Hands-on Learning

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 Maria Horner

The Victoria & Albert museum in London recently announced a national schools programme — Design Lab Nation — which aims to revive art and design education in secondary schools. The project will be funded with the museum’s prize money of the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2016.

Tristram Hunt, current head of the V&A, says that creative industries are among “the UK’s greatest national and economic assets”. Its main focus will be to inspire and motivate students, train teachers, and “promote design education for the future” in cooperation with schools, local museums, and industries. In addition, the programme launching in September 2017 is also designed to support the new Design and Technology GCSE. Alice Barnard, chief executive of Edge Foundation which promotes vocational learning, says that “these skills are becoming increasingly important as the creative sector of the economy grows rapidly.”

The Education System vs. Hands-on Creativity

The V&A’s project is indicative of one of the bigger picture challenges facing education: the discrepancy between how the education system is designed and the requirements of creative industries or even the economy.

An economy that demands creativity and innovation from its workforce requires an education system that encourages and fosters these qualities in students. However, the general trend in the systems of the UK and the US is the standardisation of curricula and assessment. In most cases these developments are caused or exacerbated by budget cuts and go hand in hand with a demand for more comparability and better results in standardised tests.

The results are as follows: hands-on classes like home-economics, sewing, auto-mechanics, and other niche courses are the first to disappear when resources are stretched. After that, music, art, drama, and even sciences and foreign languages will be the next in line for defunding. Curricula are often designed to prioritise a standardised version of maths and English. These subjects are usually taught in a way optimised to yield good test results.

A long-term study by the US National research Council found that an emphasis on (standardised) testing yields leads to little learning progress but can cause significant harm to students. Standardised testing in the US adversely affects students from lower-income or minority backgrounds, students with disabilities, and non-native English speakers. Negative consequences identified by the study include narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, pushing students out of school, driving teachers out of the profession, and undermining student engagement and school climate.

Learning by Doing

Needless to say, a standardised education system leaves neither teachers nor students much room for individualism or the development of a broad skill set that goes beyond algebra and text analysis. The current system tries to convey subject matter to students mainly in lecture based lessons. In combination with the absence of hands-on and creative subjects in students’ timetable they are denied the chance to develop a variety of skills.

Most obviously, students won’t be able to explore their interests and build up a skill set in preparation for vocational training in specialised areas, such as cooking or auto-mechanics. Additionally, many students are prone to kinesthetic learning and perform better when there is an aspect of physical engagement in their learning process. Studies have shown that when students actively engage with a topic they will gain a deeper understanding of the concepts they are dealing with — being hands-on allows students to ‘learn by doing’.

A hands-on ‘trial and error’ approach to a problem requires students to come up with different possible solutions, try them out, identify faults, and think of modifications. This encourages effective problem solving, creativity, innovation, and thinking outside the box — all skills in high demand but low supply. As Adele Diamond, professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia says, “Facts can be looked up. What students need to be learning is how to reason and problem-solve and be creative. Kids should get rewarded for taking a chance and trying something new and not always have to be so worried about making a mistake.”

“What can you do with a paperclip?”

*Divergent Thinking *is described as “the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question”.

Hands-on Learning

Divergent thinking does not in itself equal creativity. However, divergent thinking facilitates the generation of creative and innovative solutions to a problem. One classic test of divergent thinking is the question “what can you do with a paperclip?” and the amount of answers a person can come up with. A study with 1,600 participants showed that there is an enormous decrease in children being categorised as ‘divergent thinking geniuses’ from the age of three (98%) to the age of 15 (10%). The longer children are in the education system the more their divergent thinking is pushed into the background in favour of convergent thinking (subject knowledge and memorisation, logic and reasoning, multiple choice selection, etc.

Promoting hands-on learning encourages creativity, innovative thinking, and problem solving and could thereby also help in maintaining a higher level of divergent thinking among students.

Learning Technology Hands-on

Considering the advantages hands-on learning promises to have, a call for the return of subjects like sewing and auto-mechanics (most likely victims to budget cuts) might still fall on deaf ears as demand is low and they don’t fit in a progressive education system anymore. This would be to miss the point of hands-on learning. Incorporating technology in schools in a way that is not only a smart board on a wall but that lets students engage and explore technology themselves will facilitate their obtaining of digital competencies and stimulate divergent thinking in terms of technology.

Having students design objects on a computer, then being able to print them on a 3D printer, and physically interact with the results of their work is maybe the most direct approach to hands-on learning of technology. However, high-tech is expensive and only accessible to students in well funded school. Incorporating technology into hands-on learning is a much easier challenge to complete if money isn’t an issue.

But since many hands-on classes were axed in budget cuts in the first place it is fair to assume that there won’t be any funds available to be invested in fancy tech. Thanks to the internet, smartphones, and computers now being significantly more accessible than even a couple of years ago teachers and students can still make tech-learning a hands-on experience.

A teacher using a PowerPoint presentation in a lesson is neither hands-on nor interactive. In contrast, students presenting a project can become a hands-on learning experience if e.g. using PowerPoint, QR codes, design software, and maybe even Social Media platforms becomes part of the presentation. The students will have to work out how these tool can interact, which possibilities they provide, and how they can be manipulated to yield the desired results. On their way to a final result students figure out what can and can’t be done thus “learning by doing”.

It would be an improvement to the current educational system to facilitate divergent thinking and individual creativity. New contemporary ways of hands-on learning have to be found in order to give students the opportunity to explore their own creativity and innovative nature, in addition to developing the key learning skills that will set them up for later life.

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