Representational gesturing as an epistemic tool for the development of mechanistic explanatory models

Nitasha Mathayas, David E. Brown, Robert C. Wallon, Robb Lindgren

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Constructing explanatory models, in which students learn to visualize the mechanisms of unobservable entities (e.g., molecules) to explain the working of observable phenomena (e.g., air pressure), is a key practice of science. Yet, students struggle to develop and utilize such models to articulate causal-mechanistic explanations. In this paper, we argue that representational gesturing with the hands (i.e., gesturing that models semantic content) can support the development of explanatory models. Through case studies examining middle school students gesturing during sensemaking, we show that representational gestures can support students in at least four ways: (a) they make underlying mechanisms visible, (b) they facilitate translation of a spatial model to a verbal explanation, (c) they enable model articulation while relying less on scientific terminology, and (d) they present opportunities for students to embody causal agents. In these ways, representational gesturing can be considered an epistemic tool supporting students during sensemaking and communication. We argue that instruction should attend to students’ gestures and, as appropriate, encourage students to gesture as a means of aiding the construction and articulation of causal-mechanistic explanations. While our study explores one form of embodied representation, we encourage the field to explore embodied expressions as epistemic tools for learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1047-1079
Number of pages33
JournalScience Education
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2019


  • embodiment
  • epistemic tools
  • explanations
  • hand gestures

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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