Hands-on teaching prompts competing thoughts

We encounter two schools of thought when we suggest get-the-hands-dirty projects, and especially when it involves taking students outdoors and putting shovels and other tools in their hands.

Members of one school voice doubt, noting difficult behavior and expressing concern that physical movement, handling tools and materials and spread-thin supervision is a recipe for trouble. These scholars also observe that so many students really do not like communing with nature or getting their hands dirty (more about this in next post). Some members of this group also say that students must earn the freedom that goes with hands-on activity with good behavior.

The alternative view,  however, is expressed as guarded hope that offering students real hands-on experiences could be a means to an important end, meaningful engagement. Members of this academy typically acknowledge the risk of losing control. Students might very well behave poorly until or unless they buy into the learning opportunity before them. But adherents to this way of thinking might also say the better-controlled classroom environment is not working so well. So why not take a risk?

Many members of the first group do not see a calculated risk here. They see a message that discipline and control are not so important.

It hardly seems that either school of thought is all right or all wrong. Day-to-day experience provides ample reason to fear tumult. But it is hard to believe that the students who are turned off by school are going to work for the privilege of experiencing engaging teaching.

—Bill Stoneman

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