10 ways to make lessons more hands-on


Many of us want to learn by doing. Our students do, too! Here are some ideas for making learning more hands-on. (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

I’ve seen it in my own life. I bought an old zero-turn radius lawn mower and learned how to drive it on the fly. I’ve tinkered with broken items around the house until I fixed them.

I’ve seen it in the classroom. Students finally getting verb conjugation in Spanish after rearranging cards with word parts on them.

It’s true: hands-on learning works.

So many of us are tactile learners. We don’t want to be told how it’s done. We want to do it. It’s like that for adults and for kids.

But in so many classes, teachers feel that a lecture, a set of instructions or a thorough explanation is in order first. In many cases, that spoils the fun. It’s kind of like telling what’s going to happen in a movie and then watching it!

This was the topic of a recent #DitchBook Twitter chat (Thursdays, 30 minutes, 10 p.m. Eastern / 9 p.m. Central / 8 p.m. Mountain / 7 p.m. Pacific). We’ve been working our way through the DITCH model for engaging lessons:

  • D (Different)
  • I (Innovative)
  • T (Tech-laden)
  • C (Creative)
  • H (Hands-on)

It was time for H — hands-on. I asked participants to share a lesson that let students learn in a very hands-on way, and they didn’t disappoint! Here’s a link to a transcript of the chat so you can see the whole conversation.

Here are 10 hands-on ideas from the classroom and what I learned about hands-on learning from them:

1. Get your hands dirty — literally! A mess is memorable. Think of times when you’ve spilled something or stumbled upon a catastrophe by your kids in your home. It sticks in our brain because it’s unexpected. Harness that power and let kids get messy!

2. Make real-life connections. The answer to “How will I use this in real life?” always makes content more relevant. I love Sheldon’s idea below because it helps kids and parents work together in learning in the context of something everyone does — grocery shopping! Be sure to check out his blog post on this idea (see embedded tweet below) and the #MakeItReal hashtag for more ideas.

3. Give students opportunities to become designers. The maker movement and design thinking are hot topics in education right now. And for good reason! Designing, creating, changing, iterating, improving — they’re all good for the brain.

Also, check out this post — Design thinking: 10 key ideas.

4. Bring math to life. Real-life math isn’t as clean and simple as worksheets often suggest it is. Data is messy and often doesn’t make sense. Bringing physics, geometry and other math concepts to life helps kids deal with that reality. (See the final product of the watermelon catapult lesson here.)

5. Let students lead. You really have to know your stuff to teach. (We know that as well as anyone as educators!) That goes for students, too. Adam’s example below is great: “train students to train classmates.”

6. Try a problem with no clear solution. We don’t have to have all the answers as teachers. We don’t even have to know the answer to what we’re working on! Tisha’s lesson includes cooking without a recipe — a recipe for failure but certain learning.

7. Invent ways to bring textbook concepts to life. New ideas make some sense in the book. Pretty flow charts can help. But when you see it in real life, it clicks.

8. Explore and discover. Discovery is powerful. Students find things on their own and make sense of them. That’s what I love about Jill’s activity — students start with a sandbox and end with new learning. (Jill has a great, very thorough blog post below about it.)

9. Use video. It’s projected that more than 80 percent of consumer Internet traffic by 2020 will be video, according to a Cisco forecast. It’s easier than ever to make video — and to make it compelling. Sounds like a great opportunity for hands-on learning.

Use Megan’s idea below, or check out these blog posts about using video in the classroom:

10. Fail until you get it. It’s OK to fail — even though our schools seem to be built around the idea that we should avoid it. We can help students to fail forward and learn when things don’t go as planned. The leaks in Lanny’s lesson show that!

Question: What lessons have you taught that let students learn in a hands-on way? Why is this such a powerful way to learn? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Interested in having Matt present at your event or school? Contact him by e-mail!

Matt is scheduled to present at the following upcoming events:

 DateEvent / Event DetailsCity / More Info
+ 03/30/2018
Taylorville CUSDTaylorville, IL
+ 04/11/2018
Switzerland County School CorpVevay, IN
+ 04/21/2018
Great ExpectationsEdmond, OK
+ 04/25/2018
Connect ConferenceNiagra Falls, CA
+ 06/01/2018
MSD of MartinsvilleMartinsville, IN
+ 06/04/2018
Granbury ISDGranbury, TX
+ 06/05/2018
Columbus City SchoolsColumbus OH
+ 06/06/2018
School City of MishawakaMishawaka, IL
+ 06/12/2018
2nd Annual Learn, Explore, Adopt and Deliver (LEAD) ConferenceCleveland, OH
+ 06/13/2018
InnEdCoKeystone, CO
  Public Event
+ 06/19/2018
Tyler ISDTyler, TX
+ 06/21/2018
Barr-Reeve Jr/Sr High School- Washington Community SchoolsWashington, IN
+ 08/09/2018
St. Joseph Grade SchoolSouth Bend, IN
+ 08/14/2018
Tech CampPortage, Michigan
+ 08/15/2018
St. Anthony de Padua Catholic SchoolSouth Bend, IN
  • Larry Lynch says:

    I teach a welding class in a high school environment. We (students and I) have reversed engineered a grill/smoker of mine into a much larger size for sale. The math concepts involved created some confusion until they realized that the idea was to try, succeed or fail, and try again. We have settled on Plan B of the design, now working through mistakes in the assembly process. It has provided a multitude of lessons learned by my students, including what not to do again.

  • Catherine Day says:

    I am the same way. I like having a written/video tutorial available and then I like to jump in and do it! That way, I can practice it and practice it. Case in point: During Grad School, the best classes were the ones where I actually had to DO what they were asking me about, not just write a paper on it EX: In Differentiation class, he had me write up lesson plans that included many elements of differentiation. However, in Tech Class, there was very little hands-on training and more writing about it than anything (not the prof’s fault though). We need to explain it (and provide written/visual instruction to our students, then let them go at it with gusto! This gets them excited about it while cementing knowledge on how to do it. Years later, when they actually may need the knowledge, it will come back to them.

  • Anne Maddox says:

    I taught an after-school science class at five different schools for grades 1-6, divided into 3 classes, 1-2, 3-4, & 5-6. I taught the same lesson to all the grades three times a day, five days a week. By the end of the week, I had taught the lesson 15 times. I made the lessons all hands on. The Ss loved it. I would have to say that the visual appeal was the key. The kids could see the science in action. You know that feeling when you teach a lesson and say to yourself what you will change the next time you teach it? Well, that was actually an hour later. The one thing I would change if I had to do it again would be to let the Ss pour over all the science books and pick the next lesson instead of me doing it. Then they could be the ones to give me the supply list. It honestly started to change my thinking as I studied the books, then applied the lesson, giving me a “can do” attitude towards any project.

  • The “Tollbooth Game” was a favorite from when I was in school. Students ran a mock tollbooth with the rest of the class acting as the cars pulling through with tickets of varying amounts and various combinations of cash. Tollbooth operators had to process as many cars as possible (giving exact change, of course) within the allotted time period. Mr. Brennan turned our earnings and accuracy into a grade-wide competition.

    The simulation reinforced the value of quick, accurate computational skills in an energetic and authentic way that hooked us all (not an easy feat with 12 & 13 year-olds)!