CELEBRATING ANN GENTILE | Teachers College Columbia University

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Movement sciences professor retires after 40 years at TC

Antoinette Gentile, a leader in movement sciences and neuromotor research, retired in spring 2008 after 44 years at Teachers College. She has been named Professor Emeritus of the College.

Beginning in the early 1970s, Gentile pioneered in applying theories of brain function in movement disorders to patient treatment. Previously, treatment had been shaped largely by defining the extent of damage to patients’ brains. Gentile, whose training encompassed neuro-anatomy, movement, 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,” says James Gordon, Associate Dean of the Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California. “That’s trendy now, but she was doing it 30 years ago. Also, what really makes her emblematic of the TC ideal is that she’s always been interested in how theoretical ideas can be applied to solve real problems.”

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 a “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. Does, for example, the environment stay the same? Then the performer can learn a movement by rote. But if it changes, as in walking on varied terrain, he must develop a more creative ability to produce different kinds of movements.

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 the teaching of skills and to physical rehabilitation, arguing that much early learning occurs in the implicit realm and that a patient’s cognitive abilities determine what treatments will be successful.

Gentile and a TC colleague, Joe Higgins (now retired), 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 learner learns. Many graduates became leaders in kinesiology, physical education and rehabilitation (especially physical therapy and occupational therapy). Gentile also built the program’s reputation by bringing leading scientists to discuss their work and its potential application to rehabilitation and education.

“Ann influenced many hundreds of therapists to practice and develop the motor learning approach directly with patients. 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,” says TC’s Andrew Gordon, Professor of Movement Sciences.

Following a celebration of Gentile’s career in spring 2008, colleague, friends and students created the Ann Gentile Scholarship in Motor Learning at TC. Those interested in contributing to the scholarship should contact Janet Egan in TC’s Office of Development at egan@tc.edu

Published Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009