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11.13.19The Paper Rocket: Thoughts on Improving ‘Hands-On’ Learning

Image result for paper rockets
Knowledge first, please.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my littlest what was going on in Science. It’s her favorite class so it doesn’t take much to get some chatter going. She announced with no small amount of excitement that they were going to be building and flying rockets later that week. “Oh, cool,” I said, “Are you studying air resistance? Or aerodynamics?” That sounded super-geeky, so I re-phrased: “You know, what sorts of things might make a rocket fly better.”

“I’m not really sure,” she said, “We haven’t yet,” which was interesting because the rocket flying was just three or fours days away. If it was to demonstrate some ideas they had learned it was getting late to learn them.

If there’s one thing that most parents seem to want for their kids in school it’s hands-on learning. If there’s one thing many teachers believe will make them be the right sort of teacher it’s hands-on learning. At meet-the-teachers night, if a teacher says, “We’ll be doing lots of hands-on projects in my class this year,” everyone is happy. Parents imagine their kids up to their elbows in learning. Teachers imagine them building rockets and suspension bridges in the future, based on the inspiration of that November morning in 6th grade.

It’s about the time that a term becomes an article of faith like that, that I start to worry, however. Hands-on learning is a term with little correlation to value. Can be good; can be not-good. It’s as good as its design. And the key to the design, as with so many things in education, is knowledge. Which is unfortunate because teachers often overlook knowledge.

I was thinking about that because this morning I asked Little how the rocketry went. “GREAT,” she said. They had made them out of paper and gone out to the soccer field to fly them. “Our team won!”, meaning that her group’s rocket had stayed aloft the longest. “Double-cool,” I said, “What made your rocket work so well?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure,” she said. “I think maybe our wings. They looked different from other people’s.”

“Oh,” I said. What had they tried to do with them? How were they different? Silence.

If their wings had been better, in other words, it had been a lucky guess, which was fun and memorable but not all that instructive. They hadn’t been testing an idea–“Hey, since we know X, let’s see if…” It wasn’t an application of knowledge in other words. (Or at least if they were supposed to be testing specific things they’d learned, Little wasn’t aware of it. Full disclosure: There’s some precedent for that. :))

I should be clear: I am not knocking the rocket experiment. It was lovely and fun and inspiring and real. Those are some of the reasons my daughter loves science. I’m glad her teacher did it.

But it also reminded me of a thousand hands-on activities I’ve seen in schools that are designed to introduce a topic, to fascinate and awaken curiosity but that kids engage in relatively superficially because they don’t really know what’s going on.

They watch the bottle explode or the water turn suddenly to ice but they don’t know why. They’re intrigued but they’re not learning because their perception is uninformed. They don’t know what they are looking for so they don’t see it. It’s not a demonstration of something they know. It fascinates more than it teaches. Fascination is great but an activity can do both.

If my daughter had had more knowledge to use apply and test, she would have had a framework to think about and describe or speculate on why some rockets flew better than others: we had larger wings with more surface area. Or maybe it was the size of the nose cone that created less air resistance. That’s informed observation. The hands-on is an application of or testing of knowledge. When there is no background knowledge its closer to play. My daughter had loved the rockets and had ostensibly succeeded, but in the end she had essentially no thoughts on why her rocket worked. Sure you can unpack it and explain it later but it’s still an opportunity missed to have students “perceive” knowledge at work.

The value of hands-on in other words correlates to how much students know when they engage in it. To use hands-on activities before we’ve taught overlooks the differences between how experts and novices learn. An expert learns more from an experience than a novice because she understands and can process what’s happening. Students are almost always novices but the closer they are to knowledgeable the better.

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