Robert E. Yager Discusses ‘Hands-On’ Science Education

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Dr. Yager is a Professor of Science Education at the University of Iowa and the Iowa Academy of Education. He has a long career in this area, and we should pay attention when he writes.

He has just written a short article for Science Education Review (11.3 [2012], pp. 54-55), “Does ‘Hands-On’ Indicate Real Reforms of Science Teaching?”* It begins with the following sentence. “Too often the reform of science for K-12 students is described as being ‘hands-on.’“ Everyone seems to be calling for reform these days. So, this is a valid discussion. Many of the reformers are “hands-on” advocates and even extremists who insist that no science education should be anything but “hands-on.” The short piece, just 1.5 pages, is well worth reading for anyone involved in science education.

Robert E Yager

Robert E Yager

Dr. Yager makes the point that involving muscles does not necessarily involve the mind. Indeed, as I also have seen, just the opposite is often the case. Science is about exploring. According to Dr. Yager, “One uniqueness of humans is their interest in exploring the natural world.” This uniqueness can drive the excitement and engagement of students with science. Losing it tends to do exactly the reverse.

Further on, he says, “Hands-on may be needed to develop tools to investigate student ideas.” Then, he counters with, “Often collecting evidence involves technology, not science!” He’s saying that you might use hands-on to collect evidence for your scientific investigation, or you might use technology. The hunt for dark matter is all technology. The Mars rovers are distant technology. Neither is truly hands-on. However, I take the view that science and science education are not the same thing. Just because scientists are trending away from hands-on, does that mean that students should too?

In his last paragraph, Dr. Yager sums up. “Learning of real science does not happen if teachers or instructional materials continue to push for more hands-on efforts ….” Why? Because they distract from learning real science. And so, he finishes up with this flourish, “In fact, hands-on directions may hinder the learning and practice of real science!”

This is strong stuff. While not condemning hands-on science labs in education completely out of hand, Dr. Yager has cast a pall over them. He does not describe specific examples in his short piece. However, I expect that he would echo that great science education expert, F. W. Westaway, in suggesting that “verification labs” are a waste of time no matter how hands-on or “wet” they may be.

I don’t necessarily agree whole-heartedly with every statement that Dr. Yager makes. Some I take with a grain of salt. For example, he says, “Science is not like art in this respect! It requires collaboration!” While I agree that science education benefits from sharing among peers, science does not require collaboration. Consider Newton, Cavendish, and Einstein. These are famous for their independent natures. Many science investigations cannot proceed without collaboration. Some can.

As Dr. Yager indicates, “Science starts with humans exploring the things encountered in nature.” This sentiment echoes what the National Research Council wrote about good lab experiences involving data from the “material world.” However, Dr. Yager, myself, and all who have studied science education deeply know that you must follow with understanding these data and then “to explore more deeply and/or to formulate questions, express interests, or suggest evidence that can be used to support [your] ideas and explanations.”

Science education is not science. However, it can benefit from technology just as science does. In both cases, any old technology will not do. Scientists aren’t using interactive whiteboards and iPads to do their work. That’s not to say that these are useless in science education, just that we should search more widely to find the best tools for learning science. Hands-on is not the holy grail of science education. It’s not even absolutely necessary. The old phrase, minds-on, expresses the true requirement whether or not you’re getting your hands dirty.
__________
* NSELA; also NSTA Blog, 8.19.12.

5 Responses

  1. Yagers comments are whats wrong with science education today. To say “Often collecting evidence involves technology, not science!” is ignoring where we are and the changes that are inherent in education. Such a view condemns science to the Boring and un interesting that turns students away from Chemistry and physics especially.

    Additionally to say “In fact, hands-on directions may hinder the learning and practice of real science!” is just reactionary and ignores how the melding of technology, creativity and Science can lead to unique discoveries. this is where Art becomes an excellent foil in Science education.

    in 40 years of teaching I have always pushed students to challenge and be creative..Yes in science..Open the doors and they will amaze you. The following quote simplifies a major problem in science Education in the USA at present. “However, Dr. Yager, myself, and all who have studied science education deeply know that you must follow with understanding these data and then “to explore more deeply and/or to formulate questions, express interests, or suggest evidence that can be used to support [your] ideas and explanations.”

    studying science education is no substitute for actually being in the classroom and doing it…We need to realize that education in science is broken especially in the elementart and middle years..to many invalid tests and an over focus upon testing Data..i could go on..We need change..working on relevant hands on problem solving is the answer..integrate creativity literacy and technology into science so it is seamless and will engage students for now and the future.

    • I fear that my article may not have done justice to Yager’s piece.

      He is simply suggesting that hands-on for the sake of being hands-on does not work. Both of us have seen many examples of this.

      Then, he goes a step further and says that overemphasis on hands-on may actually damage science education. I see his point.

      Hands-on can be a distraction in planning curricula. Insisting on maximizing hands-on at the expense of everything else makes no more sense than maximizing homework or videos in class. Tactile experiences do help learning but only if they’re carefully planned and directed to expected results.

      Using hands-on activities as substitutes for real investigative science “lab” experiences can deprive your course of valuable activities. Students playing with pop beads certainly are hands on, but what are they investigating? These sorts of activities use valuable class time and should be justifiable. Personally, I am not a fan of the pop-bead activity.

      Overemphasis on hands-on will end up creating the educational equivalent of make-work. Fill up that time space with anything that involves touching and manipulating. Before doing that, consider other learning alternatives such as interactive software, National Geographic videos, and class discussions. Do not always choose hands-on just because it’s hands-on. Every student should have every sort of learning activity, and hands-on is just one of many.

  2. Whether learning comes through “hands-on” or “minds-on” approaches, my limited understanding of cognitive learning theory suggests that all types of sensory input end up in the “working memory”, to be mixed in with long-term memory and decision-making processes. So increasing the variety of those sensory inputs enhances the “uniqueness” of the objects of attention. A learning experience, then, which engages a pair of students in an activity that has social, visual, auditory, tactile, and psycho-motor components would seem to be more effective than “single-channel” methods.

    I attempted to accomplish this with a six-step “learning cycle” that was applied to each quarter-hour topic and objective. In brief, my “instructional strategy” was to combine and integrate the ideas of “cognitive learning theory” into a lesson cycle that incorporates several “best practices” for teaching.

    As I developed my “energy systems model” approach in a one-semester introductory physics course at a technical college, I was fortunate to be able to design the classroom area in a new building. The workbenches were built in a “T” arrangement so that students could work in collaborative pairs with their own books and notes at the arms of the desk, with a lab working space between them.

    The lecture/ activity/ lab time was integrated into approximate quarter-hour segments. Each of these “lessons” began with an explanation of the topic usually showing several visuals, a whiteboard example, and occasionally a short video showing an animation or application of that topic. Students then individually worked on a practice question or problem, followed by a “share-and-compare” with their table partner to provide quick feedback and correction. Most often, they would then work on an illustrative activity or lab at their table, recording results and observations on a worksheet. Then we moved on to the next lesson topic, which might be an extension of the previous one, or the next in the unit sequence.

    The intent was to have focused engagement on the specific topic, using multiple learning styles, incorporating “hands-on” as much as possible, and with collaborative participation providing on-the-spot mutual tutoring. My motto was “If the fingers aren’t moving, the brain’s not working”.

    I summarize this lesson cycle in six steps: “Think it, Ink it, Try it. Check it, Do it, Apply it”. So nearly every 15-20 minute lesson was linked to these elements, going from classroom lecture to worksheet practice to partner lab collaboration to homework to a semester project.

    • Hi Bob,

      It would be nice if every instructor was as careful about planning and integration of activities into courses as you appear to be. Your six steps closely mirror the “5 E’s.”

      In my own work, I have a neat acronym: THEREE — a misspelling of theory. It’s Think, Hypothesize, Explore, Reflect, Explain, Extend. My software is built on that model.

      The point of all of this is that merely doing an experiment or other hands-on activity is not sufficient. For any investigation, hands-on or not, to succeed, it must have a good scaffold and be a real part of the overall learning sequence of the course.

  3. [...] By Harry Keller Editor, Science Education Dr. Yager is a Professor of Science Education at the University of Iowa and the Iowa Academy of Education. He has a long career in this area, and we should…  [...]

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