05 February 2010

Reach Out and Touch Some Learning

I mentioned in my last post that I don't believe in grade inflation. I also don't believe in "learning styles." There is no such animal as an "auditory learner." With the exception of those with hearing loss, we are all auditory learners. We are also visual and kinesthetic learners. Our brain processes information in different ways. All of these methods of input have an impact on our learning and memory.

I have been thinking more and more about the kinesthetic part as of late. As we move further into a digital age, what will become of "hands on" learning? I understand that an online dissection can replace a real one...that a flash-based simulation can model experiments that students might not be able to complete in a school setting...that open-source tools can put powerful options into the hands of kids to create new meaning from the knowledge they've gained. There are amazing wonders to be had...but what will we lose in the process?

I haven't looked around to see if there is any ed research out there comparing the learning that occurs in a digital environment vs. real world manipulative one. I'm sure that each can be effective in their own ways. What I'm most interested in at the moment is how a teacher would determine when to use one or the other---is that based on the student or the content? Does the purpose of the learning and cognitive demand necessary make a difference when selecting one form or another?

It would seem unlikely that hands-on opportunities will disappear from lower grades. I have a hard time imagining elementary schools without scissors, glue, paint, sand, and other bits of analog exploration. At upper grades, as 1-to-1 programs become more popular and learning is moved beyond meatspace, will we forget what it is like to reach out and touch some learning?


John Gale said...

Most of the kids I work with have disabilities, and the virtual labs are useful for them: the frog dissection, the chemistry and physics simulations.

But the feel for materials that you get from working with wood and plastic, metal and glue - we don't have good simulations for that.

I have worked with flight simulators, and in some scenarios,the simulation can be absolutely convincing, leaving pilots shaking and drenched in sweat. But these are prepared scenarios, in a limited domain. I don't know exactly how we're going to make a digital simulation good enough for open-ended exploration, but I know we need to work on it, starting with science/engineering experiences for kids with disabilities, and (as with many technology examples) moving into more general applications.

This is an interesting area to think about - thanks for bringing it out for discussion.

Ricochet said...

We had a similar discussion about math: there is a drill and kill camp and a discovery camp but what teaches beast is a good explanation, practice and investigation. - some of everything.

Jenny said...

As a first grade teacher I can't imagine a classroom without countless materials to manipulate and engage with. So, in many ways your post came as a surprise to me. I hadn't considered the possibility that we might be moving toward such a reality. Now however I'm intrigued by the idea. My gut reaction is pained. But is that only because change is hard?

Students have opportunities digitally that don't exist (or are prohibitively expensive) any other way. Is it more worth our money to provide the digital experience at the cost of more traditional options?

So many questions.

The Science Goddess said...

Jenny---I can't imagine an elementary classroom (primary grades, especially) that wouldn't be full of manipulatives. But I really do wonder about secondary. As kids become old enough to have their own phones, netbooks, etc., will the appeal of learning with one's hands diminish? I'm hoping not.

The Digital Plumber said...

While I can agree that we all learn in all ways, auditory, visual, and kinesthetic, there are definitely different learning styles. A classroom setting was never good for me. I had to be in what I considered reality in order to learn. Of course, being kept in a refrigerator box for an entire school day for not completing my assignments on time didn't help my opinion of the structured classroom environment. If only it had been 2011 and not 1977 I might have had an iPad with me and never left the box. (I'd wet my pants early on anyway.)