When talking about learning styles–hands-on learning, experiential learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning,–it’s easy to conflate one for another. They resemble each other rhythmically, syntactically, and psychologically–and their emergence into the conversation around schooling have come about as equal and opposite reactions to industrialized models of pedagogy. These industrial-borne models have been deemed at their most innocuous, unfashionable, and at their worst, destructive.
When educators talk about hands-on learning, the conversation is almost as frictionless as the phrase itself. Ideas about immersion and real-world experience often arise, but we often don’t describe what it actually looks like. Keeping it simple, though, one might define “hands-on learning” as when students use their hands to learn something–the whole hand: wrist, palm, finger, and thumb, the supporting muscles–not merely a finger which can be used to type, tap, or swipe.
When metaphorized, the idea of hands-on learning distills down to practical application. When sitting behind the wheel of a car at 16 to get a driver’s license, or rehearsing for the school play, or performing the frog dissection in biology class, students engage in both the tactile experience and the practical application of a skill which perhaps represents a perfect synergy of learning conditions. Smart technology, at its most stubborn, presents a buffer wheel, a frozen screen, a broken connection; just hit the restart button and it should solve the problem. In the age of smart technology, when more and more tasks are being done for us, it is valuable for kids to learn how to do something for themselves using their own two hands.
Over the past few years, SummerCollab has partnered with Explo Studios to develop problem-solving courses for middle schoolers that promote the union of hands-on learning and the imagination. SummerCollab’s middle school academies, called Tyler’s Camps, thrive on the premise of student choice, that students should be able to pursue any range of disciplines including athletics, the arts, humanities, or sciences on their own terms. While SummerCollab has applied the idea of student choice on a broad scale through its programmatic structures, the choices students make play an integral role in how they approach problem solving during the summer. In an Explo course, choices instantly yield consequences and a student’s learning and success ultimately depend upon how they respond to them.
Using a combination of prefabricated and student-made materials, Explo’s courses ask students to create contraptions, puzzles, and projects that push creative problem solving skills. Take, for example, Explo’s “Cable Commandos” project: a fisherman has been left stranded on an island that has fallen under the attack of a radioactive dinosaur. His only way to safety is through the rescue efforts of the Cable Commandos, who must devise a way to rig up a zip line spanning across the length of the island, which will allow them to drop in and grab the fisherman from offshore.
Students must collaborate through a process of trial and error to create a contraption using industry standard cable cars (pegboard with wheels), hit-sticks (wooden dowels), anodized donuts (metal washers), and heavy duty pneumatic clamps (clothespins) to snag hold of the fisherman, represented as a paper cutout which campers can embellish as they see fit.
The instructor’s role here: stand back and let kids do the work. Each day, campers will make countless choices in their approach to problem solving. They will hit roadblocks, encounter unfamiliar concepts, and repeatedly have to go back to square one before reaching a solution. The instructor supports them but does not give them the answer. Instead, she might answer a student’s question with another question, directing them to try something new rather than leading them to a dead-end with “the right answer.”
Prior to the start of summer, Explo Studio will train Tyler’s Camp instructors on the curriculum where they themselves will take on the projects that students will encounter. Instructors will learn by doing, so that they are familiar with the feeling of working with the materials with their hands. Dave Hamilton, Explo Studio’s creative director and director, led trainings for Tyler’s Camp instructors last summer and throughout the sessions, he would often say, “I have never seen somebody solve this problem like that.” That is, indeed, SummerCollab’s highest aspiration for its middle school students, that through hands-on learning they will not only discover jaw-dropping solutions to complex problems, but will adopt new methods of discovery that will last them well beyond the scope of the summer.