Why Learning Must Be Hands-On

 

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images: morguefile

Children are drawn to explore the world through their senses. (We all are, at any age.) When they are fully involved, what they learn is entwined with the experience itself. A child’s whole being strains against the limitations of curricula meant only for eyes and ears, or that assigns closed-ended tasks.

A typical school or school-at-home lesson intended to teach a child about worms may have diagrams of a worm’s body to label and a few paragraphs about the importance of worms, followed by comprehension questions. If the child musters up enthusiasm to learn more about worms despite this lackluster approach, there’s no time to do so because directly after the science lesson the child must go on to the next subject. When education is approached in this disconnected manner, the brain doesn’t process the information in long-term storage very effectively. It has no context in the child’s experience and no connection to the child’s senses.

On the other hand, a child encountering a worm while helping in the garden gains body memories to associate with the experience. The heft of a shovel, sun on her face, fragrant soil on her knees, and the feel of a worm in her hands provide her with sensory detail. She also encodes the experience with emotion. Her father likes to read books about soil health and sometimes she looks at the pictures. When she asks about worms he answers the few questions she has. And when she is satisfied he doesn’t go on to give her more information than she can handle. Next time they go to the library or get online they may decide to find out more about worms. She may be inspired on her own to draw worms, save worms from the sidewalk after the next rain, or otherwise expand on that moment in the garden. She is much more likely to retain and build on what she has learned.

The difference between these two approaches is worlds apart. Separating children from meaningful participation, as in the first example, doesn’t simply impair comprehension. It changes the way learning takes place. The child is made a passive recipient of education designed by others. Then the excitement of learning is transformed into a duty.

Education that treats the brain apart from the body will ultimately fail. Our senses cannot be denied. They inform the mind and encode memory. We must see, hear, smell, touch and, yes, taste to form the kinds of complex associations that make up true understanding. We humans are direct hands-on learners.

Brain development and hand use are inextricably intertwined. When neurologist Frank R. Wilson interviewed high achievers to understand this connection, he found that people credit their success to attributes learned through hands-on activities.  In The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture Wilson writes:

I was completely unprepared for the frequency with which I heard the people whom I interviewed either dismiss or actively denounce the time they had spent in school. Most of my interview subjects, although I never asked them directly, said quite forcefully that they had clarified their own thinking and their lives as a result of what they were doing with their hands. Not only were most of them essentially self-taught, but a few had engineered their personally unique repertoire of skills and expertise in open retreat from painful experiences in a school system that had dictated the form and content of their education in order to prepare them for a life modeled on conventional norms of success.

Hands-on experience makes learning come alive. For example, principles of geometry and physics become apparent while children work together figuring out how to stack firewood. They develop multiple layers of competence as they solve tangible problems. Their bodies are flooded with sensation, locking learning into memory. Such experiences develop a stronger foundation for working with abstract postulates, theorems, and formulas later on. (Household responsibilities are actually a vital way to incorporate more hands-on experience, with amazing long-term benefits.)

When we’re engaged hands-on something greater can come into being. We gain a sense of effortlessness, of becoming one with the movement. Then it seems we’re longer working with things, but with material partners in a process of co-creation. Work and play are one, we are whole within it.

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image: morguefile

Portions of this article excerpted from Free Range Learning.

 

Five Ways to Transcend the School Mindset

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School-like instruction has been around less than a fraction of one percent of the time we humans have been on earth. Yet humanity has thrived. That’s because we’re all born to be free range learners. We are born motivated to explore, play, emulate role models, challenge ourselves, make mistakes and try again—continually gaining mastery. That’s how everyone learns to walk and talk. That’s how young people have become capable adults throughout history. And that’s how we have advanced the arts, sciences, and technology. In the long view, school is the experiment.

But it’s hard to see beyond the school mindset because most of us went to school in our formative years. So when we think of education, we tend to view school as the standard even if we simultaneously realize that many parts of that model (found also in daycare, preschool, kids’ clubs, and enrichment programs) aren’t necessarily beneficial. Narrowing the innate way we learn can interfere with the full development of our gifts.

Here are five ways to get past the school mindset.

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Welcome divergent thinking

In today’s test-heavy schools the emphasis is on coming up with the correct answer, but we know that the effort to avoid making mistakes steers children away from naturally innovative perspectives. Divergent thinking generates ideas. It’s associated with people who are persistent, curious, and nonconforming. Research going back to the 1970’s shows that this generation of children are less imaginative and less able to produce original ideas. An extra whammy may very well be coming from increased participation in organized sports: more than a few hours a week appears to lower a child’s creativity.

This is dire news, because creativity is actually much more closely linked to adult accomplishment than IQ. In fact, 1,500 CEO’s listed creativity as the leading indicator of “leadership competency.”

We don’t have to instruct kids in divergent thinking, just nurture it. Children are naturally inclined to question and explore. Remain open to their enthusiasms, encourage them to identify and solve problems no matter how unusual, and welcome the learning power of mistakes.

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Value full body learning

School-like learning emphasizes the brain over the body. It narrows from there, emphasizing one hemisphere of the brain over the other with its focuses on left-brain analytical thinking. But children don’t learn easily when they spend so much time sitting still, eyes focused on a teacher or lesson or screen, their curiosity silenced and their movements limited. Children ache for more active involvement.

Research shows us that the rules necessary to keep a classroom full of kids in order all day, like being quiet and sitting still, can overtax a child’s ability to resist other impulses. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood development has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD. (One of those kids was my third child, whose “symptoms” disappeared once we took him out of school and figured out how to homeschool such an active child.) 

What we need to remember is that the mind and body are exquisitely tuned to work together. Movement allows sensory input to stimulate the brain as it absorbs a flood of information. This is the way the brain builds new neural pathways, locking learning into memory. (Check out A Moving Child Is a Learning Child by Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy as well as Spark by John J. Ratey for more on this.) Active, talkative, curious children aren’t “bad.” They’re normal.

If we look at movement we realize that even a very brain-y activity, reading, has to do with the body. Young children develop reading readiness in a variety of ways, including conversation and being read to, but also through physical activities that help their neurological pathways mature. These are activities children will do whenever given the opportunity, like swinging, skipping, climbing, walking, and swimming.

All the relentless activity of early childhood may very well be a sort of intrinsic wisdom built into them, because movement is key to keeping an active brain. Children who are more physically active actually increase the areas of their brains necessary for learning and memory. That doesn’t mean the antidote to the school mindset is a constant frenzy of activity. It does mean that children tend to self-regulate within loving safeguards. Every child needs to balance physical activity with other essentials like snuggling, daydreaming, and sufficient sleep. We simply need to remember that movement isn’t an enemy of education.

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Build on the “Goldilocks effect”

This term came from researchers who demonstrate that we are cued to ignore information that’s too simple or too complex. Instead we’re drawn to and best able learn from situations that are “just right.” Sort of like the educational equivalent of Goldilocks on a porridge-testing quest.

The Goldilocks effect means you are attracted to what holds just the right amount of challenge for you right now.  Usually that means something that sparks your interest and holds it close to the edge of your abilities, encouraging you to push yourself to greater mastery. That’s the principle used to hold a player’s attention in video games. That’s what inspires artists, musicians, and athletes to ever greater accomplishments. That’s how kids who follow a passion of their own tend to learn and retain more than any prepared lesson could teach them.

Our kids tell what they’re ready to learn. They tell us through what bores them and fascinates them, what they’re drawn to and what they resist. They’re telling us that, until they’re ready, learning doesn’t stick.

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Diminish the focus on instruction

The school mindset leads us to believe that children benefit from lessons, the newest educational toys and electronics, coached sports at an early age, and other adult-designed, adult-led endeavors. Well-intentioned parents work hard to provide their children with these pricey advantages. We do this because we believe that learning flows from instruction. By that logic the more avenues of adult-directed learning, the more kids will benefit. But there’s very limited evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value. In fact, it appears too many structured activities diminish a child’s ability to set and reach goals independently. 

When we interfere too much with natural learning, children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that real education has very little to do with instruction. Learning has much more to do with curiosity, exploration, problem solving, and innovation. For example, if baby encounters a toy she’s never seen before, she will investigate to figure out the best way or a number of different ways to use it. That is, unless an adult demonstrates how to use it. Then all those other potential avenues tend to close and the baby is less likely to find multiple creative ways to use that toy.

Studies show that “helpful” adults providing direct instruction actually impede a child’s innate drive to creatively solve problems. This experience is repeated thousands of times a year in a child’s life, teaching her to look to authorities for solutions, and is known to shape more linear, less creative thinking.

This isn’t to say that all instruction is bad, by any means. It does mean that six long hours of school-based instruction plus afterschool adult-organized activities in sports or recreation or screen time supplants the kind of direct, open-ended, hands-on activity that’s more closely associated with learning. Most of the time this kind of learning is called play.

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Recognize free play is learning 

Before a young child enters any form of schooling, his approach to as much of life as possible is playful. A walk is play, looking at a bug is play, listening to books being read is play, helping with chores is play. The school mindset separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. It leads us to believe that learning is specific, measurable, and best managed by experts.

A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Playful absorption in any activity is on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability in school. But play is essential for kids, for teens, for all of us. (For more check out these two marvelous and very different books: Free to Learn by Peter Gray and A Playful Path by Bernie DeKoven.)

Free play promotes self-regulation and this is a biggie. It means the ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control  —all critical factors in maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

That doesn’t mean a child’s entire day must be devoted to free play. There’s also a great deal to be learned from meaningful involvement in household responsibilities as well as community service.

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I want to nurture my children in such a way that they define success on their own terms. I hope that means they craft a life based on integrity, one that brings their unique gifts to the world. Homeschooling, for my family, gives us the freedom to go beyond narrow roads to success. (Democratic schools can also provide that freedom.) This is the way young people have learned throughout time. I’ve come to trust the way it works for my family.

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.