Perspectives of Hands-On
David L. Haury and Peter
8. How does or should the use of hands-on materials
vary with age?
Too often we assume that good teaching is good teaching. What works
well with one group of students will probably work well with others. But
we all differ in a lot of ways, and many of the differences we progress
through are age related. What are the implications for actively engaging
students with materials? What are the age-related factors that must be
- In the early childhood (ages 4-7) years, the process of exploring,
experimenting, and inquiring should be the major emphasis. The language
association should be primarily oral. In the middle years, the process
of inquiry should be followed, rather than preceded, by writing/ reading
experiences. Ruthanne McCarthy, kindergarten teacher, Gertrude M. Bailey
International School, Lowell, MA
- All students of any age should have hands-on experiences. As they become
older then they may use written materials to further the knowledge base.
The important thing is to be sure a student is cognitively ready for an
experience - without this the activity may be fun but no real learning
or understanding takes place. Bonita-Talbot -Wylie, Presidential Awardee
1990, President of SEPA, third grade teacher, Minnetonka Schools, Excelsior,
- I strongly believe that hands-on learning is for everyone. As an early
childhood educator, hands-on learning has always been a vital element of
developmentally appropriate learning. However, as an adult I look back
on the learning that I remember most and without fail it involved active
participation. Since when is fun only for children! Barbara Axene-Kidwell,
Disabilities Coordinator, Head Start Program, Columbus, OH
- There is no student too old for hands-on activities. Teachers, senior
citizens, etc., still enjoy learning and participating through activities.
The type of activity will vary with age, from observing, exploring, and
manipulating tangible objects and places at young ages, to thinking about
and trying out planned events at upper elementary, to manipulation of data,
maps, and remote images in high school. There is a period in which activities
are not cool (grades 8-9, 12, and middle age...), but seniors who go to
elder hostels and nature summits, etc., love to get involved in their own
learning. Isn't it sad how some people don't let themselves participate
because they don't want to seem unsophisticated or they think they can
learn just as much by watching others? Rosanne W. Fortner, The Ohio
State University School of Natural Resources, producer of Ohio Sea Grant
Education materials and Project JASON curriculum activities
Notes from the literature
- "Hands-on activities have a clear place within instructional models
that are built upon a constructivist view of learning. They can be used
at any point during inquiry-based instruction that strikes a developmentally
appropriate balance between the use of physical materials and verbal, reflective
interactions with other students and teacher. Hands-on activities are necessary
for developing concrete, experiential background especially for students
who have little exposure to experiences important for learning about the
natural world" (Flick, 1993, p. 6).
- Several research studies have been conducted to try to determine how
teachers are using hands-on science. Harty, Kloosterman, and Matkin (1989)
surveyed elementary school principals and concluded that teachers in the
upper elementary grades have more science manipulatives than teachers in
the lower grades. Teachers at the lower elementary grades spend 70 minutes
per week on hands-on science teaching as opposed to the upper elementary
teachers who spend 90 minutes per week.
- Manipulatives are used to teach science more frequently in grades 3-5
than in grades K-2, and problem-solving was given greater emphasis in grades
3-5 than in grades K-2 (Kloosterman & Harty, 1987).
- At higher grades, teachers report more time spent on teaching science.
In the NAEP report (Mullis & Jenkins, 1988) 70% of grade three teachers
reported spending two hours or less on science. For grade seven and grade
eleven, the percentage of science teachers that reported spending two or
less hours per week for a class was 17 and 10, respectively. It appears
as though elementary science teachers are spending a greater proportion
of their time using hands-on science activities. For example, in the NAEP
report card 44% of seventh grade students and 40% of third grade students
reported not having done any experiments in the previous month (Mullis
& Jenkins, 1988).
- From a sample of ERIC abstracts analyzed (n=782) during the years from
1970 to 1990, Rillero and Roempler (1993) determined the NSTA publication
for elementary school teachers, Science and Children, consistently
devoted more attention to science activities than did the NSTA publications
for high school teachers (The Science Teacher) and college teachers
(Journal of College Science Teaching). For example, the percentage
of abstracted articles mentioning science activities in 1990 for Science
and Children, The Science Teacher, and the Journal of College
Science Teaching were 93.0, 57.7, and 10.0, respectively.
- The importance of the early use of hands-on learning has been long
recognized. "The study of both plants and animals should begin in
the lowest grades, or even in kindergarten. One object of such work is
to train the children to get knowledge first hand. Experience shows that
if these studies begin later in the course, after the habit of depending
on authority - teachers and books - has been formed, the results are much
less satisfactory (National Education Association, 1893, p. 139).
- "Hands-on activities are critical for [elementary school] science
learning, particularly because elementary students are at the concrete
stage of their cognitive development" (Loucks-Horsley, et al. 1990,
p. 48). "Elementary school experiences are important for establishing
understanding of science concepts and developing needed skills for further
learning" (Howe, Blosser, Helgeson, & Warren, 1990, p. 33).
- In Britain, it has been proposed that the National Curriculum for elementary
school science be composed of 50 percent inquiry activities and 25 percent
for the secondary school curriculum (Tinker, 1993).
- Hands-on elementary science curricula can assist children in making
transitions from one Piagetian level of thought to the next (Kren,1979).
- The earlier teachers emphasize the concrete, sensual aspects of science,
the firmer the foundation will be for science learning. However, no matter
what the age of the student, "experiences form the basis of real learning.
Early in any science lesson, your students should begin their hands-on
experiences. Save the vocabulary words and textbook reading activities
for later as reinforcements of the lessons the students have already learned
firsthand" (Kotar, 1988, p. 40).
- Arons (1979) observed that college students doing the ESS Battery and
Bulb activity went through exactly the same sequence and pace as elementary
students doing the activity. "When these students are given a dry
cell, a length of wire, and a flashlight bulb and are asked to get the
bulb lighted, they almost invariably start by connecting the wire across
the terminals of the battery and holding the bottom of the bulb to one
battery terminal. They have no sense of the two-endedness of either the
battery or the bulb; few of them notice that the wire gets hot when connected
across the battery terminals and almost none infer anything from the observation
(Arons, 1973, p. 771).
- Hein (1987) argues that science educators need to do a better job of
determining when specific process skills should be learned. "In many
other fields - reading, music, mathematics, or sports, for example - a
sequence of progressively complex steps to help children achieve mastery
in a systematic way has been devised. In these fields, students learn new
fields while integrating them with earlier ones and practice using them.
But in science, we speak of observational skills, problem-solving skills,
and other skills, such as measuring, but we have not defined a progressive
development" (Hein, 1987, p. 10). Hein points out that observational
skills are one of the most important science skills; however, state and
local guidelines do not differentiate between the observations of a first
grader and those of an eighth grader.
It is interesting to note that the age-appropriateness of hands-on learning
strategies is less than clear cut. Though there is some agreement that
activities for younger students are developmentally more appropriate when
the emphasis is on skills associated with the concrete world, such as observing
and measuring, activity-based learning is appropriate at all ages. A theme
expressed repeatedly is that learners of all ages benefit from hands-on
learning. This is congruent with constructivist views of learning. When
coming to understand a new domain of knowledge, we all progress through
similar sequences of exploring, interpreting, and gaining meaning from
experiences. So, hands-on learning is not just for young learners; we all
construct our knowledge on an experiential base that must be developed,
sooner or later.
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