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 pay attention when he writes.
He has just written a short article for Science Education Review (11.3 , 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.
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.
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