Why Is Hands-On Learning Important?

Waiting for the paper to expose.
Waiting for the paper to expose.

Today was a bright, sunny, not-your-typical-November day here in the lovely state of Virginia.  So I tabled the next lesson in the volcano project and decided to fling care to the wind.

We finally buckled down and did the art lesson (project?) that we’ve been holding off on because of nasty weather.  We did photograms: images made by putting objects on light sensitive paper.  More on that later: I’m writing a review for Fat Brain Toys on the Sun Art paper that we used.  It was very hands-on, very involved, and very kid-friendly.

A lot of the stuff we do is hands-on.  Who am I kidding?  MOST of the stuff we do is hands-on.  It’s partly an age thing, and it’s partly the way the Engineer learns best.  It works for us and I’m not going to mess with a good thing.  And while I know that the Engineer learns best this way, I’m not blind to the fact that my other 2 kids may not.   Still, doing hands-on stuff for school is a great way to keep kids involved and interesting no matter their learning styles.

What is hands-on learning?  Specifically, doing activities, projects, or experimentation to learn the concept.  It’s not really a stand-alone idea and really needs textbook support when you get to the higher levels of education.  How are you supposed to learn complex math concepts by doing math manipulatives?  Not going to work.

I felt a little guilty today.  Sure, the kids were having fun and creating things.  Were they learning?  What lesson were they taking out of this project?  I did make a mental list of things that they learned or practiced to help justify spending time on this project, but I shouldn’t need to do that.  They were having fun.  Why do I feel guilty about that?  Is it because art has become a word synonymous with “waste of time” in our education system and social system?

I’m feeling less guilty now that I read this study about college students’ brain scans proving that they learn more deeply when actively learning science concepts.  Scholastic, king of textbooks,  agrees that Hands-on is Minds-on.  One of the experts quoted in their article says:

“The more parts of your brain you use, the more likely you are to retain information,” says Judy Dodge, author of 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom (Scholastic, 2009).

In other words, moving, listening, and talking about the concept are not only critical to learning, but to keeping that information.  How many times did you read something from a textbook and promptly forget it?  I know I did exactly that in college – read it, learn it, forget it after the test.

Even kids who don’t learn kinesthetically (through movement) love getting down and dirty with learning.  Do you learn best about tadpoles by reading a textbook and doing a worksheet, or by hunting tadpoles and getting muddy?  The more fun something is the more kids will enjoy it and learn from it.  And that’s the goal, right?  To enjoy learning?  It’s certainly my goal!

It’s not just about learning either.  It’s about what kids do when they grow up.  Dr. Temple Grandin (who is an amazing person, by the way!) wrote an article for Huffington Post about the critical shortage of skilled workers in our country .  She talks about hands-on classes such as art, mechanics, woodshop and so on:

“These classes provide four important avenues for both education and success. They motivate kids who love hands-on activities to remain interested in coming to school and learning. They also teach practical problem solving and for some students, serve as refuges from bullies. A fourth and final advantage of teaching classes such as auto mechanics is introducing students to the highly skilled trades.”

She goes on to discuss that we’re lacking in people skilled enough to do things like fix cars or wire a house.  For whatever reason, our society doesn’t appreciate an electrician the way it appreciates a lawyer.  Hands-on skills are seen as lesser in many ways.

I was fascinated by Dr. Grandin way before I entered the world of 2e.  If there ever was a poster child for 2e, she has to be it.  Diagnosed with ASD as a child, she struggled with school and social life yet went on to become a PhD in animal science, a college professor, and a world-renowned animal expert.  Her story gives me hope.

Dr. Grandin specifically mentions art classes – the unappreciated facet of our education.  I shouldn’t have to remind myself of this (I’m an artist, for crying out loud!) but art matters.  Art matters in more ways than you think.  An article in the Boston Globe by study authors Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland concluded that art teaches specific skills:

“Such skills include visual-spatial abilities, reflection, self-criticism, and the willingness to experiment and learn from mistakes. All are important to numerous careers, but are widely ignored by today’s standardized tests.”

Yes, art, the epitome of hands-on, is crucial to learning life skills.  It’s not just something little kids do to make messes, or grownups do to make themselves feel special.  (All attitudes I’ve encountered, by the way.)

I’m feeling better about our education choices for the day.  We learned more, remembered more, and enjoyed the process.  That, in a nutshell, is why we’re homeschooling.



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