Head and Hands: Getting Meaning out of Experience

There is probably no term more ill-used in education circles than “hands-on” learning. It has become a synonym for a wide variety of strategies such as: discovery learning; experiential learning; kinesthetic learning; learning by doing; constructivism; or exploratory learning – to name a few. The basic premise in many of these terms is that through exploration or discovery, a learner can engage in problem solving situations where the learner draws on his or her own past experience and existing knowledge to discover facts and relationships and new truths to be learned”. Or, as another school of thought states, “hands on learning is “gaining knowledge by actually doing something rather than learning about it from books, lectures, etc.”

The implication in both these definitions is that modes of learning are an either one thing or the other. But the fact is, effective learning is always an “and” not an either/or. I think of it this way, the first time that I ever went to Paris, I had read about all of the highlights first and then experienced them in person. And, even as I was admiring Notre Dame, I still had my Michelin Guide clutched in my hand so that I could make sense of what I was seeing. That is the true value of experiential/hands-on learning, a delicate balance between knowledge and experience with the result being a far greater depth of understanding than either method could produce on its own.

Last week I had the pleasure of tagging along as our senior high school Science students traveled to spend four days at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, which is perched high above Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Reading over the itinerary in advance, I knew that there would be some great field experiences along the shore and out at sea in the Centre’s research vessels. I noticed too, almost in passing, that sandwiched in between these excursions there were a number of labs scheduled as well. My first inclination was to conclude that the labs would be interesting “fillers” while we waited for the next on-site adventure. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Rather than being diversions, these labs were an essential component of the learning process. For example, on the first day, students took part in both an invertebrate lab and a seaweed lab. In each case, through a combination of lecture/demonstration; the study of resource materials; and, practical hands-on experience, the students learned how to identify and classify different types of marine life found locally. Armed with this knowledge, the next morning found them out on the Sound in a research vessel dredging the ocean floor for specimens and the following day hiking to a nearby beach at low tide to look at life in the tidal pools first hand. At each stage, the students acquired, deepened and applied their knowledge and understanding of invertebrate life and the symbiotic relationship with aquatic plants and, eventually, plankton. This was experiential learning at its best. Solid preparation, acquiring key background knowledge, hands-on reinforcement in a laboratory setting and then practical, real world observation and application to gain a greater understanding of the local environment.

I have spent the last 10 years living near the ocean, walking the shoreline, gazing into tidal pools and picking up and discarding shells. But all this time, I had been the classic tourist without a guidebook. I saw but didn’t understand in more than a cursory fashion the living world around me. Many of our students were the same, but now that has changed. Information can be found in books, or online, and experiences can wash over us like the incoming tide. But, until you put them together, real knowledge and understanding generally remain just out of reach.

Want to really learn something? Do your homework first, and then be prepared to get your hands dirty. It’s an unbeatable combination