"Hands-On" vs "Minds On" in Science
Your child's school keeps on expanding "hands-on" "discovery"
activities in science class, and you're wondering, "But when are they actually
going to learn anything?"
And yet it is difficult to resist the allure of hands-on activities.
When you visit a class of second graders dropping things into bowls of water
and making notes on which things float, what you first see is a roomful
of happy kids, pretty much enjoying what they're doing.
Only upon reflection does a glimmer of doubt set in: What,
if anything, were those kids actually learning?"
Those who argue in favor of discovery learning like to frame the
argument in terms of either-or: Should children merely learn boring
facts, or should they immerse themselves in hands-on activities?
The problem is that's a straw man argument:
No one is arguing that knowledge
is a substitute for understanding, only that it is a prerequisite
for understanding. The education theorists want to portray
content knowledge as a poor substitute for understanding,
as though we were arguing for priming a wall instead of painting it.
But just as a wall must be prepared and primed before final paint
coats are applied, understanding of science is crucially dependent
on acquisition of a vocabulary and base of knowledge about science.
Knowledge is the basis for understanding, and when that base
knowledge is developed or developing, hands-on activities can
add vitality and engagement.
"Hands-on investigative activities ought to
be sprinkled into a science program
like a 'spice'; they cannot substitute for a 'main dish'."
Dr. Stan Metzenberg|
- Projects vs. Learning:
The heavy use of so-called "discovery" projects in science often
has more to do with fashionable au courant theories than it
does about learning science. The constructivist, "discovery"
theory of education is responsible, indeed, it is at the root of
much of the wasted time and lack of substance in all subjects
in K-12 education.
For much more on this, we have devoted a full
section of this website to the question of
Projects vs. Learning
"Minds-On" Science Education, Science News, April 27, 1996. A professor of biology writes,
"... there comes a time, starting in middle school or high school, when
students must acquire a body of knowledge. How can they do this and
still have the hands-on science that everyone is calling for?
Hands-on science moves far too slowly for them to acquire a body of knowledge."
Another person writes,
"Having students formulate and carry out experiments is an important
part of their education. ...
However, making this the main curriculum is misguided. In doing
research, students learn facts at a snail's pace. If they are ever to
become scientists, they need to stand on the shoulders of those who
came before them.
For a more thorough overview of this topic, read Dumbing
Down Our Kids by Charles J. Sykes. Meanwhile, parents need to insist on proven
techniques in the education of their children."
"In doing research, students learn facts at a snail's pace."
- Which Ionic Compound Would You Like To Be?
by Margaret White, Globe And Mail [Canada]
June 16, 2005.
"Attention, parents. Teachers don't teach science the way they used to. ...
If you're interested in scientific literacy, you may be
interested in the trendy notions that have infected modern science teaching.
Drill 'n' kill has been replaced by something called discovery learning, in which
students are encouraged to stumble across the theory of relativity all by
"That's not all. Science teachers are encouraged to make their material accessible
and touchy-feely, so kids will feel good about it. 'If you were transformed into
an ionic compound, which would you be?' asks a sample test question included in
Nova Scotia's official science curriculum. No, this question isn't for Grade 5s.
It's for Grade 11s. In British Columbia, Grade 11 (!) students are instructed:
'You are a moss. Describe your experiences.' ...
"You are a moss.|
Describe your experiences."
"Experiential, child-centred learning is the order of the day. Drop in on any
science class and you're likely to discover groups of kids huddled together doing
projects as the teacher looks benignly on. The teacher is there not to instruct,
but to facilitate. This is fine as far as it goes. But it's gone overboard.
'Little Emile is supposed to go out and investigate things as if he were
Archimedes and Newton all rolled into one,' says [one teacher]"...
"There's a fair bit of evidence that teacher-led instruction, high expectations
and frequent tests work better than child-centred learning, especially in the
early years. There's also quite a bit of evidence that people who have a
background in and passion for their subject are better teachers than those who
don't. But who needs evidence? The real question is, which ionic compound would
you like to be?"
- In Scientific American (November 1997), Douglas R. O. Morrison writes a review of
Alan Cromer's book
Connected Knowledge: Science, Philosophy, and Education.
This review is not now available online (except as a
purchase), but here are some excerpts:
"I began to wonder some years ago why my children were learning
science in such a crazy fashion. Teachers told them to do lab
experiments but gave them no textbooks or notes to explain why they
were doing those experiments or what they meant--evidently, the
students were supposed to work it all out for themselves.
"At a PTA
meeting, I protested and was told that this was the new fashion in
education. None of the other parents, I was informed, had made any
complaint, except the ones who were scientists. This circumstance
seemed to me to indicate a problem.
"Most scientists have never heard
of the 'Science Wars'; they are too busy working to worry about how
sociologists think their enterprise progresses. But it is becoming
increasingly common knowledge that a harmful vision of science has
been steadily taking over education in schools
I often hear American scientists lament the low standard of education
in their public schools. After reading Cromer's explanation of how
constructivists have worked their ideas into science teaching
programs and introduced their nonscientific ideas, I can well
understand how these actions have exacerbated the problems."
Improving Mathematics and Science Education: A Longitudinal
Investigation of the Relationship Between Reform-Oriented Instruction
and Student Achievement (PDF), Rand Corporation, 2006.
When someone announces they are going to study "Reform-Oriented Instruction" you have to think that they're
going into the project laden with a bias. Nonetheless, this impressive study comes up with some
surprisingly candid observations about constructivist
math and science. For example:
"weak ... nonsignificant ... weak ... negative ... nonsignificant ... weak ... less effective"
- "Despite large investments in the
promotion of reform-oriented curricula and instruction, the evidence
supporting the effectiveness of these practices in raising mathematics
and science achievement is relatively weak."
- "The first research question concerned the relationships between exposure
to reform practices and student achievement. We found that exposure
to reform-oriented instruction generally had nonsignificant or
weak positive relationships to student achievement in both mathematics
and science, with the exception of groupwork-related practices in
mathematics (for which the relationships were negative)."
- "The second research question asked whether the relationship was
affected by the way achievement was measured. ... findings
suggest that relationships between instruction and achievement
can depend on how achievement is measured."
- "We found nonsignificant or weak positive relationships between
reform-oriented instruction in mathematics and science and student
achievement measured using multiple-choice tests."
- "Many teachers believed
that the reform-oriented practices were likely to be less effective than
other kinds of practices for promoting high scores on state accountability
- "Perhaps the most important unanswered question regarding
reform-oriented instruction concerns benefits and costs. [These] mathematics
and science initiatives [are] relatively expensive... And, although they appear to
have had some effects on mathematics and science teaching, this study
did not address whether these changes in practice and the associated
improvements in achievement were worth the cost."
Igniting a Fire to Learn
by Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2006.
"Prodded by an unusual teacher, kids at 112th Street Elementary 'eat, drink, breathe science' --
and take on a top charter school. ...
Jazmani Busby has learned things in her nine years that no child
should have to learn.
She has learned to drop to the floor at the sound of a gunshot. She
has learned what an AK-47 looks like. ... Jazmani, a lifelong
resident of the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts, doesn't
like to talk about these things. When she calls her best friend,
Raquel Hernandez, the two fourth-graders are much more eager to talk
about something else they've learned, something that makes them
bubble with excitement. Science.
Their mothers have gotten used to it. The phone will ring, and
Jazmani and Raquel will start gabbing about exoskeletons and
endoskeletons, arachnids and crustaceans, photosynthesis and cell
'Science is my life,' Jazmani explained. 'I eat, drink, breathe
science. I just love science.' ...
Principal Brenda Manuel says, 'The kids are just on fire about science.' How did this happen? ...
The children of 112th Street are on fire about science because a
teacher named Stan White came into their lives last fall like a
blowtorch -- a large blowtorch with a wide smile, a shaved head, a
crisp no-nonsense manner and a deep-seated belief that these children
are as capable of excelling as any children anywhere. ...
It's old-fashioned and rote, and it seems to work."
Editorial: Less Fun, More Science
Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 29, 2006:
"... As part of the long-running Trends in International Math and
Science Study (TIMSS), researchers videotaped eighth-grade science
classes in four high-achieving countries and the United States.
An exhaustive analysis of the recordings, released this month, shows
that teachers in the United States spend markedly more time than
international peers working to motivate students with games and
puzzles. U.S. students also spent more time than others doing
activities without a direct link to learning actual scientific
concepts, and were held to lower expectations in taking
responsibility for their own science learning. ...
teachers abroad seemed to feel less need than American teachers to make science
'fun' and instead focused squarely on conveying information."
"U.S. students ... spent more time ... doing activities without a direct link to learning"
- Often, the best judge of effective teaching is a student,
rather than ivory tower theorists or teachers steeped in the latest fads.
From our page on Scary Web Postings,
here is a terrific exchange between a young teacher and a student:
[A teacher posts this message:]
What teaching or other methods have you found to be
successful in motivating and stimulating students to learn,
especially college or HS biology/science? Active learning
ideas? Group activity ideas? Lab based instruction methods?
Problem sets / case studies?
[A student replies:]
I am a college junior currently taking
a Physical Science course
... I think that it is probably the worst class that I have ever taken,
the instuctor doesn't
teach. She basically stands in front of the room, mentions something
and then has the class discuss it in small groups. ...
Also, almost all of the class activities are done in groups. Even part
of each exam is a group problem. I think that some group work is okay,
but not all the time. I like to do projects on my own because I can get
them done and not have to wait for the rest of my group.
- From the excellent book Dumbing
Down Our Kids by Charles Sykes, Amazon
has provided an excerpt that includes a "scene from the front"
featuring an eighth-grade class bored to tears by a science
program that is heavy on "hands-on" meaningless activities but
light on learning:
"Scenes from the Front: Andrea's Complaint.".
The Equivalence of Learning Paths in Early Science Education: Effects
of Direct Instruction and Discovery Learning (PDF) by David Klahr and
Milena Nigam, Psychological Science, 2004. The conclusions of this study merit special emphasis:
"We found not only that
many more children learned from direct instruction than from
discovery learning, but also that when asked to make broader, richer
scientific judgements the (many) children who learned about
experimental design from direct instruction performed as well as
those (few) children who discovered the method on their own."
Empirical Evidence About Science Learning From Unguided Instruction,
(PDF) excerpt from paper
Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work:
An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based experiential and inquiry-based teaching
by P. A. Kirschner, J. Sweller, and R. E. Clark, Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86 (2006).
"The work of Klahr and Nigam (2004), discussed earlier, unambiguously
demonstrated the advantages of direct instruction
in science. There is a wealth of such evidence. A series
of reviews by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has recently
described the results of experiments that provide evidence
for the negative consequences of unguided science instruction
at all age levels and across a variety of science and
math content. McCray, DeHaan, and Schuck (2003) reviewed
studies and practical experience in the education of
college undergraduates in engineering, technology, science,
and mathematics. Gollub, Berthanthal, Labov, and Curtis
(2003) reviewed studies and experience teaching science and
mathematics in high school. Kilpatrick, Swafford, and
Findell (2001) reported studies and made suggestions for elementary
and middle school teaching of mathematics. Each of
these and other publications by the U.S. National Academy
of Sciences amply document the lack of evidence for unguided
approaches and the benefits of more strongly guided
instruction. Most provide a set of instructional principles for
educators that are based on solid research. These reports
were prepared, in part, because of the poor state of science
and mathematics education in the United States. Finally, in
accord with the ATI findings and the expertise reversal effect,
Roblyer, Edwards, and Havriluk (1997) reported that teachers
have found that discovery learning is successful only
when students have prerequisite knowledge and undergo
some prior structured experiences."
"Discovery learning is successful only when students have prerequisite knowledge"
Instruction Versus Exploration In Science Learning:
Recent Psychological Research Calls "Discovery Learning" Into Question
by Rachel Adelson, Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, June 2004.
Subhead: "Klahr's controlled studies demonstrate that, at least for many of the multistep
procedures used in science, direct instruction works and generalizes better." Excerpts:
"direct instruction works and generalizes better"
"Welcome to the fourth-grade science fair, with its baking-soda
volcanoes, bread mold grown in drawers, proud parents and thoughtful
judges. The teachers can't help but wonder if the young would-be
scientists can tell good science from bad. In science, how is
critical thinking best taught?
This question may be answered by David Klahr, PhD, a psychology
professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Milena Nigam, a research
associate at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biomedical
Informatics. They have new evidence that 'direct
instruction' -- explicit teaching about how to design unconfounded
experiments -- most effectively helps elementary school students
transfer their mastery of this important aspect of the scientific
method from one experiment to another. ...
[D]iscovery learning has persisted, [Klahr] says, partly because of a lingering notion
that direct instruction would not only be ineffective in the short run, but also
damaging in the long run.
Piaget thought interfering with discovery blocked complete understanding.
More recent cognitive research, says Klahr, shows that 'this is just plain wrong.'"
Carnegie Mellon Researchers Say Direct Instruction,
Rather Than "Discovery Learning" Is Best Way To Teach
Process Skills In Science :
a fascinating report from Carnegie Mellon University,
made available on the website of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science (AAAA).
Fat in California's Budget by Thomas Sowell, June 21, 2004.
Excerpt: "[In a recent article] the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement program
(MESA) is praised because it helps students become 'excited' about
math and science. 'Exciting' is one of the big fad words in
educational circles, as if getting your emotions worked up is the
same as mastering skills.
In keeping with the excitement theme, students in this program are
pictured making balloon-powered rockets and one of them is quoted as
saying that this program "inspires" him to go to school.
One of the teachers in this program calls it 'crazy' to cut the
program -- 'as he watches another balloon-powered rocket fly across
the room.' But just what is this actually accomplishing?
The teacher says, 'Look at this: It gets a bunch of diverse cultures
into one room to build things. You always feel like a family here.
It's just a good place.'
But actual bottom-line results in terms of math and science? ...
Apparently the state legislators have not been too foggy to spend
$85 million of the taxpayers' money to bankroll this program that
apparently cannot show hard evidence of serious improvement in math
and science, as a result of balloons flying across the room in this
"He watches another balloon-powered rocket fly across
the room. But just what is this actually accomplishing?"
The Dumbing Down Of Science In Education
by Mike Horne. This is an interesting essay on why teachers and scientists
find it necessary to "dumb-down" science in the classroom, public lectures
and in the news. A special emphasis is placed on dumbing-down of
museum exhibits about science.