Perspectives of Hands-On
David L. Haury and Peter
Questions and Answers
1. What is hands-on learning, and is it just a fad?
Hands-on learning has become a common phrase in science education. Like
many other highly used terms and phrases, there are various interpretations
of what is meant by "hands-on learning." Rather than attempt
to offer a definitive operational definition, we present in this section
a variety of viewpoints on what is meant by hands-on learning in science.
Then we address the issues of whether hands-on learning is a new phenomenon
and whether hands-on approaches will continue to have a continual impact
on science teaching and learning in schools.
- Hands-on learning is learning by doing. To even imply that it is a
fad is to ignore what has been taking place in education, both formal and
informal, for years. Vocational education has always understood that if
you want someone to learn to repair an automobile, you need an automobile
to repair. If you want to teach someone to cook, you put them in a kitchen.
Whoever heard of teaching someone to swim in a traditional classroom? Likewise,
I do believe we are learning that in order to truly teach science, we must
"do" science. Jeff G. Brodie, fifth and sixth grade teacher,
East Side Elementary, Edinburgh, IN
- Hands-on learning involves the child in a total learning experience
which enhances the child's ability to think critically. The child must
plan a process to test a hypothesis, put the process into motion using
various hands-on materials, see the process to completion, and then be
able to explain the attained results.
Hands-on learning is not just a fad because it enables students to become
critical thinkers, able to apply not only what they have learned,
but more importantly, the process of learning, to various life situations.
Sister Judith Mary Frederick, fifth grade teacher, St. Mary's Elementary
School, Sandusky, OH
- Hands-on learning means many different things to different people.
It has become a slogan and is often used to describe any activities in
classrooms that use materials. As a slogan, it can easily become a fad.
Hands-on learning, however, is not simply manipulating things. It is engaging
in in-depth investigations with objects, materials, phenomena, and ideas
and drawing meaning and understanding from those experiences. Other terms
for this are inquiry learning, hands-on, and minds-on learning. Karen
Worth, Education Development Center Inc., Newton, MA
- The importance of student investigation of basic scientific principles
cannot be overstated. Hands-on learning is the only way students can directly
observe and understand science. As students develop effective techniques
for observing and testing everything around them, they learn the what,
how, when, and why, of things with which they interact.
These experiences are necessary if the youngsters of today are to remain
"turned-on" to science and become scientifically literate. Mathew
Bacon, Delta Education (publisher of SCIS 3, Delta Science Modules, ESS,
OBIS), Hudson, NH
- There is no doubt that there is more emphasis on hands-on materials
than in the recent past. That does not mean, however, that the hands-on
science activity ever passed away. Furthermore, good science programs cannot
exist without hands-on; I do not think it will ever pass away. I do think
that we must continue to emphasize the necessity of hands-on in science
curriculum, and I truly hope we can keep the hands-on component at a high
level. Jerald A. Tunheim, Project SMILE (Science Manipulatives in the
Learning Environment), Dakota State University, Madison, SD
- A hands-on approach requires students to become active participants
instead of passive learners who listen to lectures or watch films. Laboratory
and field activities are traditional methods of giving students hands-on
experiences. With the advent of classroom technology, students can now
participate in a non- traditional form of hands-on education through the
use of computers. This technology extends hands-on learning to include
minds-on skills. An example of this hands-on/minds-on learning is the unique
MarsLink curriculum project which provides data to students from the Mars
Observer spacecraft. This partnership brings near "real-time"
science to hands-on learning. Carol J. Stadum, The Planetary Society
(producers of Marslink teaching packets), Pasadena, CA
- Programs that are fun and clearly result in developing the curiosity,
competency, creativity and caring of learners must, by definition, represent
appropriate educational practices. The value of such programs does not
change, no matter when or what they are called. Julie Gantcher, Bronx
Zoo Education Department, producers of Pablo Python Looks at Animals, Bronx,
Notes from the literature
- "Hands-on activities mean students have objects (both living
and inanimate) directly available for investigation" (Meinhard, 1992,
- James Rutherford director of the science reform initiative, Project
2061, describes his view of hands-on science. "Hands-on quite literally
means having students 'manipulate' the things they are studying - plants,
rocks, insects, water, magnetic fields - and 'handle' scientific instruments
- rulers, balances, test tubes, thermometers, microscopes, telescopes,
cameras, meters, calculators. In a more general sense, it seems to mean
learning by experience" (1993, p. 5).
- "There are two ways that we find the term hands-on science in
common use today. The first, uses hands-on science to refer to a general
approach to instruction. Hands-on science can be thought of as a philosophy
guiding when and how to use the broad range of teaching strategies needed
to address diversity in contemporary classrooms.... The second way hands-on
science is commonly used is in terms of a specific instructional strategy
where students are actively engaged in manipulating materials, using called
a hands-on science activity" (Flick, 1993, pp. 1-2).
- Other terms for hands-on activities are materials-centered activities,
manipulative activities, and practical activities (Doran, 1990). According
to Hein (1987), materials-centered science is synonymous with hands-on
science and activity-centered science. The term hands-on is also related
to the use of manipulative materials. Elementary school mathematics teachers
have long been interested in the use of manipulatives to provide concrete
learning experiences (Ross & Kurtz, 1993). The Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors
defines manipulative materials as "instructional materials that are
designed to be touched or handled by students and which develop their muscles,
perceptual skills, psychomotor skills, etc." (U.S. Department of Education,
1990, p. 249).
- "The concept of hands-on science is predicated on the belief that
a science program for elementary children should be based on the method
children instinctively employ to make sense of the world around them. Science
must be experienced to be understood. These experiences should allow students
to be actively engaged in the manipulation of everyday objects and materials
from the real world. Children are by nature observers and explorers, and
the most effective approach to learning should capitalize on these intrinsic
abilities" (Shaply & Luttrell, 1993, p. 1).
- "Hands-on science is defined as any science lab activity that
allows the student to handle, manipulate or observe a scientific process"
(Lumpe & Oliver, 1991, p. 345). Hands-on teaching can be differentiated
from lectures and demonstrations by the central criterion that students
interact with materials to make observations, but the approach involves
more than mere activity. The assumption is that direct experiences with
natural phenomena will provoke curiosity and thinking, so, "recently,
a new twist has been added, and the topic is called Hands-on/Minds-on science"
(Lumpe & Oliver, 1991).
- "Teachers are now seeking to understand what students are learning
as a result of busy hands. This need is being expressed through the introduction
of new terms such as minds-on and heads-on science"
(Flick, 1993, p. 1).
- "The one metaphor that has become a password for good science
teaching is that science teaching should be hands-on. In recent
years, however, this metaphor has been enriched and expanded with the use
of the phrase 'minds on science'" (Hassard, 1992, p. 8). Despite the
simplicity and logic of using this approach, research indicates that the
recitation (discussion) is the most common method of teaching science (Hassard,
- Inquiry-oriented instruction is related to hands-on learning; however,
these terms are not synonymous (Haury, 1993b). Welch would have agreed
with this assessment. In the Project Synthesis report Welch states the
following: "Instruction in inquiry classrooms reflects a variety of
methods - discussions, investigation laboratories, student-initiated inquiries,
lectures, debates. . . . Science content and processes are inseparable.
'How do we know?' enters many conversations. Individuals, small groups,
or the entire class move easily from discussion to laboratory or other
'hands-on' activities." (Welch, 1981, p. 56).
- Karen Worth, chair of the teaching standards committee of the National
Science Education Standards Project defines hands-on activities as follows:
"Students work directly with materials and manipulate physical objects
to physically engage in experiencing science phenomena" (from Bruder,
1993, p. 23). Worth defines inquiry or discovery learning as follows: "Involves
the thinking, reading, writing, or research that gives meaning to hands-on.
Students probe, collect, and analyze data; draw conclusions; and ask new
questions" (Bruder, 1993, p. 23). Worth defines project- based learning
as follows: "Provides a real-life context for science learning. Students
have hands-on experiences with water, for instance, probing its properties,
then do a project (often with peers) to find out how water comes into and
leaves the school building."
- Hands-on learning can be thought of as comprising three different dimensions:
the inquiry dimension, the structure dimension, and the experimental dimension.
In inquiry learning, the student uses activities to make discoveries. The
structure dimension refers to the amount of guidance given to the student.
If each step is detailed, this is known as a cookbook style lab. These
types of activities do not increase a student's problem-solving abilities.
The third dimension is the experimental dimension which involves the aspect
of proving a discovery, usually through the use of a controlled experiment
(Lumpe & Oliver, 1991).
- Museums devoted to science are increasingly using a hands-on approach.
"The Exploratorium is a hands-on museum of science, art, and human
perception in San Francisco. It's been called a scientific funhouse, a
giant experimental laboratory, even a mad scientist's penny arcade"
(Doherty, 1992a, p. 2).
The historical roots of hands-on science teaching
- Science education in elementary schools first existed as selections
contained in the eighteenth and nineteenth century children's didactic
literature (Craig, 1957; Underhill, 1941).
- By the middle of the nineteenth century, approximately 20% of the pages
of the most popular introductory reading textbooks were devoted to science
selections (Rillero & Rudolph, 1992). For many students, this was the
only science education they received.
- Nineteenth century American schools had bleak learning conditions.
"Teaching was by rote and drill. Encouragement was by the rod. Obedience
(to God, parent and teacher) was the foundation rock for the mansion of
learning" (Withers, 1963, p. vii).
- Pestalozzi extended Enlightenment ideas into education by having students
learn from experiences and observation rather than from the authority of
the textbook and the teacher (Elkind, 1987; Rillero, 1993). "After
the experts in getting knowledge discovered that it was far more profitable
to examine real things and observe how they did work than merely to speculate
and argue about them, and that it was unsafe to trust the authority of
any man's opinion without testing it by its accordance with facts in nature,
the experts in education also began to advocate teaching by direct study
of things and experimental verification of opinions" (Thorndike, 1920,
- Pestalozzi's ideas of using objects for teaching were spread in America
in the 1860s. The Object Teaching Revolution occurred as a direct result
of teacher education (Rillero, 1993). This movement challenged the dominance
of the textbook in education and promoted active learning by students.
The evolution of methodologies used in science education including science
activities, field trips, and school science collections were influenced
by object teaching (Rillero, 1993).
- The Committee of Ten (National Education Association, 1893) was instrumental
in securing a permanent place for science in the American school curriculum.
The science committees repeatedly stressed the importance of object manipulation
by students. The Physics, Chemistry and Astronomy Committee recommended
"That the study of simple natural phenomena be introduced into the
elementary schools and that this study, so far as practicable, be pursued
by means of experiments carried on by the pupil" (National Education
Association, 1893, p. 118). They added, "The study of books is well
enough and undoubtedly important, but the study of things and of phenomena
by direct contact must not be neglected" (National Education Association,
1893, p. 119).
- The Natural History Committee of the Committee of Ten concurred on
the importance of direct concrete experience. They resolved that "the
study of natural history in both the elementary school and the high school
should be by direct observational study with the specimens in the hands
of each pupil, and that in the work below the high school no text-book
should be used" (National Education Association, 1893, p. 141).
- From object teaching and the stress on student activity, the project
method of learning came into existence. McMurray in 1921 wrote "It
is a truism of our educational creed that sensory impressions based on
object lessons and motor response form the primary basis of thought in
dealing with the later materials of knowledge. The project conceived and
executed by the child on the ground of his own experience is a still better
basis of our educational efforts because it sets up in children self- determination
and purposeful activity in a complete, natural and well-rounded unit of
effort" (p. 3). McMurray lists 37 student projects that could be done
in connection with school and home gardens. Other projects include "concreting
a basement floor; papering and decorating a family living room, building
a tree house, making a tool chest, supplying the kitchen with running water,
building and hanging a gate, constructing a corn crib, planning and laying
a tile for drainage" (p. 20). McMurray sums up the use of projects
in elementary school science as follows: "It is in these very projects,
objective and directly practical in the bearings, that children are best
able to see the meaning and value of modern science in its influence upon
life. What children in elementary schools need is not abstract scientific
principles, not the systematic study of any or all the sciences (an impossible
thing), but simple, objective, convincing demonstrations of the main ideas
and uses of science in the home and neighborhood and in the larger world
beyond. What could be better for children than to allow them to see these
tangible projects developing and working out their proper, practical influence
upon the conditions of life that surround them? These are preeminently
needful and instructive topics that should be given the right of way in
the elementary curriculum" (1921, p. 8).
- John Dewey "emphasized the same ideas about learning through activity
and child-centered instruction advocated during the eighteenth and nineteenth
century by Pestalozzi and Froebel.... The most representative feature of
Dewey's philosophy of education was his recommendation of the project method
of learning described by various followers as a purposive, problem-solving
activity carried on in its natural setting" (Smith, 1979, p. 187).
- "In more recent times, almost all the major science curriculum
developments of the 1960s and early 1970s promoted hands-on practical work
as an enjoyable and effective form of learning" (Hodson, 1990). "Since
the curricula innovations of the 1960s, the emphasis in laboratory activities
has been providing students with hands-on experiences" (Tobin, 1990,
- "During the late 1950s and the early 1960s considerable interest
focused on what should be taught and how it should be taught. During the
middle to late 1950s textbooks were used by most teachers as the principal
tool for teaching science.... The feeling was that if science for elementary
schools was to be improved there should be more care and emphasis on the
selection of content (facts, concepts, principles), reduction of the way
content was taught (sequence, articulation, examples, etc.), more emphasis
on processes of science, more 'hands on' science instead of reading about
science, and use of a greater variety of media and materials for teaching
science" (Helgeson, Blosser, & Howe, 1977, p. 17).
- "Imitating the work of the scientists in investigating the natural
world, usually in the laboratory, is found in all the new curricula. Whether
it is called inquiry, scientific process, or problem-solving, each curricula
group espoused the virtues of "hands-on" experiences to gain
greater insights into the basic concepts of science" (Welch, 1979).
These curriculum projects were tested and revised and provide a major impetus
for current hands-on learning initiatives.
- In 1978, McAnarney wrote "during the last 10-15 years there has
been an increased emphasis on the development of elementary school science
programs which stress a hands-on experience to teaching and learning. The
programs, many of the national curriculum project type, made their appearance
during the 1960s and the early 1970s. Within the past three or four years
so-called 'second-generation' programs, to distinguish from the 'first
generation' ones of the 1960s have emerged" (p. 31).
- "The term hands-on is so widely used that it is hard to believe
that it is something of a newcomer. It first surfaced in the late 1960s
meaning to learn how to use a computer by actually using one - hands-on
the keyboard, as it were. Although the computer people coined the term,
the idea of learning by doing is an ancient one in the arts and crafts,
and it has become a mark of good teaching in science and math" (Rutherford,
1993, p. 5).
- Hands-on learning is an important aspect of the current constructivist
epistemologies that suggest that people construct their own understandings
of the world. "Exemplary science learning is promoted by both hands-on
and minds-on instructional techniques - the foundations of constructivist
learning" (Loucks-Horsley, et al. 1990, p. 48).
- "After a quarter of a century, the familiar phrase hands-on science
is now a part of the everyday discussion of elementary science. Teachers,
administrators, publishers, and trade books all refer to the importance
of hands-on activities in science instruction. This is nothing short of
a revolution. Descriptions of science education at all precollege levels
have shifted from vocabulary and text material to activities, inventions,
and even project-based Olympics" (Flick, 1993, p. 1).
- There are a variety of ideas about what constitutes hands-on learning.
We have compiled views from teachers, curriculum developers, and other
writers to arrive at a general notion of hands-on learning in science which
encompasses its use in school classrooms, museums, and other learning environments.
From the collected responses and writings, we have come to consider hands-on
learning in science to be any educational experience that actively
involves people in manipulating objects to gain knowledge or understanding.
- An emphasis on actively involving students in learning has influenced
American schools since the 1860s. However, the term hands-on learning
seems to have emerged during the 1960s and may eventually fall into disuse.
However, the activity-based approach to learning implicit in the phrase
has long been important in science education and will likely continue to
be held in high esteem by science educators who hold a constructivist view
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