Unified Approach to Hands On Teaching

By Diego Fonstad

Hands-on learning is widely recognized as a critical component of 21st Century teaching.  However, translating this idea into practice has proven challenging for a number of reasons.  This is my attempt at providing a framework for effective hands on learning in the classroom.

What is meant by “hands on” learning?

A review of best practices in “hands on” or “learning by doing” teaching reveals that innovators in the space have tended to follow three general pedagogical foci or goals.

  • Math and ScienceThe value of teaching math and science through manipulatives and experiments is commonly accepted.  However, as grades progress and concepts become more complex or abstract it has been increasingly more difficult for teachers to identify and provided hands on experiences.  Additionally, experiments are often hampered by budget cuts and time constraints and the criticism that many are too formulaic and do not encourage critical thinking or true understanding of the principles they mean to teach.  Longitudinal research has shown that exposure to hands on experience has a positive impact on future participation in science.[1] The emerging focus on an integrated Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curricula has attempted to address this.  Leaders and innovators in this space include:  FIRST (http://usfirst.org); MIT Media Lab, (http://www.media.mit.edu/)  which has spawned numerous initiatives including the Transformative Learning Technologies Lab (http://tltl.stanford.edu/), Glenn Ellis from Smith College (http://talk2mebook.com/index.html) ; open source science initiatives (http://www.backyardbrains.com/, http://openpcr.org/ ) and others.[2]
  • Critical Thinking/Problem solving – Another focal point for hands on teaching has been around its use as a means of teaching critical thinking and problem solving.  A prominent proponent of this approach has been the Stanford d.School through what they have coined as  “design thinking.”   In Design Thinking, the hands-on building is a means, not a goal, towards a process of innovating and problem solving.  Innovation is achieved through a clear, comprehensive process within which the hands-on building is a tangible tool for communicating the idea.  Leaders and innovators in this space include the Stanford d.School (http://dschool.stanford.edu/), IDEO and the Nueva School (http://nuevaschool.org/)

Unifying the strands

It is possible to have a unified, purposeful approach to teaching that integrates the key benefits of all three pedagogical foci.  In doing so, there is the potential to create a more complete student, ready to take on true 21st century challenges.


In order to do this in a purposeful way, a clear set of rubrics must be developed to serve as a road map to classroom planning.  The framework is captured by the following graphic and the shaded area is a challenge to educators: how do we create a unified curricula that brings all students to a shared horizon, and then how do we help individual students extend along their areas of personal interest?

Curriculum Mapping Across Grades:

For most courses, the expectation would be that they cover only Introductory of Developing level of a handful of areas while others will focus on developing one specific row in greater depth.  Teachers would need to coordinate their goals across the grade to ensure that students are exposed to a broad range and depth of learning objectives.

As the students progress through the grades, they will enter the following grade with deeper and deeper progression through the lower parts of the axis while being exposed to the principles and expectations of the higher parts.  This rubric can therefore be used to ensure proper scaffolding as students proceed through the grades.  These rubrics could also serve for planning, tracking and evaluating independent projects.

[1] http://www.springerlink.com/content/027130lp53h7q511/

[2] This lists cited as examples are by no means meant to be exhaustive or complete, rather an indicative sample of innovators.  http://zombie-cat.org has more comprehensive listings