Do manual actions have an effect on thinking? on decision making? on problem solving?

According to the findings of a recent research the answer is positive: our hands are somehow “good thinkers”.

The research was carried out at Kingston University London by a team led by Frederik and Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau about the interactions between the problem solving agent and his or her environment.

Applying a qualitative method, the Authors asked one group of participants to use a tablet and a stylus to work out any solution of a hard problem while they set a second group in a “building condition” providing some physical material to manipulate.

This was the problem:  “How do you put seventeen animals in four enclosures in such a manner that there is an odd number of animals in each of the four pens?

Participants had an initial “sketch phase” to understand and sketch their hypothesis to work on, an interval of working memory and a final phase of actual problem solving.

During the initial phase none of the participants solved the problem and all of them sketched possible answers showing that they all thought that an arithmetic approach was required to find a solution.

No differences emerged amid participants during the first two periods. However, a different behaviour was revealed during the final phase when the two groups used different material.

One group was given an electronic tablet and stylus while the other group received a building model, that is 17 animal figurines and some pipe cleaners to configure a practical solution.

The group in tablet condition  “primarily worked on dividing 17 into four odd numbers, often by listing odd numbers from 1 to 17 and attempting to combine four that would tally up to. If pens were drawn, they were rarely modified once sketched, and remained as an unchanging and non-overlapping configuration of four separate areas throughout the problem solving session.

This description shows that working with a tablet and stylus reduced the capacity of the users to reshape the mental scheme determined by the first impact with the problem. I daresay that the thinking capacity of participants in the tablet group was somehow trapped and unable to explore any different strategy.

“In contrast, in the model condition, participants’ attention and actions were directed, from the start, on the pens themselves [that means: on how to build the pens for the animals]. As a result, the spatial configuration of the pens, rather than quixotic attempts to divide 17 into four odd numbers, was for some participants the focus of their problem solving”.

[quote align=”left” color=”#3366ff” “font-size: 9pt;]”After working on the problem for a total of 13 min … none of the participants in the tablet condition formulated a solution, while 43% built (a perceptual configuration) that led to a full or partial solution in the model building condition.”[/quote]
The conclusion of the Researchers is that “Problem solving success was determined by the task environment, the range of actions it afforded and the dynamic changes to the physical problem presentation evinced by these actions.”

This is extremely relevant: I understand that we need to develop new strategies for insight problem solving. For example, when there will be a new problem to solve, rather than drinking more coffee or eating fish to enhance mental power with phosphoric food, we can simply obtain a better performance by baking bread, mending some clothes, knitting a jumper! although it sounds like a joke, this is a tremendously serious statement!


Having grown after WWII when we children had to invent our toys -as there was none-, in a rural context where we had a daily practice of “problem solving” -varying for how to keep yourself in the pre-facebook era busy to how to warm up without central heating-, I was lively touched by an example that my teacher outlined at the beginning of my introductory course to Steiner education.

He said that in Waldorf schools manual activities were the ground for the education of thinking through all the schooling time, particularly in the early years and primary school.

He mentioned that as traveller in various countries he observed teenagers making carpets at their home and was admired by their natural talent to weave threads and create patterns they revealed during the activity.

He made aware all us participants that children have a deep connection with the manual, musical and sensorial activities and that through those creative activities -such as knitting, crocheting, sawing and tailoring as well as music, dancing, acting, modelling, painting- children really develop their thinking capacity, their imagination and intuitive thinking!

This was such a wonderful revelation! even if it sounded so “evident”…

I brought the belief on this “evident” relation between craft and art and movement activities into my teaching and the present “Active English Learning project” that aims to provide young people with an holistic learning experience, focused on the English language that may improve not only because of the academic English lessons -though absolutely necessary- but also on the creative, sensorial, experiential approach that involves head, heart and hands in the same cognitive process.

It is well known that walking has an impact on thinking (see peripatetic philosophers): the good re-discovery of our time is that also manual actions can be part of education of thinking, not restricted to the narrow box of the intellect and rationality.

So, keep baking, knitting, crocheting, painting, playing musical instruments, riding, modelling, cooking, building and moving and doing! As I wanted to lay at the ground of AEL:

learning by doing,

learning with joy,

learning from real life!


PS: curious to see a solution of the 17 animal problem? Click here