The idea of hands-on learning is not a new concept – having roots in constructivism, a developmental theory generally attributed to Jean Piaget (source). Constructivist theory proposes that children learn and develop mainly through two ways: accommodation and assimilation.
Accommodation is when one’s own mind adjusts what happens to fit one’s own experiences. It can be understood by the idea that failure leads to learning. When one fails to accomplish a task, the brain can evaluate what went wrong, and work to correct the mistake the next time.
Assimilation is when something outside of a framework, is incorporated into that framework without changing it. As individuals grow, they take new experiences and place them within a framework of other experiences of a similar nature. Think of the Borg-race from “Star Trek: First Contact.”
Hands-on learning puts the tools into the students’ hands (literally) to allow them to make those connections between theory and application.
David A. Kolb (b. 1939), an educational learning theorist, believes that learning is a process by which knowledge is created through experience (paraphrased). He developed a four-stage cycle of learning. Kolb says that one may start at any of the four stages, but each stage must follow in order.
These stages are:
- Concrete Experience
- Reflective Observation
- Abstract Conceptualization
- Active Experimentation
Kolb also identified four learning styles which correspond to these stages; for more information look here.
What does this have to do with hands-on learning?
Hands-on learning is taught through the use of materials. A quote from an article on scholastic.com says this:
As students put projects together, create crafts, or use familiar materials in new ways, they’re constructing meaning. “Kids learn through all their senses,” says Ben Mardell, PhD, a researcher with Project Zero at Harvard University, “and they like to touch and manipulate things.” But more than simply moving materials around, hands-on activities activate kids’ brains.
Kids, adolescents, adults – learners of all ages can benefit from hands-on learning. That same article goes on to say this:
When you combine activities that require movement, talking, and listening, it activates multiple areas of the brain. “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). “If you’re only listening, you’re only activating one part of the brain,” she says, “but if you’re drawing and explaining to a peer, then you’re making connections in the brain.”
I could not agree more! I would use materials and object lessons as often as I could when I taught at KPS (Korea Poly School – a private kindergarten and after-school elementary program). I would bring in objects related to that day’s lesson and then ask the students comprehension questions of my own once I finished explaining the lesson. For the most part, the kids could tell me what they learnt and use the target vocabulary, too.
I could definitely tell a difference between how well the students would understand the material on the days I would not use objects and materials (some lesson topics could not use objects as well as others).
The younger the students, the more often materials should be used (when applicable). Children, especially elementary and kindergarten students, have short attention spans; hands-on learning gives them the opportunity to use their senses and also holds their attention for a longer period.
Children are naturally curious and this way of learning takes that curiosity, and turns it into the perfect opportunity for growth! So, if you have the chance to use materials to facilitate hands-on learning in your classroom, take it!