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"Hands-On" vs "Minds On" in Science

    Also see:
        Science -- MAIN PAGE
        Projects vs. Learning

    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.

  • "In doing research, students learn facts at a snail's pace."
    "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."

  • 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 themselves.
    "You are a moss.
    Describe your experiences."
    "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.' ...
         "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 and universities. ...
    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 tests."
    • "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 biology. '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."

  • "U.S. students ... spent more time ... doing activities without a direct link to learning"
    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."

  • 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."

  • "Discovery learning is successful only when students have prerequisite knowledge"
    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."

  • "direct instruction works and generalizes better"
    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:
    "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).

  • "He watches another balloon-powered rocket fly across the room. But just what is this actually accomplishing?"
    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 'good place.'"

  • 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.

    Also see:
        Science -- MAIN PAGE
        Projects vs. Learning

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