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High-Fives & Fist Bumps: Why They Matter in Teaching & Learning

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When we think of learning, the two senses that typically come to mind are sight and sound. Students look and they listen. But what about the sense of touch? Should it play a role in your classroom? If so, how much of a role?

As it turns out, touch can have a vital role in teaching and learning and as someone who’s forever promoting the use of multiple senses, I’m delighted that we’re acquiring more and more information on the topic. The research on the importance of touch – whether it’s feeling and manipulating objects or the value of human touch in the teaching and learning process – is very exciting.

About the latter, teacher Joan Young says:

Touch is the way we connect to each other, show compassion, and create community. One of the most important ways that I have built a safe and lively learning space is through rituals to celebrate hard work and successes as well as failures. Fist bumps, high fives, handshakes at the door are small actions that join us and convey we are all working together, trying to bring out each other’s best.

Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center writes about the need for touch in his book Born to be Good. He writes about the power of compassion that is conveyed through touch.  He also cites several studies on the health benefits of touch as well as the effect of a teacher’s encouraging touch and how it increases student participation. You can learn more here: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research.

Connecting through touch has a profound impact on increasing hormones like oxytocin that create well-being and safety and set the stage for learning. Teaching without capitalizing on the benefits of touch is like cutting off another of our senses and telling us to learn about the world. Why would we even attempt to do that? Would we ask a child to study a picture without using his/her eyes?

As teachers we bring our entire authentic selves to the teaching relationship. It is often something about us, about who we are, about the silly and not so silly gestures in the classroom that inspire a child to want to learn. The power of touch is one of our hidden allies, sometimes not capitalized on. 

teacher Jessica Lahey, who wrote a compelling piece called “Should Teachers Be Allowed to Touch Students?”, interviewed Cheryl Rainfield, an author and survivor of childhood rape and torture. Cheryl said:

If a child doesn’t have any safe touch in their lives, it’s easy to get disconnected from people and life, and to not want to live at all, and a compassionate teacher may be the only safety and caring a child has in their life.

Jessica also interviewed David J. Linden, a neuroscience professor and the author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind. He was quoted as saying

Touch puts the recipient in a trusting mental state, and anything you can do to encourage the student to trust the teacher is going to make learning better.

For information on the connection between our fingers/hands and learning, check out:

“The World at Our Fingertips: The Connection Between Touch and Learning”: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-world-at-our-fingertips/

“Why Kids Need to Move, Touch and Experience to Learn”: http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/03/26/why-kids-need-to-move-touch-and-experience-to-learn/

Sian Beilock’s book How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel


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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

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Guest Wednesday, 23 May 2018