Child psychologist Jean Piaget is famous for his theory of cognitive development. Among others, he espoused that cognitive functioning greatly depends on life experiences. In other words, the more experienced one is, the better his or her thinking. However, mere exposure to experiences is not what Piaget was talking about.
Cognition improves significantly only when one’s accumulation of experiences is qualitative, rather than quantitative. Hence, an individual with excellent thinking does not necessarily have to be the most experienced. A truly “smart” person is one who constantly uses whatever limited experiences he has to his own benefit. He does it by ingeniously connecting elements of different experiences to form meaningful understanding of events, situations, and concepts.
People who misunderstood Piaget’s theory of cognitive development over-emphasized the importance of exposing students to activities through hands-on learning. This was prevalent in the 90s, a time when educators became passionate about promoting experiential learning – learning by doing. At that time, a lot of teaching focused around providing students with direct experiences with concepts being learned. Teachers were pre-occupied with demonstrating how to do something, and students were equally busy with replicating what was demonstrated to them. This was a typical happening in a science class, with a laboratory component. It also became the instructional modus operandi for subjects like social studies, math, and language arts. Teachers tried to integrate activities in possibly every lesson so that students could learn by doing.
The missing component
There is nothing wrong with hands-on learning where emphasis is placed on having students learn by doing. “Doing” connotes gaining rich experiences by coming into direct contact and interacting with physical and social realities around us. This contact and interaction help shape our understanding about everything in life. In fact, abstract thinking develops as a result of us doing concrete things that eventually lead to insight into abstract ideas.
However, it was the way “learning by doing” was implemented that caused problems in academic learning. I still remember “doing” a lot of things, in science, geography, and history classes because schools back then were required to engage students in projects and long-term mini research. However, none of those activities helped me to think or engage in meta-cognition (thinking about thinking). Teachers as well as students were doing things to produce products (that would demonstrate fulfillment of leaning objectives) without being concerned about the process of learning. We were told what to “do,” but never how to think.
Hence, the missing element was “heads-on” learning. For a long time in education, this component was overlooked because we became pre-occupied with hands-on learning. This is still evident in many schools, especially for younger children, where pure activities-based teaching defines their learning experiences. Most of these schools presume that when a child is provided with a lot of activities that relate directly or indirectly to learning, concepts are attained and formed, almost automatically, by some unexplainable cognitive process that takes place in the his mind as a result of his interaction with the host activities. This sounds almost like the hit and miss strategy.
Hands-on plus heads-on
While the hands-on learning era was a huge leap from the traditional “memorize and regurgitate” era of industrial revolution, it is not sufficient for the 21st century minds. There is a dire need for sound and comprehensive educational approaches that would enable students to prepare to face a world that “thinks.” This implies the need for an education that focuses on both hands-on and heads-on learning. Students must learn by doing. But they should also be taught how to think – before, during, and after performing a series of tasks that relate to their learning.