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The Critical Elements of Movement: The Big Six

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

Richard McManus


The reach to a box of cereal, the grasp of a spoon, the strumming gesture across a guitar, the point toward a door by a character in a play. These simple gestures hide a truth about our work and our learning that is both profound and invisible. Years later the man who saw those simple movements and understood their critical nature is not well known, but his influence is burgeoning in the small behavioral group of professionals who call themselves Precision Teachers.

Very few noted men and women have not possessed these invisible skills to a fluent, highly practiced level. Stephen Hawking comes to mind, and there are others.

Point, touch, reach, grasp, release, place. These movements underlie our work behavior whether we are retail workers, or orchestra conductors. These movements must be efficient and fluent to enable successful work in almost every arena. Musicians carry them to the highest level of performance, performing high frequency, precise movements with amazing dexterity to create beauty.

Dr. Eric Haughton coined the term “the Big Six” for these movements. Over a very short period he added more movements, changed the names for the movements. Annie Desjardins was the first and most eloquent teacher implementing these ideas, and she was not only very effective as a teacher, but wrote a document that continues to be the most succinct explanation of what and why these movements are so important.

But this powerful instructional seed has been forgotten, never fully exploited by teachers at any level. Eric called these movements “elements” in the chemistry of human performance. Without these elements at full strength, a learners’ performance will be stunted. With them every skill, every level of development is in his or her grasp.

Eric’s first stroke of genius was to see that everything we do requires these movements. Everything a student does in school requires these movements, everything we do in love or hate, in building or destroying, requires these movements. Children who are weak in these movements are going to struggle to write, to type, to color, to paint, to fasten a button or put on a shirt, to strum a guitar.

Eric’s second genius was to see that improving these skills would strengthen a learners’ ability to do everything in life — and that by practicing the Big Six in isolation, by counting them and seeing whether they are performed with sufficient frequency and force, we can transform the learners life experience.

When Eric shared this idea I was working with autistic teenagers. They were difficult to work with, frequently interrupting our carefully taught vocational sequences with random finger flapping or other behaviors that we deemed nonfunctional. We would help our students to develop a skill, for example hammering, only to see the skill disintegrate as the student would abruptly start doing some stereotypic movement that interrupted what we had taught.

Since we were measuring the frequency of every skill it was apparent to us that the skills were insufficiently practiced, insufficiently strengthened to sustain themselves. We had set targets at 30 percent of industrial standard, as we hoped that level of work performance would be sufficient to hold a sheltered work opportunity. At that time we thought that was a high aim, and would assure an opportunity to engage in work and have a future of some dignity.

We were aiming low, but we didn’t know it.

Eric pointed out that these nonfunctional behaviors (as we saw them) were in fact useful movement skills that were not really fluent yet, and consequently the “work” skills we were teaching were as though we were demanding that a new pianist play Mozart. Our students needed to practice the scales of work movement — the Big Six — to be able to achieve performances that would enable productive work — at above 100 percent of the industrial standard. We tried it and it worked. It changed everything about how I see learning, and over the years this way to see skill development has transformed many learners. Always aim high.

Thank you Eric

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