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TC Mourns Antoinette Gentile, a Pioneer in Movement Sciences

 

Teachers College Professor Emerita Antoinette Gentile, a leader in movement sciences (kinesiology) and neuromotor research, has passed away at age 79.

“Ann Gentile was a brilliant and visionary researcher; an innovative and committed teacher and mentor; and a great citizen scholar whose work bettered the lives of people throughout the world,” President Susan Fuhrman, wrote in a note to the TC community. (Read other remembrances of Professor Gentile or add your own at the bottom of this page)

Gentile, who taught for 44 years at the College, was a pioneer in applying theories of brain function to treatment of patients with movement disorders, ushering in a new era in the rehabilitation of those who had suffered from strokes or neurological conditions affecting movement. She also established the world’s first program of study in motor learning and mentored many of the field’s current leaders. Upon her retirement in 2008, TC awarded her its Medal for Distinguished Service to Education.

“Ann Gentile was a national and international leader in the study of motor skills learning and motor control who changed the way many scholars thought about the skill learning processes and variables that influenced motor control of complex, coordinated physical activity,” said Richard Magill, Helen “Bessie” Silverberg Pliner Professor Emeritus in Kinesiology at Louisiana State University, and Adjunct Professor of Movement Sciences at Teachers College.  

“Ann influenced many hundreds of therapists to practice and develop the motor learning approach directly with patients,” said TC Professor Andrew Gordon, Gentile’s former colleague in the program in Movement Science and Education and Kinesiology in the Department of Biobehavioral Sciences. “Her ideas remain an accepted component of virtually all curricula in physical and occupational therapy and influence the training of new rehabilitation therapists to this day.”

Prior to the early 1970s, treatment of stroke patients and those afflicted by conditions like Parkinson’s had been determined largely by defining the extent of damage to patients’ brains. Gentile, whose training encompassed neuro-anatomy, motor control, motor learning and developmental research, focused instead on the impact of environment on brain function and the potential for behavioral change. She was an early champion of the notion of “neuroplasticity,” the concept that the brain can reorganize following trauma, shifting functions to new regions.

“Ann hasn’t been sufficiently recognized for her contributions, precisely because they have crossed disciplinary boundaries,” said her former student, James Gordon, Associate Dean of the Division of Biokinesiology & Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California.  “That’s trendy now, but she was doing it 30 years ago.”

In a 1972 paper titled “A Working Model of Skill Acquisition with Application to Teaching,” Gentile argued that neuromotor skills are acquired in distinct stages, with a performer’s current stage having implications for teaching or treatment. In her “Taxonomy of Tasks” – now ubiquitous in texts in the field – she grouped tasks according to the structure of the environment in which they are performed. For example, a person walking on flat ground can learn movement by rote, whereas someone walking on varied terrain must develop a more creative ability to produce different kinds of movements.

The implications for teaching motor skills were profound.

“If the task involves objects and people that don’t vary, then you can set practice that way, but if a task involves motion in the environment and that motion necessarily changes from trial to trial, then practice has to be structured differently,” Gentile recalled in a 2009 interview for TC’s Oral History Project. She added that this idea met with stiff resistance from physical educators such as tennis instructors. “They used to start by teaching the ‘perfect movement,’ with students practicing a swing with no ball and no racquet. The problem was when you got in a game, you had one swing and the task required that you generate 25,000 different patterns, each one uniquely organized to fit the diverse environmental conditions. So my story to the physical educators was, ‘You have to put them in an open environment right from the start.’ They thought that was outrageous – ‘Are you saying that a student learning tennis should be given a racquet and a ball and start to play tennis immediately?’ I said, ‘Exactly.’ ‘Are you saying you wouldn't teach them the form?’ ‘Yes, that's right.’”

Ultimately Gentile’s Taxonomy reshaped rehabilitation treatment.

“Her Taxonomy of Tasks changed the way that physical therapists evaluated their patients in order to understand better the nature of the patients’ impairments,” said Jean Held, a physical therapist and former student of Gentile’s who has since retired from the University of Vermont as Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Emerita.“In addition, the Taxonomy has helped therapists to understand better how to set up therapy sessions in order to help patients improve their function; i.e., how to structure their environment during the therapy session.”

Gentile also fleshed out theories that skills involve both “implicit” and “explicit” processes. Explicit processes are ones the performer is aware of and can describe, such as braking for a red light. Implicit ones lie beyond conscious awareness – for example, the balancing required to ride a bike.

Gentile applied this conceptual framework to physical rehabilitation, arguing that while much early learning occurs in the implicit realm, a patient’s cognitive abilities determine what treatments will be successful. Again, her message ran counter to received wisdom, which held that recovery was something dictated by the agency of the therapist.

"The perspective we were bringing, that unless the patient actively moves on his own there will be no reorganization in the nervous system, was quite radical.”
— Antoinette Gentile

“The physical therapists would get these poor stroke patients down on the floor, doing very simple tasks, because the idea was that you had to regress back to get recovery after a stroke and re-learn as though you were an infant,” Gentile said in her Oral History interview. “The therapist would move the individual through the movement on the assumption that that passive movement was going to facilitate their recovery. So the perspective we were bringing, that unless the patient actively moves on his own there will be no reorganization in the nervous system, was quite radical.”

Antoinette M. Gentile was born and raised in New York City. She attended Brooklyn College and then, during the late 1950s, Indiana University, where she began a Ph.D. in the physical education department, studying the motor functions of high-performance athletes and dancers. Her mentor, Arthur Slater-Hammel, was a sport psychologist who “couldn't find employment in a psychology department, because psychologists at that time were not interested in the complexity of motor behavior,” Gentile recalled. “They used nonsense syllables to study memory, and very simple mazes and silly tasks, but not the real complexity of movement.”

Slater-Hammel warned her that she was “working toward unemployment,” but Gentile landed a position as an instructor at TC in 1964 with her physical education dissertation still in the works. She completed it and then after securing a faculty post at the College, completed a second doctorate, in neuropsychology, simply to further her scholarly interests and expand her expertise.

Ultimately her somewhat unorthodox academic pedigree worked to her advantage. 

“Here I was, a neuropsychologist working with students in applied areas, helping to start the Neuroscience & Education program, one of the early members of the Society for Neuroscience but in a niche area called Motor Learning, which involves the neurosciences and biomechanics and behavioral analysis like experimental psychology,” she said. “So I wasn’t in any one of those fields. I was in a field that I was instrumental in making up.”

“She had the highest expectations of her students and this standard of excellence pushed me to levels I didn't know were possible. She taught me to look past long streams of numerical data and ‘see’ the movement, behavior and recovery that generated the numbers."
— D. Michele Basso, Professor and Director of Research at Ohio State University’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Her early work, conducted in laboratories in Thorndike and Russell Halls, included groundbreaking biomechanical analyses of movement in rats. After imposing damage on the animals’ cortexes, Gentile and her students observed the rats performing difficult tasks and recorded changes in motor behavior with high-speed film.

“Instead of just measuring the time it took them to run from this point to that point on an elevated runway, we took film with frame-by-frame coding markers at various joints so we could reproduce the movement that they were using and show the change in the movement after training,” Gentile said. “Not just that they could run faster, because a rat could learn to limp across faster, but actually show that the movement was reorganized. We did it by hand, using a device NASA had developed – you could take high-speed photography and display one frame. You would move this marker or dial and that would move one coordinate and then you'd move this one and that would move another coordinate. That gave you an X/Y printout of where in this animal’s space that joint was at this moment in time, 60 frames per second or 100 frames per second. It took us a year to analyze the data.”

Working first with Lawrence Locke and then with Joseph Higgins, Gentile also established the first graduate program in motor learning, now a major sub-discipline of physical education/kinesiology. To effectively teach motor skills, they believed, one needed to know how the performer learns. Many graduates became leaders in kinesiology, physical education and rehabilitation (especially physical therapy and occupational therapy).  

“Ann made me more than I knew I could be – as a person, a therapist and a neuroscientist,” said D. Michele Basso, Professor and Director of Research at Ohio State University’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “She had the highest expectations of her students and this standard of excellence pushed me to levels I didn't know were possible. She taught me to look past long streams of numerical data and ‘see’ the movement, behavior and recovery that generated the numbers. It's a skill that I try to instill in all of my PhD students.”

Subsequently, prompted by Jean Held, who was then a student in TC’s program in developmental psychology, Gentile created a master’s degree program for physical therapists working with people in rehabilitation. She also taught physical educators and sports therapists at other institutions.

“I was a junior at Brooklyn College, majoring in psychology and physical education – and more importantly I was a varsity tennis player,” recalled Howard Zelaznik, Professor in the Department of Health & Kinesiology  at Purdue Universityand director of the department’s Motor Behavior and Control Laboratory. “Dr. Gentile visited on Tuesdays and Thursdays to teach the first motor learning course. She would come in, take off her coat, light a cigarette and start teaching.  She was without a doubt the best lecturer I have ever encountered either as an undergraduate or graduate student. About six weeks into the course, the tennis season starting ramping up. She was clear that I would receive no special consideration even if I was the team captain and number one player.  Even after this ‘tough love,’ she invited me up to TC. I met her graduate students; attended a seminar.  After living in Brooklyn my entire life, I did not want to commute to TC, so she advised me to apply to the University of Michigan and work with an individual named Dick Schmidt.  I did, and my career and new life were launched. And she remained my mentor for over 40 years.”

Ultimately, Gentile “influenced a generation,” said another former student, Lori Quinn, now Associate Professor of Movement Sciences & Kinesiology at TC. “Twenty-five years ago, people didn’t consider motor learning when they thought about physical therapy. She was really the driving force in changing that.”

Gentile’s successes required more than overcoming entrenched scientific views. She was the first woman to become a full professor in TC’s Division of Instruction, which housed all the school-based subject matter areas (English, History, Science Mathematics and Physical Education). She subsequently challenged tenure decisions that favored less qualified male colleagues and fought for salary equity for female professors.

“Twenty-five years ago, people didn’t consider motor learning when they thought about physical therapy. She was really the driving force in changing that.” — Lori Quinn, Associate Professor, Movement Sciences, Teachers College

“Ann’s scholarly and programmatic contributions were impressive, but equally worthy of mention, for me and many other faculty members, was her tireless commitment to the well-being of the TC community,” said Karen Zumwalt, TC’s Evenden Professor Emerita, who read Gentile’s TC Medal citation at the College’s doctoral graduation in May 2009. “We depended on Ann’s historical perspective, her sharp mind, integrity, no-nonsense directness and willingness to speak up. She was a courageous and vigilant advocate for faculty governance, fairness and equity. But she wasn’t just talk. Over the years, she actively worked to shape academic and personnel policies at the college.  She shaped my view of what a TC faculty member could and should be.”

To overcome the biases of the peer review process, which favored men, Gentile also avoided using her first name, submitting and publishing papers as “A.M. Gentile.”

“She liked to tell the story of how she was once invited to an international neuroscience conference, and had put ‘A.M. Gentile’ next to her title for the program,” recalled Andrew Gordon. “She was at the opening reception when a scholar saw Gentile on her name tag, and said how he very much looked forward to meeting her eminent husband, A.M. Gentile.”

Gentile is survived by her spouse and companion of 45 years, Carlotta Rossini; her sister, Margaret Gentile Anderson; and her nieces and nephews.

In spring 2008, colleagues, friends and students created the A.M. Gentile Scholarship Fund in Motor Learning at TC. To contribute to the scholarship click here, email Linda Colquhoun or call 212-678-3679.

Published Wednesday, Feb 17, 2016

Professor Emerita Antionette M. Gentile
Professor Emerita Antionette M. Gentile

 

Teachers College Professor Emerita Antoinette Gentile, a leader in movement sciences (kinesiology) and neuromotor research, has passed away at age 79.

“Ann Gentile was a brilliant and visionary researcher; an innovative and committed teacher and mentor; and a great citizen scholar whose work bettered the lives of people throughout the world,” President Susan Fuhrman, wrote in a note to the TC community. (Read other remembrances of Professor Gentile or add your own at the bottom of this page)

Gentile, who taught for 44 years at the College, was a pioneer in applying theories of brain function to treatment of patients with movement disorders, ushering in a new era in the rehabilitation of those who had suffered from strokes or neurological conditions affecting movement. She also established the world’s first program of study in motor learning and mentored many of the field’s current leaders. Upon her retirement in 2008, TC awarded her its Medal for Distinguished Service to Education.

“Ann Gentile was a national and international leader in the study of motor skills learning and motor control who changed the way many scholars thought about the skill learning processes and variables that influenced motor control of complex, coordinated physical activity,” said Richard Magill, Helen “Bessie” Silverberg Pliner Professor Emeritus in Kinesiology at Louisiana State University, and Adjunct Professor of Movement Sciences at Teachers College.  

“Ann influenced many hundreds of therapists to practice and develop the motor learning approach directly with patients,” said TC Professor Andrew Gordon, Gentile’s former colleague in the program in Movement Science and Education and Kinesiology in the Department of Biobehavioral Sciences. “Her ideas remain an accepted component of virtually all curricula in physical and occupational therapy and influence the training of new rehabilitation therapists to this day.”

Prior to the early 1970s, treatment of stroke patients and those afflicted by conditions like Parkinson’s had been determined largely by defining the extent of damage to patients’ brains. Gentile, whose training encompassed neuro-anatomy, motor control, motor learning and developmental research, focused instead on the impact of environment on brain function and the potential for behavioral change. She was an early champion of the notion of “neuroplasticity,” the concept that the brain can reorganize following trauma, shifting functions to new regions.

“Ann hasn’t been sufficiently recognized for her contributions, precisely because they have crossed disciplinary boundaries,” said her former student, James Gordon, Associate Dean of the Division of Biokinesiology & Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California.  “That’s trendy now, but she was doing it 30 years ago.”

In a 1972 paper titled “A Working Model of Skill Acquisition with Application to Teaching,” Gentile argued that neuromotor skills are acquired in distinct stages, with a performer’s current stage having implications for teaching or treatment. In her “Taxonomy of Tasks” – now ubiquitous in texts in the field – she grouped tasks according to the structure of the environment in which they are performed. For example, a person walking on flat ground can learn movement by rote, whereas someone walking on varied terrain must develop a more creative ability to produce different kinds of movements.

The implications for teaching motor skills were profound.

“If the task involves objects and people that don’t vary, then you can set practice that way, but if a task involves motion in the environment and that motion necessarily changes from trial to trial, then practice has to be structured differently,” Gentile recalled in a 2009 interview for TC’s Oral History Project. She added that this idea met with stiff resistance from physical educators such as tennis instructors. “They used to start by teaching the ‘perfect movement,’ with students practicing a swing with no ball and no racquet. The problem was when you got in a game, you had one swing and the task required that you generate 25,000 different patterns, each one uniquely organized to fit the diverse environmental conditions. So my story to the physical educators was, ‘You have to put them in an open environment right from the start.’ They thought that was outrageous – ‘Are you saying that a student learning tennis should be given a racquet and a ball and start to play tennis immediately?’ I said, ‘Exactly.’ ‘Are you saying you wouldn't teach them the form?’ ‘Yes, that's right.’”

Ultimately Gentile’s Taxonomy reshaped rehabilitation treatment.

“Her Taxonomy of Tasks changed the way that physical therapists evaluated their patients in order to understand better the nature of the patients’ impairments,” said Jean Held, a physical therapist and former student of Gentile’s who has since retired from the University of Vermont as Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Emerita.“In addition, the Taxonomy has helped therapists to understand better how to set up therapy sessions in order to help patients improve their function; i.e., how to structure their environment during the therapy session.”

Gentile also fleshed out theories that skills involve both “implicit” and “explicit” processes. Explicit processes are ones the performer is aware of and can describe, such as braking for a red light. Implicit ones lie beyond conscious awareness – for example, the balancing required to ride a bike.

Gentile applied this conceptual framework to physical rehabilitation, arguing that while much early learning occurs in the implicit realm, a patient’s cognitive abilities determine what treatments will be successful. Again, her message ran counter to received wisdom, which held that recovery was something dictated by the agency of the therapist.

"The perspective we were bringing, that unless the patient actively moves on his own there will be no reorganization in the nervous system, was quite radical.”
— Antoinette Gentile

“The physical therapists would get these poor stroke patients down on the floor, doing very simple tasks, because the idea was that you had to regress back to get recovery after a stroke and re-learn as though you were an infant,” Gentile said in her Oral History interview. “The therapist would move the individual through the movement on the assumption that that passive movement was going to facilitate their recovery. So the perspective we were bringing, that unless the patient actively moves on his own there will be no reorganization in the nervous system, was quite radical.”

Antoinette M. Gentile was born and raised in New York City. She attended Brooklyn College and then, during the late 1950s, Indiana University, where she began a Ph.D. in the physical education department, studying the motor functions of high-performance athletes and dancers. Her mentor, Arthur Slater-Hammel, was a sport psychologist who “couldn't find employment in a psychology department, because psychologists at that time were not interested in the complexity of motor behavior,” Gentile recalled. “They used nonsense syllables to study memory, and very simple mazes and silly tasks, but not the real complexity of movement.”

Slater-Hammel warned her that she was “working toward unemployment,” but Gentile landed a position as an instructor at TC in 1964 with her physical education dissertation still in the works. She completed it and then after securing a faculty post at the College, completed a second doctorate, in neuropsychology, simply to further her scholarly interests and expand her expertise.

Ultimately her somewhat unorthodox academic pedigree worked to her advantage. 

“Here I was, a neuropsychologist working with students in applied areas, helping to start the Neuroscience & Education program, one of the early members of the Society for Neuroscience but in a niche area called Motor Learning, which involves the neurosciences and biomechanics and behavioral analysis like experimental psychology,” she said. “So I wasn’t in any one of those fields. I was in a field that I was instrumental in making up.”

“She had the highest expectations of her students and this standard of excellence pushed me to levels I didn't know were possible. She taught me to look past long streams of numerical data and ‘see’ the movement, behavior and recovery that generated the numbers."
— D. Michele Basso, Professor and Director of Research at Ohio State University’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Her early work, conducted in laboratories in Thorndike and Russell Halls, included groundbreaking biomechanical analyses of movement in rats. After imposing damage on the animals’ cortexes, Gentile and her students observed the rats performing difficult tasks and recorded changes in motor behavior with high-speed film.

“Instead of just measuring the time it took them to run from this point to that point on an elevated runway, we took film with frame-by-frame coding markers at various joints so we could reproduce the movement that they were using and show the change in the movement after training,” Gentile said. “Not just that they could run faster, because a rat could learn to limp across faster, but actually show that the movement was reorganized. We did it by hand, using a device NASA had developed – you could take high-speed photography and display one frame. You would move this marker or dial and that would move one coordinate and then you'd move this one and that would move another coordinate. That gave you an X/Y printout of where in this animal’s space that joint was at this moment in time, 60 frames per second or 100 frames per second. It took us a year to analyze the data.”

Working first with Lawrence Locke and then with Joseph Higgins, Gentile also established the first graduate program in motor learning, now a major sub-discipline of physical education/kinesiology. To effectively teach motor skills, they believed, one needed to know how the performer learns. Many graduates became leaders in kinesiology, physical education and rehabilitation (especially physical therapy and occupational therapy).  

“Ann made me more than I knew I could be – as a person, a therapist and a neuroscientist,” said D. Michele Basso, Professor and Director of Research at Ohio State University’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “She had the highest expectations of her students and this standard of excellence pushed me to levels I didn't know were possible. She taught me to look past long streams of numerical data and ‘see’ the movement, behavior and recovery that generated the numbers. It's a skill that I try to instill in all of my PhD students.”

Subsequently, prompted by Jean Held, who was then a student in TC’s program in developmental psychology, Gentile created a master’s degree program for physical therapists working with people in rehabilitation. She also taught physical educators and sports therapists at other institutions.

“I was a junior at Brooklyn College, majoring in psychology and physical education – and more importantly I was a varsity tennis player,” recalled Howard Zelaznik, Professor in the Department of Health & Kinesiology  at Purdue Universityand director of the department’s Motor Behavior and Control Laboratory. “Dr. Gentile visited on Tuesdays and Thursdays to teach the first motor learning course. She would come in, take off her coat, light a cigarette and start teaching.  She was without a doubt the best lecturer I have ever encountered either as an undergraduate or graduate student. About six weeks into the course, the tennis season starting ramping up. She was clear that I would receive no special consideration even if I was the team captain and number one player.  Even after this ‘tough love,’ she invited me up to TC. I met her graduate students; attended a seminar.  After living in Brooklyn my entire life, I did not want to commute to TC, so she advised me to apply to the University of Michigan and work with an individual named Dick Schmidt.  I did, and my career and new life were launched. And she remained my mentor for over 40 years.”

Ultimately, Gentile “influenced a generation,” said another former student, Lori Quinn, now Associate Professor of Movement Sciences & Kinesiology at TC. “Twenty-five years ago, people didn’t consider motor learning when they thought about physical therapy. She was really the driving force in changing that.”

Gentile’s successes required more than overcoming entrenched scientific views. She was the first woman to become a full professor in TC’s Division of Instruction, which housed all the school-based subject matter areas (English, History, Science Mathematics and Physical Education). She subsequently challenged tenure decisions that favored less qualified male colleagues and fought for salary equity for female professors.

“Twenty-five years ago, people didn’t consider motor learning when they thought about physical therapy. She was really the driving force in changing that.” — Lori Quinn, Associate Professor, Movement Sciences, Teachers College

“Ann’s scholarly and programmatic contributions were impressive, but equally worthy of mention, for me and many other faculty members, was her tireless commitment to the well-being of the TC community,” said Karen Zumwalt, TC’s Evenden Professor Emerita, who read Gentile’s TC Medal citation at the College’s doctoral graduation in May 2009. “We depended on Ann’s historical perspective, her sharp mind, integrity, no-nonsense directness and willingness to speak up. She was a courageous and vigilant advocate for faculty governance, fairness and equity. But she wasn’t just talk. Over the years, she actively worked to shape academic and personnel policies at the college.  She shaped my view of what a TC faculty member could and should be.”

To overcome the biases of the peer review process, which favored men, Gentile also avoided using her first name, submitting and publishing papers as “A.M. Gentile.”

“She liked to tell the story of how she was once invited to an international neuroscience conference, and had put ‘A.M. Gentile’ next to her title for the program,” recalled Andrew Gordon. “She was at the opening reception when a scholar saw Gentile on her name tag, and said how he very much looked forward to meeting her eminent husband, A.M. Gentile.”

Gentile is survived by her spouse and companion of 45 years, Carlotta Rossini; her sister, Margaret Gentile Anderson; and her nieces and nephews.

In spring 2008, colleagues, friends and students created the A.M. Gentile Scholarship Fund in Motor Learning at TC. To contribute to the scholarship click here, email Linda Colquhoun or call 212-678-3679.

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Remembrances  

  • The picture of Ann and me standing was taken in 2005 when I received the DAA--Ann was one of my guests. The second was taken in our apt. where I had invited Ann for a drink before I took her out to celebrate her receiving the TC medal a couple of years earlier.
    -- Teachers College Professor Emeritus John Fanselow

Professor Emerita Antionette M. Gentile
Professor Emerita Antionette M. Gentile