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Why we need to put the practical back into Stem (sponsored)

Hands-on learning sees pupil and teacher learning together. We need to put the practical back into Stem, says this former science teacher - the only way to learn is by doing

Hands-on learning in STEM subjects

Hands-on learning sees pupil and teacher learning together. We need to put the practical back into Stem, says this former science teacher - the only way to learn is by doing

Teaching is a quite short word considering what it represents. It relies on linking subject-specific knowledge with a detailed understanding of pedagogy, while managing thirty young people who may have no interest whatsoever in that subject -or anything else. The approaches taken by any two colleagues may be very different, because of their own personalities, their subjects and the students in front of them.

What most teachers want and need to do is to link the big ideas of their subject to a student’s own life. This doesn’t have to mean rewriting Shakespeare in their local dialect, or ignoring the history of science because many of the people involved were white blokes. And I always found that making every connection, every lesson about their current life and recent experience was limiting in a different way. Instead, we can bridge their subject and the life a student might live; where they came from and where they might go.

Thinking is invisible. It’s a teacher’s job to make it visible; to make the understanding ‘stract’, and to use those revealed processes to guide their thinking. Most teachers try not to force particular opinions. Instead, the aim is that with sufficient knowledge, the detailed context that forms the backdrop of our subjects, students will come to their own judgments based on reliable facts. I used to tell my classes that I wanted them to learn how to think about science, and that what they thought would rely on the facts, not on my personal perceptions.

One way to bring their thinking into the open – and to stimulate their curiosity – is by giving something physical to interact with. Every parent will be familiar with the innate fascination that Lego bricks hold for little fingers, and many of the materials developed by Lego Education use this approach – even when the bricks themselves are not involved.

Physical props can provide prompts or hints, filling in the gaps of knowledge that are not yet fluently recalled, by putting them at their literal fingertips. Fans of cognitive load theory might suggest that these props represent one less thing to keep in mind, the same as making a jobs list means the teacher at the front isn’t distracted in a lesson by the phone call they need to make at lunch and the photocopying to collect before last period. These objects must of course, be carefully chosen so they illustrate rather than distract from the lesson’s focus.

Hands-on models, whether examples or representations, force us to think about the limitations of our ideas. They are imperfect versions of reality, sometimes deliberately so. They can be both frustrating and compelling.

Teachers can experience the same difficulties as their students, which can be valuable for both -not just because of the moment of empathy, but for the chance to demonstrate how these difficulties can be addressed, making our tactics explicit for pupils to understand and imitate. When the problem set is more open-ended, students may feel like they are playing, but we know they’re learning: something the Mindstorms kits have demonstrated for several decades.

For us as teachers, expert in our subjects, a new approach which we must literally grapple with reminds us how our students feel all the time. Coming to the ideas as a student, in a hands-on way, makes us reconsider how our practice feels from the opposite side of the classroom – a humbling experience for practitioners in other fields, but a refreshing one for us. When I first started reading educational research, after years in the classroom, I found it surprisingly challenging. Having to puzzle out the meaning and refer back to check my understanding made me realise that for many students, this is what every lesson can be like.

It would be easy to claim props are a substitute for thinking hard about our subjects...and we can all think of students who will do their best! That reinforces the need for us to use meaningful activities, carefully planned with a specific aim, not to give up. No one activity will teach a student everything they need to know about working scientifically, to use an example from my own subject, but the right activities will allow students to encounter real problems, practise real approaches and develop real solutions.

This isn’t about memorising facts, because there are better ways to learn the foundations they’ll need to make progress, but the value of procedural knowledge – logical methods, double-checking steps, relying on checklists that are at first on paper and in time become internalised – can be emphasised by use in varied situations. The idea of cross-subject skills was a key theme of this year’s Lego Idea Conference, which looks for ways to build a playful approach into children’s development.

The shorthand term, ‘learning by doing’, represents a carefully planned opportunity for students to use a hands-on activity that reinforces these approaches. A few years back in science, the phrase ‘hands-on, minds-on’ tried to make this point. Whether you believe these skills can be transferred between subjects or not, I think we can all agree that students need to know how, not just know.

Meaningful assessment may be difficult but it seems these are the skills that are valued by employers, no matter what field our students end up working in. These are the skills, built on a foundation of literacy and numeracy, which provide common ground between disparate subjects.

Expecting students to work effectively in groups without support is a recipe for disaster. Consider a primary playground with two groups of pupils chasing after a football. It’s hardly surprising that the result is chaos rather than a beautiful game. In the classroom – or the science lab or the technology workshop – we need to provide the equivalent of positions, and make explicit the complementary skills needed by each team member. The aim should be to recognise that it’s not about being ‘a good student’, but about being ‘a student who has learned to be good at X’. This is, of course, true for teachers too; that’s why colleagues starting their career should be guided to observe specialists with their own specific skills, whether it’s questioning or behaviour management.

In the end, how effective an approach will be depends on how it is run. No activity will magically transform our students into engineers, any more than a weekly test is enough to ensure they learn all their French vocabulary. But dismissing hands-on learning without recognising the capacity for developing their thinking is to neglect a valuable tool. If a subject or discipline in the "real world" makes objects that can be picked up, then surely students should get to try that as they learn?

Ian Horsewell is a former science teacher and is now part of the education team at the Institute of Physics. He blogs at and tweets as @teachingofsci

LEGO® Education provides access to practical and engaging hands-on learning solutions to help pupils succeed in STEM lessons. For free downloadable curriculum content and support,