“Hands On”

Hands on learning has been a buzz word as long as I have been in education.

Most educators sing its praises, though I know a few die-hard traditionalists that think way too much time is wasted on making learning “fun” and students need to just sit down, shut up and learn. I get that too. A little bit more of that would go a long way.

Just to learn your multiplication facts. Just to be able to diagram a sentence or spell basic words or know Greek and Latin roots even. Just to know the scientific method or the names of the 50 states.

With the emphasis on engaging students, teachers sometimes can feel like court jesters desperately performing to win the attention and praise of students, colleagues, supervisors and even themselves. Perhaps the onus has shifted too far away from the students thereby causing a deficit of responsibility, engagement, and creativity in spite of, or even because of, the brilliance of the show that so many teachers put on everyday in their classrooms.

Part of my resilience to the technology movement in schools stems from this idea of the students in a passive role. As testing has become a central, guiding (sometimes choking) force, technology has stepped in as a quick fix. Why wait for your students to read and take notes on a chapter? Instead the modern teacher can just show them a short video and digest the information for them in a snappy Powerpoint presentation with a corresponding note packet, and even review with a hands on game on the SMART Board.

But “hands on” means more than just having a student use their finger to drag and drop on a SMART Board screen. “Hands on” to me means so much more than an elementary student following textbook examples of base 10 models or snap cubes.

The point of hands on is to touch. To play an active role. To experience the learning. To feel. To experiment. To explore.

Take a look at your child’s textbooks, particularly at the elementary school level. You will see “Hands On Activity” every few pages. It is actually quite brilliant. It makes the textbook seem progressive and gives teachers an easy way to add collaborative work into their lesson plans, but is it really “hands on” learning? I would argue that often it isn’t more than lip service.

If the students were really doing “hands on” learning, then they would actually put their hands on more than just plastic manipulatives or computer screens. They would go where they could put their hands on real things. Teachers would fill their classrooms with interesting things for their students to put their hands on like artifacts, organisms, sticks, rocks, tools, old books with tattered yellowing pages, encyclopedias, and even people from different walks of life to share stories and shake hands.

With their hands on learning, students would be less distracted, frustrated, and disengaged. Learning is most powerful when it comes organically.

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