Sep 22 2023

From Theory to Practice: The Critical Need for Hands-On Learning in Schools

Annet Jepper

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In the hit summer movie “Barbie,” the audience enjoys an amusing look at what "real world" experiences are like for dolls that suddenly become human. But this isn't too far off the mark when it comes to school versus "real life" for students, who are often wholly unprepared to navigate life outside the classroom once they graduate. Learning from textbooks and lectures isn't quite the same as hands-on experience, which schools don't typically offer. 


Yet the need for students to gain practical, real-world experience has never been greater.


This primer explains the critical need in detail, highlighting schools that are leading the charge to change. For example, Delphian School offers a mastery-based curriculum that teaches students how to teach themselves anything they desire to learn. That's the ultimate real-world tool: to be prepared for change, no matter what diverse challenges the future may bring.


Kinesthetic Learning Turns on the Brain


When children learn by rote, they don't use their creativity to think beyond the box; they just absorb information that can be regurgitated on exams. While some learning obviously "sticks," this traditional model is no substitute for experiential learning that engages the whole child.


The nonprofit Brookings Institution uses the term "hands-on, minds-on" to illustrate that students who are engaged in applied activities boost their understanding and can more easily transfer learned skills into real-world scenarios. As a basic example, it means that, instead of answering a child's query, "Why does it rain?", their teacher would segment the class into small groups and take them outside to observe the precipitation and use critical thinking skills and ingenuity to report on why the water is falling from the sky.


Some other examples of kinesthetic (hands-on) learning include:


  • Re-enacting a historical event as part of history class. Speaking of movies, the film "School of Life," starring Ryan Reynolds, brilliantly illustrates the value of kinesthetic learning. The beloved new teacher in the film, "Mr. D," engages his students in historical reenactments and all manner of games and other activities that get the kids thinking and experiencing with their whole brain, using all five senses.
  • Writing poetry in English class, rather than simply reading it. It doesn't matter if the poems are any good: The children will experience what it's like to follow iambic pentameter or craft a haiku in the real world, which will deepen their appreciation for the art form in a way reading another's work cannot.
  • Creating a science experiment. There are safe, classroom-ready ways to teach hands-on science that children will enjoy, which is the ideal way to learn. And their retention will be far greater when both sides of the brain are engaged (left for listening/analyzing, right for visual/spatial information).


You Won't Say "Pay Attention" Very Often


When children actively engage in kinesthetic learning, the teacher probably won't need to remind them to pay attention; they'll be rapt. With their blood pumping and minds making critical connections that can lead to a joyous "ah-ha!" as they grasp a new concept, it's more likely you'll need to remind them to lower the volume if there's a class happening right next door.


Hands-on learning is excellent training for real-world collaboration. When working in small groups to solve a math problem, carry out a science experiment, or re-create an event, students learn teamwork, delegation, and how to handle change with aplomb and diplomacy.


Hands-on learning sharpens young minds. Teaching kids to juggle or dance increases coordination along with cooperation, and builds a thirst for knowledge that will serve them well all their lives.


Theory is a good place to start. It makes sense to get grounded in principle. But when schools focus on practice, they give young minds a chance to really shine as they explore what this learning might look like in the real world.


Tags: mastery-based curriculum,hands-on, minds-on