Does “hands-on” indicate real reforms of science teaching?

science summer course with Ohio Sea Grant and Stone LaboratoryToo often the reform of science for K-12 students is described as being “hands-on.” Analyses of the “Hands-On” ideas for classrooms seem to miss how and why hands-on actually does not define needed reforms adequately. Hands-on often become merely directions students are expected to follow. Teacher directions also often refer to specific information included in textbooks or those found in laboratory manuals. Students are left out in terms of why their hands are to be used! They are not expected to think–just to do what they are told.
Do students really need to be directed and/or encouraged to use their hands, and, for what purpose? Are “hands” basic for “doing” science? What about thinking and questioning?
It seems once again that teachers, administrators, parents, and even NSTA members are only looking for quick fixes and things to keep students involved with their muscles and hands. There seems to be no real concerns for student thinking and/or their use of the ideas suggested for responding to their own questions. Further, there is rarely any attempt to relate the Hands-on ideas to the real nature of science itself.
Certainly not many scientists would indicate their work is related to their hands. Most need (and often develop) tools to test their ideas. But, they are not “directed” to do this! Hands-on misses vital ingredients of science envisioned by most current reforms.
Science starts with humans exploring the things encountered in nature. One uniqueness of humans is their interest in exploring the natural world. (It is there to be explored.) All humans (even when still in the mother’s womb) react to the objects, conditions, and events that they encounter. The human mind cannot be stopped until death.
Most love to do things with their hands–but it often has nothing to do with exploring nature. Some parents encourage children to play with toys. Too often, though, they are not encouraged to explore more deeply and/or to formulate questions, express interests, or suggest evidence which can be used to support their ideas and explanations.
Why is it so hard to encourage teachers to ask students and to encourage them to investigate, to offer ideas, to interact with others (especially other students) as well as with parents and local “experts” concerning their ideas?
If reforms are to be realized, we need to encourage more student ideas which are followed with questions about their validity and usefulness. These should also lead to a consideration of them in conjunction with ideas from others. Science is not like art in this respect. It requires collaboration.
Everyone, especially students in science classes, should be encouraged to question, to follow-up with evidence to support their ideas, to evaluate each idea for its validity, to consider other explanations and to share all ideas with others. “Hands-On” may be needed to develop tools to investigate student ideas. They might be of use in terms of evidence that can be offered. Evaluating the differences of the ideas from other students is part of science itself. It is what scientists do. Often collecting evidence involves technology, not science!
Professional scientists start with questions–not playing with tools. They do not start with directions described and/or actions suggested by others. Most often hands-on means doing what teachers, texts, and laboratory manuals suggest. The focus of science in classrooms is too often only words and explanations advocated by others. Teachers rarely encourage debate about questions or for the collection of evidence to validate the answers offered. Learning of real science does not happen if teachers or instructional materials continue to push for more “Hands-On” efforts assuming that such acts exemplify science. Instead there should be more attention to defining the actions needed and portray what science actually is. In fact, hands-on directions may hinder the learning and practice of real science!
–Robert E. Yager
Professor of Science education
University of Iowa
Image of students engaged in a science summer course courtesy of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory.

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7 Responses to Does “hands-on” indicate real reforms of science teaching?

  1. Susan Townsend says:

    WHAT??? “The focus of science in classrooms is TOO OFTEN only words and explanations advocated by others. Teachers rarely encourage debate about questions or for the collection of evidence to validate the answers offered. ” [emphasis mine]
    Where are the data you are using to make statements like that? Or is this just hyperbole to create a contrast for your statements about what SHOULD be happening in the classroom?
    Either way, your statements make it easy as a teacher IN the classroom, to sweep all of your ideas up into the box of “educational research out of touch with how teachers really teach and students really learn.” When you let me do that, I am no longer listening.

  2. MaryB says:

    I’ve often quoted a teacher at a workshop who said: “My students are so busy, they don’t have time to think.” Yikes!
    Engagement is another word that’s often associated with being busy at something. I’ve asked at workshops: Is it possible to be busy at a task without being engaged in it? Conversely, is it possible to be engaged in a task without being visibly busy?
    I wonder how much time students have in science classes for thinking, reflecting, dreaming, imagining, questioning. Are they still “busy?”

  3. Brian L says:

    I think there are different levels of understanding by doing. Just having student remember the “what” about science (e.g., facts, vocab) doesn’t do much of anything other than turn off students to science.
    Doing a hands-on experiment can help some students attach a “why” or “how” with the “what.” There will still be a population of students for whom this doesn’t work, however. Cookbook type labs are what we all did in school and what we are familiar with. But telling students which steps to take, making a data table for them, etc., removes the requirement that they think for themselves.
    Then there is having students solve a problem. By this I don’t mean simply forcing the different stages of the scientific method on them and the challenge at hand; I mean having them figure out how to solve a problem or question, such as which brand of TP is “better?” Students have to decide what “better” means and then begin exploring ways they could measure “better.” My point is really this: doing science requires time. Possibly a long time. Do we really allow students time to try different methods, fail, refine the methods, repeat? The question we must ask ourselves is: are we willing to sacrifice some topics in order for students to gain a deeper and truer understanding of science? Doing real science requires a fair amount of courage on the part of both schools and students.
    A complicating factor is students resist this type of learning — they are used to being told what to do and just having to remember the “what,” which is much easier for them. (BTW, I teach 9th grade.)

  4. Sara says:

    Very valid point about hands on.
    I think the article’s criticisms on teachers are, again, a bit harsh. Firstly, most teacher education schools focus on general education and most science education courses are severely lacking in training educators on the methodology of teaching inquiry based learning. Teachers know what it is, but it is difficult to implement without guidance. Secondly (and people may berate me for this one), many teachers do not used evidence based reasoning themselves. I’ve known many a teacher to be evangelicals or conspiracy theorists. One could even argue that perhaps there should be a second Science Praxis that explicitly tests teachers on scientific reasoning and theory without being subject-specific.
    Educators of science teachers should have more professional development opportunities which teach them how to incorporate inquiry based learning without sacrificing time necessary for content specific exams. As always the answer seems to be “better teacher training and early science education.”

  5. Peggy Ashbrook says:

    It may be that “hands-on” is used so often as short hand for “science inquiry” that the full meaning of inquiry is not realized.
    I agree that children may engage with hands-on materials without thinking about what they observe, without discussing with others, or collecting any data. So we do need to “encourage debate about questions or for the collection of evidence to validate the answers offered”. At the same time we need to keep the experiences in science that allow children to build their knowledge of the natural world around them by touching the materials, at least in the early years, and at any age where there is no previous experience.

  6. Pingback: Why is Student Interactivity in Lessons Essential? | Teaching Science and Math

  7. Harry Keller says:

    I know I’m late in this discussion. The article rings true to me. I’m a scientist and a former university professor of chemistry. I’ve written more about it at
    As for Susan’s comments — when she has the credentials of Dr. Yager, then I’ll listen to HER. He wasn’t writing a research paper here. Go to his extensive writings for the background.
    MaryB makes an excellent comment. It reflects those clichés, “hands-on” and “minds-on.”
    Brian L discusses how hands-on helps students learn. Like most, however, he fails to define the term. Everyone assumes that their definition matches everyone else’s. Not so. His remark at the end is exactly right. I also have encountered students who have no clue when asked to think rather than just to parrot material in the text or lecture notes.
    I understand Sara’s point. However, the criticism is not personal. A teacher, as Sara indicates herself, is a gestalt of the person, the training, the environment, and the experience. Criticizing what teachers do could be criticizing any of these. It’s a fair criticism that does not necessarily “blame” teachers. It’s a problem to be fixed, not a situation requiring finger-pointing. In fact, were our teachers to have K-12 educations that matched our expectations of them, these expectations would mostly like be matched. A little PD and some ed school reforms will not be sufficient. Many teachers-to-be enter ed school with the problems that Brian L has noticed.
    Although Peggy Ashbrook’s remarks are short, they touch on really important topics. Defining hands-on is crucial to any discussion of this term. Inquiry is good but not enough. Students must inquire, explore, discover, explain, and share if they’re to have deep learning. You can go further as in “extend” and so on, but those steps are important.
    Dr. Yager did not write against using hands-on activities but against the rush to add them as a misguided effort at education reform. Again, what is hands-on? Peggy assumes touching. Not so. Nevertheless, her point about the learning sophistication and the necessity for direct contact is accurate. Generally, in K-3, all science should be touching. In 4-5, some can be indirect. In 5-6, quite a bit can be indirect but still should be hands-on. That is, you don’t have to touch in order to take your own data interactively point-by-point from the real world. In high school, students should be doing extended investigations (problems or projects) a few (2-4) times a year. Beyond that, a mixture of touching and hands-on is appropriate. Some other learning, e.g. videos and simulations, for difficult concepts.
    Notice that touching may not be hands-on and vice versa. All science learning in K-12 should be my definition of hands-on, but we don’t have the resources to make it all touching. It also all should be minds-on.

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