Too often the reform of science for K-12 students is described as being “hands-on.” Analyses of the “Hands-On” ideas for classrooms seem to miss how and why hands-on actually does not define needed reforms adequately. Hands-on often become merely directions students are expected to follow. Teacher directions also often refer to specific information included in textbooks or those found in laboratory manuals. Students are left out in terms of why their hands are to be used! They are not expected to think–just to do what they are told.
Do students really need to be directed and/or encouraged to use their hands, and, for what purpose? Are “hands” basic for “doing” science? What about thinking and questioning?
It seems once again that teachers, administrators, parents, and even NSTA members are only looking for quick fixes and things to keep students involved with their muscles and hands. There seems to be no real concerns for student thinking and/or their use of the ideas suggested for responding to their own questions. Further, there is rarely any attempt to relate the Hands-on ideas to the real nature of science itself.
Certainly not many scientists would indicate their work is related to their hands. Most need (and often develop) tools to test their ideas. But, they are not “directed” to do this! Hands-on misses vital ingredients of science envisioned by most current reforms.
Science starts with humans exploring the things encountered in nature. One uniqueness of humans is their interest in exploring the natural world. (It is there to be explored.) All humans (even when still in the mother’s womb) react to the objects, conditions, and events that they encounter. The human mind cannot be stopped until death.
Most love to do things with their hands–but it often has nothing to do with exploring nature. Some parents encourage children to play with toys. Too often, though, they are not encouraged to explore more deeply and/or to formulate questions, express interests, or suggest evidence which can be used to support their ideas and explanations.
Why is it so hard to encourage teachers to ask students and to encourage them to investigate, to offer ideas, to interact with others (especially other students) as well as with parents and local “experts” concerning their ideas?
If reforms are to be realized, we need to encourage more student ideas which are followed with questions about their validity and usefulness. These should also lead to a consideration of them in conjunction with ideas from others. Science is not like art in this respect. It requires collaboration.
Everyone, especially students in science classes, should be encouraged to question, to follow-up with evidence to support their ideas, to evaluate each idea for its validity, to consider other explanations and to share all ideas with others. “Hands-On” may be needed to develop tools to investigate student ideas. They might be of use in terms of evidence that can be offered. Evaluating the differences of the ideas from other students is part of science itself. It is what scientists do. Often collecting evidence involves technology, not science!
Professional scientists start with questions–not playing with tools. They do not start with directions described and/or actions suggested by others. Most often hands-on means doing what teachers, texts, and laboratory manuals suggest. The focus of science in classrooms is too often only words and explanations advocated by others. Teachers rarely encourage debate about questions or for the collection of evidence to validate the answers offered. Learning of real science does not happen if teachers or instructional materials continue to push for more “Hands-On” efforts assuming that such acts exemplify science. Instead there should be more attention to defining the actions needed and portray what science actually is. In fact, hands-on directions may hinder the learning and practice of real science!
–Robert E. Yager
Professor of Science education
University of Iowa
Image of students engaged in a science summer course courtesy of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory.