46 IST

Imagine a classroom full of kids moving around, contorting their bodies and waving their arms to learn math! Researchers from the University of Vermont (UVM) found
that elementary school students learned geometric principles more easily when physical movements were incorporated into the lesson plans.

Researchers found significant gains in the understanding of angles and angle measurements by elementary school students who performed body-based tasks while interacting with a Kinect for Windows mathematics programme. The Kinect is a motion sensor input device that allows people to interact with computers based on their natural movements.

Carmen Petrick Smith, an assistant professor of mathematics education at UVM, engaged 30 third- and fourth-grade students in tasks that involved moving their arms to form angles projected on a large Kinect screen. The screen changed colours when the students' arms formed acute, right, obtuse and straight angles. A protractor helped students measure and refine their movements.

Students were asked to figure out the hidden rules that made each of the four colours appear on the screen. "It's exciting to ask, 'What if we rethink what a math class looks like and rethink the tools that are available to students to help them with their learning?'" said Smith.

"It's another tool out there for teachers to use in their instruction," Smith added. Smith's research adds evidence to a developing area of cognitive science, known as embodied cognition, which posits that the brain alone does not generate behaviour, but that it actually works in concert with physical movements and other environmental and neural processes such as perception, action and emotion.

Her findings could impact traditional math pedagogy that typically has teachers standing in front of the class presenting angles by using static representations of drawings on chalkboards.

Smith's research found that a more dynamic learning environment where students use their bodies to create angles is more effective when blended with other teaching methods.

In her study, Smith found that students who focused on static representations of angles experienced less dramatic learning gains than those who participated in the movement-based lessons. "When students are acting out a math problem and using their body to help them explain the answer, that's another modality," said Smith.

"Maybe they don't know the words quite yet, but they have a way to express it using their body that they didn't have before when they were sitting in a row of desks looking up at the teacher and searching for an answer," Smith added.

The study is published in the Journal of Mathematical Behavior.

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