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What is Hands-on Learning and Why it is Used in the Classroom?

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What is hands-on learning and why should you use it in the science classroom?

Hands-on learning, also known as experiential education, promotes learning by doing.   When children are actively involved through hands-on activities, learning is best.  Perhaps it is best  summed up by the saying, “Busy hands equals busy minds”.

This approach is based on sound education psychology including Piaget's four stages of cognitive development:

Sensorimotor stage (babies and toddlers)

Pre-operational stage (toddler and early childhood)

Concrete operational stage (elementary and early adolescence)

Formal operational stage (adolescence and adulthood)

The majority of elementary children are most likely to be at the concrete operational stage. They are starting to think logically about concrete events and are beginning to form links between what they can see (concrete) and what they can't (abstract).  This linking process is vital when it comes to learning science as many scientific concepts are abstract but their effects can be seen.  For example, a child may experience the abstract concept of gravity by simply dropping a ball.  If you ask a child how the ball's descent could be speeded up or slowed down and allow him to experiment through a hands-on activity, he will be able to work through his ideas, alleviate his misconceptions, and learn new concepts and skills at his own pace.  You can clearly see that when children are engaged in hands-on learning they are actively involved in connecting the concrete to the abstract.

Here are just a few of the many benefits of using hands-on learning in the science classroom:

Increasing engagement

Most young children find it difficult to concentrate for a long time during a teacher’s explanation or a written activity.  By breaking up a lesson with a hands-on activity you can increase engagement in the lesson.  Also, if children are enjoying an activity they are very likely to be actively involved in it for much longer time and retain more of the information gained from it.

Encouraging experimentation

Children are naturally curious about how things work.  Using hands-on activities allows children to experiment and make predictions then test them in a safe environment where they don't have to worry about failure.  It also allows you, as the educator, to observe and question your students about what they are doing and why.

Fostering a love of science

We need to encourage more students to enter careers in STEM and promoting a love of these subjects through hands-on experiences at the elementary school level is vital.

Think back to your science lessons at school.  Which are the ones that you remember fondly? More often than not, the lessons involved some kind of experiment or possibly a field-trip.   These are good examples of hands-on learning. 

Working in groups

Using hands-on activities lends itself to group work.  If children are working in a small group they can see how others tackle problems and learn from one another.  They also can question and discuss what they have discovered.  They can practice their communication skills and improve their social skills.

Aiding understanding

Hands-on learning is a multi-sensory activity.  It encourages children to manipulate objects physically and verbalize what they are doing.  Using several parts of the brain like this helps make connections and aids understanding.

Forming independent learners

Yes, children can learn by listening to a teacher explain a concept or by watching a teacher’s demonstration but they will only learn the concept.  They will not learn the thinking and self-reflection skills associated with independent learning.  By incorporating hands-on activities into science lessons children will learn to be more independent, make decisions, ask relevant questions, and reflect and evaluate.  These are skills that are important in other areas of the curriculum and are also those skills they will take into adulthood.

So, now that you are aware of the many benefits, how can you incorporate hands-on learning into your science curriculum?

Choose the right activities

It is vital that you choose an activity so your students learn something!  It should be designed to appeal to the right age group, offer the correct level of challenge, and teach concepts in a way that helps children understand them.  There are SciTT Kits available for all areas of the science curriculum and they have been carefully designed to deliver all of the above.  They are arranged by grade level so you know your students will find them accessible.

Make it fun!

Hands-on learning has to be fun in order to be successful.  You want your students to be meaningfully engaged for as long as possible in order for learning to take place.  SciTT Kits have been chosen by teachers for over 10 years and we constantly modify them based on your feedback to make them even more interesting and exciting for your students.

Include assessment

As well as observing and questioning the students while they are involved with the activity, it is also useful to include some kind of written task for them to record what they have learned. This will enable the children to articulate and reflect on their learning and provide you with evidence of their progress.  Each SciTT Kit comes with worksheets that are ideal for this purpose.

Encourage group work

An important aspect of hands-on learning is the interaction between students.  They should work together, discussing their ideas and sharing findings.  You may wish to assign students roles to organize them.  For example, one can be the recorder who writes down any important findings and one can be the communicator who provides feedback to the rest of the class.

Hand over control

Many teachers find it difficult to allow students to take control of their own learning and this is understandable.  You may worry that the students are not carrying out the activity correctly or even that they are not learning anything at all.  The truth is that as long as the students are actively engaged with the activity they will be learning.  More importantly, they are learning at their own pace.  You take the role of facilitator and observe and question the students to guide them and encourage them to experiment.  You reassure them that there are no incorrect answers when experimenting.  But avoid the temptation to take over!  You may find the noise level rise in the classroom as children discuss the experiment and occasionally disagree with each other.  They generally get excited over the activity!  Hopefully, you can see how this slight negative would be greatly outweighed by the benefits of hands-on learning as you watch your students actively engage in learning science and increase their understanding of the concepts.

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