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Bruno: The Pros and Cons of Hands-On Science

Tumblr_m3pfeuhlGg1qzpsuoo1_1280As a science teacher, I'm certainly partial to hands-on educational activities. For students who have some background knowledge of a topic, the occasional hands-on activity can be a good way for them to apply and develop that knowledge while having a good time. As a science teacher, however, I also try to teach my students not to mistake correlation for causation, which I think is what Andy Rotherham is doing here when he writes:

"The NAEP data released yesterday shows that students who rarely do hands-on science underperform those who do it almost every day by 16 points on the NAEP’s scale — that’s about a full grade level’s worth of learning. Hands-on science is not only more fun for kids; it helps teach critical thinking and problem solving, valuable skills in an ideas economy."

The data he's referring to are here. Frankly, I'm not sure why the NAEP thought this was a result worth publishing, but they do find that the 2% of students who "never or hardly ever" engage in hands-on activities in science score 16 points below the 16% of students who do so "every day or almost every day".

There's almost certainly less to this result than meets the eye.  For starters, it's worth noting that those two extremes each represent a very small fraction of all students; more than four-fifths of students engage in hands-on activities "once or twice a month" (25%) or "once or twice a week" (56%). My experience is that those rare science classrooms engaging in hands-on activities almost every day are populated by extremely well-off students.

I'd be willing to bet that he top 16% of hands-on classrooms consist disproportionately of students with the privileges of scientifically rich educational backgrounds. Such students are more likely to be able to engage productively in hands-on activities because they are more likely to have the requisite background knowledge. I'd also wager that the 2% of classes at the other end of the spectrum aren't representative, either.

In fact, it's worth noting that the 16-point gap between the rarely- and very-hands-on classrooms is considerably smaller than the 27-point gap between students eligible and ineligible for free or reduced price lunch. Students scoring in the bottom 25% were also more than three times as likely to be eligible for FRP than students scoring in the top quartile. I think these facts strongly suggest that the "hands-on activities gap" isn't causing a score gap so much as it's reflecting underlying educational inequities.

Hands-on activities can be valuable in science classrooms, but they presuppose learning as much as they promote it. Educators, then, shouldn't assume that more hands-on activities are going to be much of a solution to our unsatisfactory learning outcomes. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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Thank you. And a lot depends on what the hands on activity is and how it fits in with the curriculum. A teacher who merely passes around a bunch of fossils isn't accomplishing much.

I always found hands-on science most helpful when it was being used to prove theory. First we’d learn the theory, then see it in action. Classes promoting self-discovery are trying to teach the scientific method too young. You can’t ask good questions about something without partially understanding it.

@Sarah - I agree completely. I'd also say that those self-discovery methods can often give the illusion of effectiveness because the students with the strongest background knowledge may complete them successfully, giving the appearance of accessibility to the activity even though struggling students aren't benefiting. The bad news is that it seems to be trendy among science educators to promote a pedagogy of self-discovery. The good news is that, in practice, many educators seem to still recognize the importance of establishing background knowledge and rely on direct instruction anyway.

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