I want you to close your eyes a minute and remember your days in middle school or high school. What do you remember most, in terms of learning? Did your teachers engage you in hands on learning activities like hexagonal thinking and break-out boxes? Do you remember the negative experiences more than the positive ones?
Here’s what I remember:
- The good: I remember Spanish class, having to name the parts of a doll’s house as we interacted with a child’s dollhouse, moving the furniture around to discuss where we were moving the pieces and why. I remember, in geometry class, having to chart Gulliver’s Travels, plotting and figuring out size changes along the way. I remember writer’s workshop and choosing a writer’s style to mimic in English class.
- The bad: I remember reading stories from the textbook and answering the questions, rinse and repeat. I remember teachers talking. A lot of teachers talking. What did they say? I couldn’t tell you.
- The ugly: I remember sitting in history class. My teacher put overhead upon overhead on the projector and we copied them down word for word. There was little interaction beyond this, and I don’t even remember what content he was covering. I do remember that a girl named Brittney asked to copy my notes all the time because she (and others) frequently daydreamed in class.
Hands On Learning Benefits
I’ve found that student engagement depends on skillful design of hands on learning experiences in my classroom.
Because I grew up with traditional teaching methods, it took a while for me to flip the switch in my mind to redefine classroom learning.
Classroom learning that involves students is best, and I knew that in theory. Putting theory into practice, though, depends on great mentors, having access to professional development, and building a toolbox of really great teaching strategies that don’t depend on the teacher to put on a show. It also depends on desire, openness, flexibility, creative thinking, and self-reflection.
My north star question is this: Who is doing the most work? If the answer is not the students, then I need to reflect and refocus.
The benefits of active learning:
- Increased student engagement
- Increased retention of knowledge
- Higher levels of thinking
- Increased application of knowledge
- Making connections – to prior learning or cross-curricular ideas and skills
- Less teacher burnout
- Pssst…I’ll say it again. Less. Teacher. Burnout.
Hands On Learning vs. Lecturing
There’s a time and a place for teacher talk in learning. But I see this instructional strategy as limited. A little bit of lecture may be fine, and we can’t always plan superstar lessons (On a side note, I’ve got you…scroll down to the bottom for ready-to-go superstar ideas.), but it’s best used in small amounts (if at all). My last lecture was circa 2008-ish.
So, even in teacher-directed mini-lessons or workshops, I am not the sage on the stage. So, in a nutshell, the traditional lecture is dead to me. May it rest in peace.
I see the benefits of hands on learning not just for students, but also for teachers. Lecturing take a lot of energy and, like I said, if I am the one working the hardest in the room, that’s not helping all students to learn. I would much rather spend my time designing fun and engaging learning experiences for students, in which they are asked to discuss, create, defend, connect, etc. Working smarter, not harder, in the teaching profession means paying attention to instructional design.
When I design instruction, I try to be thoughtful about the process and the product.
Here are some instructional design questions to think about:
- What is the end goal for students? What do you want them to know and be able to do?
- Which skills are essentials, and how do they build upon and connect to prior coursework?
- Could use of technology be beneficial? How can I use technology to transform student learning?
- Can I use inquiry or project-based learning strategies?
- How can I give design learning so that students go through an authentic process, create an authentic product, and share with an authentic audience?
- And the driving question that whispers in the back of my mind through the planning process is this: how can it be cool? By cool, of course, I mean hands on, interactive, unique, and meaningful.
Speaking of purposeful instructional design, have you heard of hexagonal thinking?
I recently polled my Instagram followers and found that more than 80 percent of teachers had never heard of hexagonal thinking.
That’s when this blog post was born.
Hexagonal thinking is a retrieval and connection strategy that I’ve recently tried (and loved) with my students. The goal of this activity is to make a generalization about linked ideas. Students are given (or self-generate) several relevant ideas, concepts, feelings, images, terms, etc., make connections, receive quick teacher feedback, and explain why and how.
You can easily differentiate this activity up or down by giving different cards to different student groups.
Differentiate Down: You can have students who need more support in this hands on learning activity start with main ideas on hexagons and challenge them to add and connect a certain number of hexagons to each main idea. You can color code, limit the types of content on hexagons (see list below), and provide sentence stems for explaining connections (see list below).
Differentiate Up: You can challenge student learning with an extended hexagon activity. Instruct students to take a picture of their original thinking and then re-cluster to look at their ideas in a new way. Then, have students explain which model they like better and why.
Challenging All Learners: Have students participate in a gallery walk to notice different ways of connecting ideas (and then complete a journal explaining their insights / observations). You can have students tape their hexagons to butcher paper and write down their connections, then present to the class. You can have students complete a Flipgrid to share their thinking.
Rules of Hexagonal Thinking
The fun of hexagonal thinking lies in the creative thinking that it produces. Beyond three ground rules, students must work together to make their thinking visual.
- Rule #1: Everyone contributes.
- Rule #2: Everyone must agree on the connections made between ideas.
- Rule #3: Hexagons must share a connection with all other hexagons they touch.
In addition, there are rules for teachers. It is important to circulate during this activity, providing quick feedback on the accuracy and quality of connections. Steer clear of getting involved in conversations or doing the work for students. Stick with quick formative feedback: “Yes!” or “Not Yet” and “I wonder” statements work well.
What Goes on the Hexagons?
- Terms to Know / Academic Vocabulary
- Phrases or Sentences
- Key Ideas or Concepts
Sentence Stems for Making Connections
Here are a few sentence stems that students can use to explain their connections in hexagonal thinking activities. Feel free to use and come up with your own!
- __________ is similar to __________ because __________
- __________ is the reason for __________
- __________ causes __________ because __________
- Overall, I think __________
- __________ and __________ impact __________ because __________
- __________ suggests that __________
- __________ makes me think __________
- __________ and __________ together make me think of __________
- There seems to be a pattern of __________ which is seen in __________
When to Use Hexagonal Thinking
- Introduction to a Unit of Study
- As a Formative or Summative Assessment
- In connection with a high-interest text or novel
- For cross-curricular connections
- Brainstorming / mind mapping
- To gather evidence during the research process
- As a reading activity
- As a pre-writing activity
Hexagonal Thinking in English Class
For my recent in-class activity, I asked students to take research notes on their hexagon cards. They chose a different color paper for each of their sources and wrote a key idea or quote on each card. Then, they sorted the hexagons to come up with the main ideas and an outline for their research project.
I came across this video and was inspired to try using hexagons for literature circle discussions. Check it out:
If you’re worried about the prep work involved, hexagonal thinking does not have to be a ton of prep for teachers. Visit this blog post to read about three secrets for reducing hexagonal thinking prep!
More Hands On Learning Examples
If you’re looking for hands on learning ideas for English class, here are a few ideas for you that are better than dark chocolate on popcorn:
- Podcasting in the Classroom – Click on the link to read all about how I target reading, writing, research, speaking and listening, and technology skills.
- Use Online Resources – A simple way to design a student-led learning experience is to use a Google Document to house links for exploring and tasks to complete. The most important thing to remember about this is that if you use technology simply to replace pen and paper it’s not really changing the learning dynamic. I strive to incorporate multiple modalities in the responses and products students create based on Google Document resources. There should also be an extension or synthesis task at the end.
- Try GooseChase – This app is a great way to gamify learning in your classroom. Click on the link to check out my previous post about GooseChase in the classroom.
I have more ideas for you in this FREE guide to 21st-century differentiation. Join other creative teachers in flipping the switch to activate student-led learning. Click on the image above for more information!
Hands on Learning FAQ
What are the benefits of hands on learning?
Hands on learning involves students in their learning instead of “sit and get” lecture-based teaching. The more active students are in the learning process, the more they learn by doing instead of by being told what to do, the more they retain the content and skills being taught.
Why is hands on learning important?
Hands on learning is important for student engagement and for retention of knowledge. It also helps to create a student-centered learning environment which helps with teacher-student rapport and classroom management. In addition, creating hands on learning experiences in the classroom sends the message that students need to be involved in their own learning and are responsible for creating knowledge and practicing important skills.
Is hands on learning more effective than other teaching methods?
Teachers must plan lessons purposefully with the end goal and skills in mind. If a hands on method can be used, it is more beneficial than one-dimensional teaching as it can provide another way for students to learn and to demonstrate learning. As with any teaching strategy, it is important for teachers to communicate the goals for the activity and also to make sure that it aligns with rigorous standards and goals for learning. The goal should be for ALL students to learn and be engaged in the learning process.