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It was the first Friday of the first week of my first year as a teacher and I was determined to have students engage in a hands-on learning activity. My students were going to solidify their understanding of the five themes of geography by creating collages that represent each of them. I had spent weeks asking friends and family for old magazines. I had hit up every back-to-school sale and purchased an absurd amount of glue and cardstock and tempera paints.

This was going to be epic.

But it wasn’t epic. Not even close. Three of my classes finished early, which meant most students wandered around talking while I frantically looked for places for the paint to dry. In one class, a group of students decided to smear paint on their faces. In another class period, most of the students didn’t even get started on the mini-project.

The next year, I tried the same activity but this time with clear procedures and expectations. Things ran smoothly. However, I left with a nagging sense that it was a wasted class period. Yes, students had fun. But did they really learn anything?

As a pre-service teacher, I had a professor who shared Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning. The idea is that students remember only 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear,  30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they say and write, and 90% of what they do as they perform a task. It should be noted that Dale never actually included those percentages and that he created the cone as a simple visual representation of using multiple modalities in teaching.

I had designed this collage activity as a way to increase the retention of this knowledge. I believed that hands-on learning would make things “stickier.” However, I had actually created an activity that involved hands-on learning without minds-on learning.

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When Hands-On Learning Isn’t Really Learning

When I was in the fourth grade, we created sugar cube models of the California missions. We didn’t talk about colonization or even consider the Native American perspective. Instead, we glued sugar cubes on top of sugar cubes on top of sugar cubes. Most of us ended up taking our missions home, which meant other kids had immaculately designed missions that their parents had created. Meanwhile, mine was a half-melted mess because apparently sugar cubes melt when you decided to use hot glue.

I didn’t learn anything about the California missions from making this model. I’m sure that there were some small skills I might have gained, in terms of crafting. However, unlike a true STEM challenge, I didn’t design anything new. There was very little creative thinking that went into the project. Jennifer Gonzalez calls these projects Grecian Urns, based on an activity her child did in school that involved constructing an urn modeled after ancient Greece without actually exploring the history of the Greek city-states.

I recently had a teacher candidate talk to me about her practicum. “I’d like to do project-based learning or try out a game-based learning mini-unit but we are spending three weeks on maps. They spend most of the time coloring in the map with colored pencils.”

By contrast, there are many learning tasks that aren’t “hands-on” that lead to deeper knowledge. When I taught a self-contained middle school class (all subjects), we spent forty minutes a day on silent reading. My students engaged in deep, imaginative world-building in fiction. They understood profound truths through the power of story. When reading non-fiction, they geeked out on ideas and understood concepts at a deeper level. There was nothing “passive” about reading because their minds were actively engaged. The same is true of Socratic Seminars, debates, and discussions.

And yet, I still believe in using hands-on learning for student projects. When hands-on learning is tied directly to the standards, students often understand the concepts at a deeper level. When the tasks are inherently meaningful, hands-on learning becomes a bridge between the abstract and concrete.

How do we fix this?

So, we need to go beyond having students color in maps with colored pencils. But how do you craft meaningful hands-on learning experiences? Here are a few diagnostic questions to help guide the planning process.

Is the hands-on learning tied to specific standards?

When I taught eighth grade, my students created model roller coasters that they designed using upcycled materials. This project required a conceptual understanding of forces and motion, which they had to label in their visual plans and in their explanation of how the roller coaster worked.

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When they engaged in various STEM challenges, we tied each challenge to the NGSS standards and to the STEM process and ISTE standards. This way, we could assess via observation, student conferencing, and rubrics. Students also engaged in self-reflection and self-assessment.

Are students thinking critically?

As a quick divergent thinking exercise, I have given students a set of items and asked them to design something new. At times, they had a specific item they had to create (like a bridge in science). Other times, they had to do rapid prototyping and create a quick “pitch” in the form of a persuasive advertisement (which we tied to persuasive writing in language arts).

This process was fast. Students brainstormed individually, followed by a group brainstorm, a moment to clarify the idea, and rapid prototyping in the moment. You can check out the prompt below.

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Note that this mini-project has a specific goal of developing divergent thinking:

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This is a sharp contrast to the collage project which involved very little analysis and no true creativity. Which leads to my next question . . .

Are students engaged in creative thinking?

When I first had students create projects, I created detailed project papers with step-by-step instructions for how to accomplish the project. I set all the deadlines, broke down all the tasks, and created all the concepts. In other words, I engaged in all the ideation for my students. When students got frustrated and said, “I don’t get it,” I would respond by creating clearer instructions. Although I believed my students were artists, I had handed them a paint-by-numbers set of directions.

As we shifted toward design thinking, I began to let go over control and instead trust students to generate their own ideas. With design thinking, students ask their own questions, engage in their own research, generating their own ideas, create their own prototypes, and ultimately revise their work until they launch it to an audience:

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Suddenly, we had twelve projects that were different from each other. Students were coming up with concepts I hadn’t even considered.

I love the way Chris Lehmann puts it:

Is there meaningful discourse occurring within the activity?

The best hands-on learning experiences include conversations that help students make sense of the content through peer conversations. There are natural points of reflection and discussion that help students wrestle with ideas. Moreover, there are moments of peer assessment, where peer discourse helps students build metacognition. For example, in the LAUNCH Cycle, students engage in peer discussions when they pose questions, share their research findings, generate ideas, clarify ideas, plan their projects, and engage in peer feedback.

Similarly, when you create a hands-on game or simulation, the deeper learning often occurs in the midst of it as you engage in meaningful discourse. For example, when my students learned about the Industrial Revolution, I created an assembly line and manipulated the labor market. We talked about supply and demand, organized labor, environmental impact, and social changes that occurred as a result of industrialization.

When this happens, students move through the metacognition cycle:

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However, this can be challenging to plan. On one hand, it helps to provide students with specific structures for peer assessment. There are definitely times when we want to embed reflective questions into our lesson plans to help facilitate this discourse. On the other hand, too much structure can disrupt deep work and prevent students from hitting a state of flow. As a teacher, I have never gotten this balance right. I’m always moving between too much structure and not enough structure. But I’ve realized that this dance back and forth is the art of teaching. Every group is different. Each class has its own idiosyncratic rhythm. Students arrive with different needs and personalities and skill levels. The beauty is in the imperfection.

Does it matter to the students?

This is, perhaps, the most obvious question. However, it’s easy to overlook. The best hands-on learning projects are the ones that matter the most to students. Students tend to care more when there is an authentic audience and a connection to the broader world. They also care more when they have ownership of the process.

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Here, they ask their own questions, engage in their own research, generate their own ideas, select their own materials, and revise with their own feedback. As a teacher, I get to be the guide, helping them with reflection and providing moments where I can do a mini-lesson to solidify a necessary skill.

However, it doesn’t have to be a larger design thinking project. Game-based learning can be an excellent hands-on method for teaching students new concepts. For example, I used to teach economic systems (communism, capitalism, and socialism) with a modified version of Monopoly. My students learned about the causes of World War I through a game similar to Risk. It might even be a hands-on simulation, like a prey and predator game of tag or a simulated assembly line used to teach the industrial revolution.

Revise the Lesson

The five themes of geography collage was a hands-on activity that lacked the minds-on components. It was a fun activity but it didn’t really engage students on an intellectual level. But I actually didn’t reject the activity in its entirety. Instead, I met with two other teachers who helped me brainstorm ways to revise the mini-project for the next year. The first thing we did was turn the collage into a collage concept map, where students used colored pencils to draw connections between the themes. Suddenly, they were not only finding pictures that represented the themes but they were also finding unlikely connections and engaging in connective thinking. Next, they explained their collages to a peer using their phones to record the audio. These short discussions helped incorporate meaningful discourse. I used sample questions and sentence stems to guide my ELL students in this process. It might not have been our most noteworthy mini-project. However, it was still a powerful way to solidify what they had learned in geography.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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