The Problem with Hands-On Learning
Even when children are 10 or 11 they still believe if you crumple one of two identical pieces of paper that the crumpled paper weighs more. They fail to consider that nothing has been added to the crumpled paper. It has changed only in shape. They believe that the weight increases by what they see or feel in front of them. The small ball of paper feels heavier (actually more concentrated in one place in the palm) when the two papers are held side-by-side in adjacent hands. From there they invent more complex reasons that go beyond what they can directly perceive. They say the crumpled paper catches more air and that adds to its weight. The crumpled paper does have two or three layers, so that could (but does not really) add to the weight of the layer below. Or else they reason if you throw the crumpled paper it will fly farther than the paper sheet – therefore the crumpled paper is heavier. They fail to consider air resistance.
If we believe that young children learn from their senses (i.e. nose, eyes, ears, fingers) then what has gone wrong when children rely on their senses and what implications does this research bear on how we teach young children? Should we train them to sense more accurately that the two papers feel the same when hefted? No, because the more concentrated, crumpled paper does, in fact, feel heavier. Should we teach young children not to trust their senses and listen to what the teacher tells them? No, because that approach would not lead to understanding; it would lead only to correct answers.
The implications call for closer attention to children and more attempts to help them reflect on how they themselves have organized the information they have received from their senses. Let’s try to consider why two experiences might contradict each other, to understand how one’s judgments work in some situations but not others.
In like manner, video games that try to teach concepts without taking into account common misconceptions are likely to lead to superficially correct answers. Yes, we can teach children that the crumpled paper still weighs the same, but will the child know how to answer the follow up question, “How do you know?” For the child to say, “You can weigh them,” does not really represent his/her understanding of mass. A better answer would be: “Well, you did not add anything so it must be the same weight.” Good teaching will help children think about and analyze general principles, not simply remember specific experiences. And this whole discussion makes us rethink the word “experience.” The source of understanding does not come from “doing something repeatedly” but from reflecting on what the “doing something” implies.
How Do Our Children Think (2006). Ahmedabad, India: Educational Initiatives. www.ei-india.com