Experiential Learning: Hands on ≠ Minds on

Perusing the amazing blogs out there on WordPress I came across this post on “Being Hands on vs Minds on” by Grant Wiggins on his blog” Granted and… “. I often struggle with this balance because sometimes have to just get through something. However for my projects this is something I repeat over and over and over. “Why should we care? Why should it matter that we know this?” When I get to work on that PhD this is something I really want to dive into. Metacognition is so important but how to be include it all the time in our lessons and train our students to want to be metacognitive thinkers. Here is what Wiggins says about this…

Hands on ≠ Minds on

I recently visited Thetford Academy in Vermont (one of the few and interesting public-private academies in New England) where they have a formal and explicit commitment to “experiential learning.” So, the leaders of the school asked me to visit classes that were doing experiential learning and to talk with staff at day’s end about it.

I saw some great examples of such instruction. I visited the design tech course (see photos) and the class on the Connecticut River where students were learning about soil types prior to a wetlands field trip.

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I also spent the previous day at the Riverdale School where all 9th graders were learning the skills and habits of innovation and entrepreneurship as part of a cool new project headed by John Kao, former Harvard Business School innovation guru. (I am a consultant to the Edgemakers project).

Below are some pictures from the “Design a better backpack exercise” that started the work of the day.

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Just because it’s hands-on doesn’t mean it’s minds-on. But the gist of my remarks at Thetford was to propose caution. Just because work is hands-on does not mean it is minds-on. Many projects, problems, situations, and field trips do not yield lasting and transferable learning because too little attention is given to the meta-cognitive and idea-building work that turns a single experience into insight and later application.

Years ago when I worked as a consultant at School Without Walls in Rochester NY (one of the first really interesting alternative High Schools to emerge from the 60s and a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools), they put it very succinctly in their caution about all the independent projects students routinely did. If you were going to learn carpentry to build a chair, then “The learning is not the chair; it is the learning about learning about chairs, chair-making and oneself.”

I have also often used the following soccer example, because it makes the same point beautifully and practically. Merely playing the game over and over need not cause understanding and transfer. It takes a deliberate processing of the game experience, as summarized in the powerful approach used by my daughter’s high school coach a few years back. Instead of talking on and on at players at half-time, Griff asked 4 key questions of players:

    • What’s working for us?
    • What’s not working for us?
    • What’s working for the other team?
    • So, what do we have to do in the 2nd half?

My daughter (now a starter at Stony Brook University) has often remarked that Griff was really the only coach through HS that taught her to ‘think soccer’ and it paid off in her growth and the team’s success.

As a coach of soccer, baseball, and Socratic Seminar, I learned this lesson the hard way many times myself. I often over-estimated student understanding as to the purpose of activities and assignments, and the important learnings from the experiences. My teaching became far more focused and effective when I forced kids to be metacognitive and reflective about what had been achieved against goals. So, for example, 30 years ago I used a variant of Griff’s questions towards the end of each Socratic Seminar:

    • What have been the highlights?
    • What have been the rough spots?
    • What do we now understand?
    • What do we still not understand?
    • Whose voices didn’t we hear? Why?

With the Thetford staff I prompted a focused discussion in a 2-part exercise: What is the difference between effective and ineffective experiential learning? What are the key indicators to look for in judging whether your attempt at experiential learning is working? (Hint: mere engagement is NOT sufficient.) You might try this exercise locally.

The answers are not surprising but worth committing to. One of the most frequent answers is a clear and specific sense of purpose, linking the activity to the WHY? question – We’re doing this because… We’re learning this because… etc. The other common answer is that the activity needs to be processed in terms of what was and wasn’t learned. (It is key that students explain this independently. Many teachers think that just because they may have said something about purpose at the start that therefore students can answer these questions later on. It is often not the case.)

A third optional part of the exercise is to share examples of the most powerful experiential learning in one’s own experience as a learner to provide a check and to go beyond the earlier answers.

I always ask all kids when I visit class the three questions at the heart of this caution:

  • What are you doing?
  • Why are you doing it?
  • What does this help you do that’s important?

Alas, many kids do not provide adequate answers. And that’s why we need to worry about merely hands-on learning – even as hands-on learning is vital for making abstractions come to life.


This article was excerpted from a post that first appeared on Grant’s personal blog; Grant can be found on twitter here; Experiential Learning: Just Because It’s Hands-On Doesn’t Mean It’s Minds-On


You CAN Run a Science Fair!

Science Fair Image Well yes I have done it… and with very little help and I would do it again! Who doesn’t love a science fair?!  Why do we do science fairs and why do we love them? It is a great way for students to showcase what your kids can do. It also helps reinforce all the researching skills and procedures you have taught your kids though out the year, while exposing them to using the scientific process in a real world setting.  My most favorite thing of all is having my students pick something that they are passionate about learning and watching them wholeheartedly commit to their learning! I have recently began to call it a “science symposium” because we didn’t have judges and wanted it to be more of a sharing of knowledge not a competition. So what does it take to do this at your school? Here are some tips from the 3 times I have had to run my own science fair at 2 different schools.

Plan Plan Plan!

Your Science fair is just like any long-term project. While it is a pain to manage them in the classroom, if you plan everything before you even begin you will be surprised how easy it is to pull this off. I use this checklist every year to get my planning going. Obviously, every school is different and will need different things but I thought it would be great to share my list. Symposium Checklist. I always first inform the parents so that they know what will be expected of their children, and that it is a group project. Parents like to know this so they can expect out of school meet ups with their child’s group members. I also invite the parents so this gives them an opportunity to get it on their calendars. I left the students choose their topics. I have done themes for the projects, like one year my entire 6th grade did a project involving a plant. Some years it is a do what ever you are interested in. I try to be very hands off in this stage really giving the ownership to the students, which can be hard to do but it really adds to the quality of the project and their learning. I guide them through their research and their investigations and help them understand data when needed. Again, I am very hands off I have taught them all they need to know and really this is their moment to shine. My students are required to write a lab report for their work and I use a checklist rubric so they know exactly what is expected. They also get a clear description of what their tri-fold posters should have as well as a poster present rubric. Lab Report Rubric   Presentation & Poster Rubric

Keep Students Accountable!

The first time I ran a science fair I had a lot of students who flew under the radar. You know the kid, the one who does 2 things for the entire project and passes it off as their work with the star science student, then collects that A+ grade. It is just is not fair, so  myself and some other colleges came up with sone ideas to help.

  1. Responsibly sheet – Break up parts of the project into chunks, Materials, Lab report sections,  Who is buying the poster? and have members of the group sign up BEFORE they actually begin. I keep copies of these so when a part of project is missing or not done to standard i know jut who i have to have “that” conversation with or who I have to email or locate during lunch, in the hall way or whenever ( you know how it is sometimes) to get them to fix it! This keeps the students honest and able to say when they let the group down. For our overly involved parents they can also see what their kid needs to work on (or didn’t work on).
  2. Tracking Progress – I track everything during this project in a google spreadsheet that is shred with the students. For each item that is needed they have to log in and fill in when it is done. They also can all see each other work, so if groups are studying similar projects they can collaborate.
  3. Class Check-ins – Each week I have a “work in class” day ( frequency depends on how close it is to the end date of project) I share these dates on my weekly announcements so students can prepare in advance. I check in with each group, to see where they are progressing and when they need my help. I take very short notes so that I can keep up with their work, yes in a spreadsheet, can you tell i love these. This by the way is a great resource for comment and report car writing!
  4. Checklist Rubric – Just a smart way to make sure everyone knows exactly what they need to do! see above.
  5. Group member evaluation – A part of their final grade (10%) involves the grade they get from their peers. I have them do two evaluations one in middle of project one at the end on each member of their group and themselves. I find this to be important, because they again hold each other accountable.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide to doing that science fair you have always wanted to do, but I do think this will get you started. Every school is different and value different things, but with lots of planning you can be a great success at your science fair.  But if you need a pep talk email me I will be happy to get you going!

Online Resources

Teaching Test Taking Skills


Tests can be a great challenge for many middle school students, especially in the 5th/6th grade transition year. Some of my students have never really ever taken a test until this year! So as a teacher, I feel it is important to ensure my students are prepared! I expect nothing but the best, so I give them the best test taking strategies! I have found that these skills are very helpful and many of my students thank me for teaching this to them.

Before The Test

Organize It! · Write It! ·  Say It!  

I use a 3 day study plan to get my kids learning a system to prepare. Day 1 they organize all of their notes. I send home a check list with every document and worksheet they need to have both on the iPad and on paper. Based on this checklist, I give a notebook quiz (If we don’t grade them they won’t do it!)

Day 2, they get a review sheet with important hints to remember and I also throw in some practice questions, especially at the start of the year when they need to get used to how I test. (Application VS Memorization)

Day 3, Read, Recite and Review. They have to come to class with a recording of themselves they can listen to or some type of proof that they have reviewed. Remember they won’t do it if there is no grade! Some of my more attentive students write the answers to their review on flash cards to start and then use these flashcards before their test. Some kids have their parents sign that they helped the review. All acceptable!

I have found that they students who don’t take this seriously are generally the ones that do not perform as well as they can. This strategy helps them on their own identify things they do not understand and come see me or ask for help before it is too late!

During The Test

  1. Brain Dump – Write down things at the start of the test that are difficult to remember in margins or on back.
  2. Underline/Circle Key Words – Read instructions and questions actively! Underline and Circle Key words
  3. Cross-Out Wrong Answers – It sounds simple but they don’t do it. Eliminating wrong answers frees up working memory to focus more on finding the right answers.
  4. Find Your Challenge – Who says you have to go in order. Do more difficult sections 1st while your fresh and not fatigued from the test
  5. Review your work – WHY DON’T THEY DO THIS? I have to teach and re-teach my students that this does not mean check that you did every question , check that they are correct too!

After The Test

  1. Do not just focus on your GRADE! – Look for trends in “your” test data. Where did they do well? Where did they Struggle? Is multiple choice their weakness or their strength? Is there one concept that they recurring struggled with. Middle schoolers don’t know how to do this, you have to teach them this skill!
  2. Test corrections – I make every student fill out a test correction worksheet and keep them to compare where they continue to struggle on tests.
  3. Reflect on preparation – This is just as important at the end as it is in the beginning!