Ed. Note: this article originally appeared on Dr. Merzenich’s blog On The Brain on May 26, 2010.
I had the great pleasure of attending a symposium held in the College of Education at my alma mater, the University of Portland, focused on this interesting subject, and the implications that it bears for effective learning and teaching. My co-participants were distinguished professors in linguistics and education science (Ellyn Arwood and Richard Christen), and two wonderful educators working on the front lines, as a classroom teacher (Bonnie Robb) and an art educator (Daniel Duford). This meeting was on the path, for the University of Portland, toward the further development of a strong emphasis on brain science-guided educational theory and practice. To which we at this blog say, “Terrific!!”
Our hands are one limb (play on words intended) of the great triumvirate (the other two being ours ears and eyes) that provides most of our knowledge about the things of the world. One emphasis of this meeting was the great value, for instructors and children, of more fully developing and exploiting this great personal resource. Richard Christen spoke compellingly about our long history of artificially distinguishing our physical actions from our mental actions. He’s right, of course. We now know that the neurological processes controlling physical movement and thought are essentially the same, and that there are extensively shared resources in these two great ‘systems’ of operation.
Ellyn Arwood broke down this barrier by pointing out that our hands can (of course) represent thinking. She used a Braille-reading blind individual as one example, because as with a visual reader, the blind reader ‘sees’ (generates the mental ideation “representing” the objects or qualities or actions or relationships that are represented on their fingertips. In another cited example, Dr. Arwood described how a blind individual can probe the outlines of a common object (for example, a hat) and literally create a 3-dimensional image of that object in their mind.
One of my favorite experiments of this class was conducted by John Kennedy now at the University of Toronto, who asked congenitally blind individuals to draw the shapes of large and small real world objects on special paper that produced raised lines on the paper as they drew. When asked to draw a car, for example, and the blind individual who had never before attempted to draw created a reasonable cartoon car. Asked to draw it in perspective (e.g., from the front) and they did a good job of it (e.g., headlamps, grill, windshield, etc.). Their drawings were usually made in 3 dimensions.
Asked to draw the car going fast, and they did the same kinds of things that a visual cartoonist might do: elevate the front of the car; follow the car with squiggly lines; twist the spokes of the hubcaps; etc. There can be little doubt that such an individual SEES (can create an image in her/his mind) WITH HIS HANDS. It is interesting to me that the brain uses the same areas for these mental reconstructions in the blind individual that it engages in actual visually-dominated reconstruction in the sighted.
Of course Arwood’s main point is that the hands are making their own very powerful contribution to mental reconstructions in the NORMAL (sighted) kid. She and Bonnie Robb described beautiful illustrations of how writing and drawing can reinforce the development of semantics and grammar in instruction, and in the brains of those kids that are ‘under construction’ in the classroom. Get the kid to associate the aural word with the pictograph (cartoon), with the written word, with the cursively-produced word, with the idea-in-the-mind, with the ‘real thing’, was a mantra.
You might note that 2 of these basic sources of understanding are delivered from the hand. For those educators reading these comments, it is no surprise for you to hear that training with the hand in writing, the use of fine-hand-control exercises in drawing, etc. are not exactly at a high-water mark in educational practice. One of the participants in the meeting put it in a nice way when she said (I paraphrase): “We are spending more and more of our time applying educational efforts directly targeting reading and math, and less and less of our time at the more fundamental skills that could actually improve learning rates that could actually improve reading and math abilities and test scores.” To which I say, “Amen”.
How can a hands-ON approach to learning contribute to learning success?
- We know, from a neurological perspective, that multimodal sources of reference or affirmation actually directly impact semantic development and ideation. I associate an aural word with an object or action; the written word adds to my reliable sorting of the MEANING of that word–with all of its associative extensions–in my mind. Producing (WRITING) it in cursive script adds again to the selectivity and reliability of my representation of the idea of that word. A pictograph of that word adds again. From the operations of my hand in cursive or in drawing, I CONSTRUCT that idea in its sound and visual parts. From ALL of these sources, I add to the richness of my associative elaboration of meaning associations. An educator who uses a hands-OFF approach to learning (not formally involving much writing or drawing or manual skills development) is going to deprive the child from what can be powerfully amplifying neurological impacts on the development of semantic and ideational power!
- The use of the hands in fine motor control is an important neurological prelude to reading, because it contributes to training the brain about a) attentional focus, and b) deliberate, controlled linear visual motion tracking. Those implicit skills have been demonstrated to be very important for lexical access. Bonnie Robb also described how she initiated pictograph-drawing and word-writing exercises in parallel with–or even BEFORE–reading. That makes lots of neurological sense!
- Daniel Duford provided a wonderful description about how visceral (non-cerebral) drawing can be. Contrary to current profession-artist education curricula, where theory often dominates over practice, he argued that art is in the hand-mind. His provocative descriptions made me think about studies that show that the hand area of the brain is engaged when a person a) sees an image of a hand; or b) when a person thinks about their hand; or c) when a person sees a word that expresses a hand action; etc. In the same way, when you do something with the hand that is associative with a thing or action or thought or idea – like draw that picture or write that word or draw a pictograph or type that word – you positively bias the cortical processes representing that thing or action or thought or idea. We call this ‘synergism’!! Getting those hands in play is going to amp up learning rates!
- Bonnie Robb also described how she used her hand in two interesting ways to bring her class into a learning context. First, she employed a series of hand gestures, to substitute hand signs for basic classroom instructions. Students responded to these special signs as if they were members of their own little secret club — which they were! Neurologically, hand gestures in communication provide a good way of alerting students because they represent a convergence of information reinforced in 3 modes: visual; hand; verbal instruction. Second, Bonnie used pictographs to help children understand basic principles of classroom organization and order, and to train kids to understand the picture = idea-in-your-head connection – then beautifully elaborated that strategy to teach kids about things and actions of the world. This inspiring teacher, as I noted earlier, has to write a book about these neuroscience-enlightened practices.
In my view, training in fine motor control of the hands through coloring/painting/drawing is a crucial part of preparation for school. Training the convergent eyes in close, focused attention, and training the tracking of hand-produced motions provide is a key for developing implicit abilities that support lexical access.
I believe that training a child to draw to represent the parts and essences of the objects and qualities and actions and relationships of the things of the world, and training a child to represent the sound parts of the world through orthographic script progressions provide key assets for reliably sorting and associatively elaborating our mental constructions of all of these aspects of our (the kid’s) world.
Ellyn Arwood explained that these multiple confirmations and these associative elaborations are the very essence of learning. She’s right, of course. She’s also right in understanding that a hands-ON approach is a key to achieving that learning with high efficiency.
Of course many children at older ages in school do not have the kind of implicit-skills foundation that comes from effective early instruction practices like these. To recover that older learner, we have to overcome the lack of crucial implicit abilities in listening and vision and in hand control, by helping them build a solid foundation. Our Fast ForWord exercises were designed to achieve that for listening, and for some aspects of reading itself. They intelligently combinative audio-visual-manual training strategies that were the primary subject of this meeting can also contribute greatly to establishing foundation skills in that older learner.