Hands-on or Minds-on?

Most science teachers have been doing hands-on science for quite some time. Science textbooks come littered with hands-on projects and quick laboratory experiences for students to complete. However, these hands-on activities often do much of the thinking FOR students rather than encouraging THEM to think. Even the kits that come in so handy often end up being step-by-step directions to follow rather than a means to meaningfully engage students in thought about nature. Below are a few ideas on how you might retool these resources to help students learn rather than just follow directions.

1) Ask students to write or comment on why each step is necessary. This is probably the easiest way to infuse some thinking into the cookbook labs, but it is better than nothing.

2) Have students predict what would happen if they removed a step or changed the order of the steps. If safety is not an issue, you might even have different groups of students try the various modifications and compare results.

3) Provide student with only the first few directions and and have students decide how to finish the investigation? This is a nice scaffolding technique as students will be aware of the goal for the investigation and how to start, but they will be responsible for parts of the investigation.

4) Provide students with the goal of the investigation and the materials. Have student groups then decide how they will achieve the goal. Afterward, students can reflect individually or as a class on how various efforts worked.

5) Provide students with the materials from the cookbook lab or kit an have them as a class or in groups generate testable questions about the materials. Then provide some time for students to complete their investigation. While this idea is often met with resistance such as “where’s the content”, you will find that oftentimes you can use what students investigate to link to the content you are required to teach.

What activities do you think you could modify this year? What concerns do you have?

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11 Responses to Hands-on or Minds-on?

  1. I like #4 and #5 a lot and try to do it whenever I can. Typical “verification” labs can be moved from the end of the unit to the beginning of the unit to derive the concept at hand, rather than confirming it after lecture.

    I mentioned this example at Think Thank Thunk blog. Rather than having kids do a cookbook lab to determine the coefficient of friction of a shoe (which is hands-on), I do this:

    I show a tug-of-war video. It’s not online, but I found some pictures that will have to do for now:


    The motivator is: “Who won and why? If we can figure out why, then we can have our own tug-of-war and see if physics can predict the winner.”

    This leads to friction, which leads to what factors affect the amount of friction, which leads to exploratory lab, which leads to coefficient of friction, which leads to shoes. And then students determine the CoF for their shoes and then we do the tug-of-war. (It only works about 50% of the time, but that makes for great discussion, too.)

    I love these discussions! Keep ’em coming!

    PS: I would argue that you could do #4 and #5 with a computer simulation as well. There is some research to show the sims help with abstract ideas like circuits. See papers here: http://phet.colorado.edu/en/research

  2. jerridkruse says:

    Love the tug of war example. Numbers 1, 2, & 3 are for those who are just beginning to modify their instruction. Doing what you describe required extreme expertise in content as well as classroom management. While we all ought seek those levels (or even more open inquiry), jumping straight to that level often results in students just playing with materials rather than mentally wrestling with science concepts.

    As far as your PS-I need to look at the papers, but hope one would never substitute the computer simulation for real objects in our real world. 🙂

  3. Alex says:

    As I’ve gained more experience as a science teacher, I’ve moved away from the cookbook labs in favor of the types of experiences that would fall under #4 of your categories above. My colleagues and I have reworked many of our chemistry labs to move towards students developing their own lab procedures – we call them “Challenges” or “Operations”. At the beginning of the year, we usually give them a list of possible lab materials (glassware, etc), but as the year progresses, we usually just give them the chemicals/reagents they will be working with.

    We’ve encountered a bit of a challenge with these activities, in that the students are A) used to following step-by-step instructions and B) have never been challenged to develop their own experimental design. We get plenty of resistance at the beginning of the year, which tends to die down as they work through more of the challenge activities.

    We tend to call these activities “inquiry labs” in our lesson plans, as our school admin loves buzz words, but I feel like it’s not a good label for what they really are. Any suggestions?

    • jerridkruse says:

      I refer to almost all my “lab” activities as “investigations”. This also highlights that scientists don’t always work in a laboratory.

      Student resistance is something I am very interested in as I have the same struggles you describe. Unfortunately students are bombarded with the cookbook labs so much that they think that step by step is what science class is suppose to be, and some even think that is what scientists do!

  4. postsci says:

    As a colleague of Alex, I agree with all of his comments. I really like doing labs based on #3. Give very few directions. What I’ve witnessed is that typical underachievers start to put a plan together before the book smart kids. Removing the directions levels the playing field. Great blog.

    • jerridkruse says:

      Thank you! When you remove the directions, the students who are good at “playing school” oftentimes don’t know what to do. I love it! They are being challenged to think in new ways and other students are gaining confidence in their own abilities.

  5. Jerrid: If I recall correctly, the research supports simulations when a hands-on lab would be impractical or produces abstract results. For example, a typical lab on series and parallel circuits typically produces a table of multimeter readings. It doesn’t help students build a conceptual model of circuit behavior. If the simulation (which shows the motion of electrons in the circuit) is used before or along side the real-objects, then there is greater understanding.

    I like how your 1-5 scale is a progression. We are doing a K-12 evaluation of our science program this year, with an emphasis on inquiry. I will be sure to share your scale as a way to help teachers locate where they are and how to move up. Thanks!

    Alex: I agree that “inquiry” is starting to get over used and watered down to mean anything that is hands-on. I would also argue that “direct instruction” has come to mean passive lecture, which is not true either.

    Maybe we could just call inquiry what it is: Posing questions and using data to answer those questions scientifically.

    • jerridkruse says:

      Yes, when safety or availability are issues, simulations are great. I just caution all of us about jumping to the conclusion that simulations are better than the real thing. 🙂

      I hope you colleagues find value in the post. Many times k-8 teachers particularly struggle with converting to “inquiry”. When they see how much cognitive benefit is gained by small changes, they may be more likely to start down the path to change!

  6. msgajda says:

    Thanks for writing this challenging post. As a new teacher, creating authentic inquiry experiences for my students is definitely something I struggle with. In one of my practicum blocks, I took advantage of the Phet simulations to do an investigation into Gas Laws. My students did the simulation activity before I had ever mentioned any of the Gas Laws, but what I prepared for them still ended up being a step-by-step cookbook activity.

    Crazy thing is that in my effort to have things “just right”, I did all the learning the students ought to have done while writing up that activity. I spent hours playing with simulation to come up with the most precise instructions for my students. I could have saved myself time and provided a better inquiry experience for my students if I had just let them loose on the simulation. Live and learn, right?

    Your scale is helpful as a reference that I can work up as a slowly develop my personal teaching style. (I think your comment about experience with content and classroom management is right on the button!) I find the examples posted by experienced teachers, like Frank, so helpful because it gives me a model to base my own planning, even though I teach a different subject. If I could have an inquiry wishlist, the first item would be the opportunity to see how experienced teachers introduce inquiry activities and facilitate the generation of testable questions.

    Again, cheers for the awesome post.

    • Jerrid kruse says:

      I’ve said it before, the most valuable part of this blog will be all the amazing people leaving comments!

      Sometimes my best teaching days are when everything goes wrong. Those days force me to be authentic, to actually learn with my students.

  7. Pingback: 31 Reasons Why We Eliminated Regents Exams « Action-Reaction

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