∆ Jackson

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 09 2014

Going beyond “Hands-On”

I have had some proud moments with my kids in the past week or so.  Why?

Yesterday, as my students in 1B were building solar ovens, one student, with his hands full of plastic wrap and working together with two other people to try to get the plastic wrap to go around their oven just so, turned to me and said, “Man, Ms K, I wish more teachers would do hands on stuff like this.”

I smiled because that is a high compliment.  And also it got me thinking.  Is hands-on the best kind of learning….and more importantly, WHY?

I have humbly (let’s face it, I have limited experience in my two years of teaching) come to the conclusion that there is hands-on doing and hands-on learning.  The biggest difference? Critical-Thinking. Problem-Solving.

Too often, we put some instructions and an activity in front of our kids and expect that because it is hands-on, they will learn!  I think that assumption is wrong.  I think that if kids are not thinking about what they are doing in the proper way, they will remember little other than that it was fun!  I cannot tell you how many great hands on experiments and labs I did in high school that I learned very little from.  I remember these labs still today, because they were a lot of fun and really interesting!  BUT I also remember that a few weeks after the lab, I could not recall for the life of me the concepts it was supposed to teach me.  Fun does not necessarily equal learning, although making learning fun certainly makes students more willing.

This has become so apparent to me this past week as my students were making solar ovens.  My students this year learned so much more about conservation of energy and how solar energy works than my students last year.  Not because last year we didn’t go “hands-on” and build solar ovens.  Not because last year my students didn’t enjoy building solar ovens (they loved it and told me over and over).  But because of the way in which I went about it.  Let’s compare…


I handed my students the materials they needed and instructions on how to build their solar ovens.
Students built solar ovens.
We studied the ovens and discussed how they work.
Students answered a series of questions about solar ovens and how they work.
Students tested their solar ovens by preparing their own food in solar ovens.


Students studied images and diagrams of solar oven precedents and make a list of the important factors they noticed kept popping up.
We looked at their lists and discussed why each factor was important and what role it played.
Students were given a list of possible materials and asked to design their own solar oven using those materials.
Students created a list of steps they would follow to build their solar oven.
Students built solar ovens that THEY personally had designed.
Students explained their finished product and wrote about why they think it will work well as a solar oven.
Students will (when the weather is nicer) test their solar ovens by preparing their own food, as well as measuring temperature changes in each oven and comparing the designs of the ovens to how quickly it heated up or how high of a temperature was reached.

See the difference?
This year, my students were not just following instructions, but making their own.  They were not just DOING hands-on, but they were LEARNING hands-on.  Not just that, but they were more invested in their learning, because they came up with that design on their own.  As anyone who has ever been in design school (me) knows, things we design become very personal to us.  Even the images are more exciting.  Last year, each oven looked exactly the same.  Each oven worked the same.  This year, we have a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and designs to test out.  You can see the unique stamp of creativity and innovation that each students and group has put on their own solar ovens.

Now, as I look at the stacks of solar ovens that really beautifully clutter the corners of my room, I am asking myself, will they work better than the ones we made last year?  That was the students’ ultimate goal.  To build a better solar oven.  Some might work better.  Some might do about the same.  And many might NOT work as well as the ones we did last year.  But honestly, that doesn’t matter.  My students have so much more to learn from these solar ovens than the boring ones we built last year.  They will analyze their design and problem-solve about what could have made them better and they will be able to speak intelligently about it and explain why that would be better.  THAT is what science is about.  Science is not following a set of directions.  Science is not about answering a set of questions.  Science is about doing and learning and thinking critically to solve real-world problems.  Science is about sometimes getting it wrong.  Science is about learning from those mistakes.  Too often we opt to have students sit and follow directions, even in hands-on activities, because we don’t want students to get it wrong, we want them to absorb the correct information.  We don’t want to confuse them.  In reality, we don’t give them enough credit.  We don’t trust students learn from their mistakes.  We don’t trust students to mess up and move on and think through problems and make their OWN positive CONCLUSIONS!

As my students were working last week, I saw them creating and problem solving and figuring out how these things actually WORK!  One of my favorite moments was when a group of young ladies from my 2A asked me if I could turn out the lights so they could use the flashlight on their phone to check how the angle of the sun would affect light reflecting into their solar oven.  Of COURSE I complied and it was so exciting to watch them as they analyzed the “sun angle” they were making with their flashlight and how much light was entering their oven.

I don’t think I have hands-on perfected or anything like that.  Even this year, I know there have been hands-on activities that could have involved more critical thinking, more creating, more ownership, and therefore more learning.  But including engineering opportunities in my classroom has taken hands-on to the next level.  Making students not just work with their hands but think for themselves and come up with their own conclusions.  Think about the ownership this builds.  If we want to students to find their education relevant, if we want students to own their education, we must give them those opportunities.  And it comes not through doing hands-on, but through learning and thinking hands-on.


[Note: Right as I finished writing this, one young man who is a repeat in my class (failed last year) came in and was looking over the solar ovens he and his classmates created.  He said to me, "How come we didn't do it like this last year?  Last year you just gave us instructions and we had to build it a specific way." : ) Out of the mouths of the babes.  I explained to him I was actually just writing about how much better it was this year.  He agreed.  Also, he is passing my class year.]


I dedicate this post to Papa John’s on Northside Dr. and Pizza Shack for generously donating pizza boxes to my classroom TWO year in a row!  THANK YOU!

2 Responses

  1. Courtney

    What a fantastic idea!!!

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