Going Back to the Basics: revisiting the importance of hands-on learning

Over the last several years, our students have gained a solid foundation for technology and virtual learning, but at what cost? In some cases, we may have forgotten the importance of hands-on learning. It’s time to get back to the basics and spend some time interacting and working with the real world again.

When the pandemic struck, we were all flailing. 

With our students learning from home, many of our classroom systems and processes were no longer options, so we did what we do best…we shifted.

And I’m proud of us for that.

We made it work, and I think many people would even say we conquered online learning and the use of technology in classrooms.

But…at what cost?

Unfortunately, we have almost shifted too far in the other direction. Technology has taken the place of many valuable teaching methods and tools. We are so dependent on technology that students aren’t getting a chance to see their teacher’s writing anymore, or cut and paste, or even color on real paper. We may have completely forgotten the importance of hands-on learning.

It’s gotten me thinking about what our kids are missing.

Some of the changes that came as a result of virtual learning are positive and useful, but too much of anything is not a good thing. We need to find a careful balance between technology and good old tried and true methods.

The Basic Elements of Teaching

In the shift to digital learning, some have lost sight of the basic elements of teaching and the importance of hands-on learning, so it might be time to step back and re-evaluate. 

Consider the following questions…

  • Are my students holding and reading the pages of real books?
  • Are my students writing with real pencils and/or pens? 
  • Do my students know how to properly grip a writing utensil?
  • Are my students cutting, coloring, and pasting?
  • Have my students seen real teacher handwriting on a board or chart paper?
  • Do I model writing in front of the students?
  • Have my students held and manipulated concrete models (for example math manipulatives)?
  • Could I teach a lesson without projecting from a computer?
  • Would learning take place in my classroom if all the devices broke?

That last one is the one that gets me because only a few years ago we struggled to get a computer to use in the classroom, and now we may not be able to go through our day without one.

It’s like we are kids on the day after Halloween.

We finally got something we have always wanted, but now Mom is saying that we need to only pick one piece (even though we know she is going to steal all of the Reeses from our bags while we’re at school).

We have the technology, so we want to use it. It makes our lives easier, we’re saving the trees because we’re printing less, and we have a supply of really fun games, puzzles, and tools that we can easily (and quickly) access. Why not use it as much as possible?

Some teachers also fear the ‘Mom eating the Reeses’ syndrome. We fear that if we don’t use the tech that we’ve been given (thus proving that we ‘need’ it), it could be taken away or seen as not a priority. That is a real, honest fear for many teachers who have gone without other classroom supplies and access to technology in the past.

Although these reasons for using tech in class are totally valid and definitely worth considering, we have to consider the effects of prolonged screen time on our students.

Screen Time

We know that too much screen time can adversely affect brain development. We also know that too much time on screens takes away from time spent with fine motor tasks.

According to the Mayo Clinic, too much screen time can lead to…

  • Behavior problems
  • Irregular sleep
  • Poor academic performance
  • Violence

…as well as other issues including vision.

Although your use of technology in the classroom may seem moderate, you have to consider how much screen time kids are getting at home. It is not one or the other, and it all adds up!

Although our main goal is to educate our students and teach them the content and skills they need to move forward educationally, we also want to keep in mind their best interests in the long term. If cutting our screen time down in the classroom helps with our students’ behavior and health, and keeps their eyes healthy, then it is something we really need to consider.

So, we don’t need to get rid of technology or eliminate screen time altogether, we just need to be aware of how much we’re using it. There are many excellent uses for technology in the classroom. We just have to choose carefully and remember to integrate other non-technology methods.

Be Prepared to Go Hands-on!

As a result of the shift to online learning and the increase of technology in the classroom, we are seeing many typical classroom items fall by the wayside. In fact, some teachers are doing away with some of these things completely! Now, that is a pretty big problem if you are going to try to reintegrate some hands-on learning into the classroom.

Some of the items we’ve seen heading for extinction from classrooms include…

  • Chalkboards
  • Whiteboards
  • Easels
  • Chart Paper
  • Paper in general!
  • Books!
  • Math Manipulatives
  • Classroom Libraries
  • Listening Centers
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Crayons

Many of the items on this list are the creative, fine-motor, skill-building elements of the classroom.

If we are going to make a push toward being ‘hands-on’ again, we need to make sure it is not a headache to do so. Part of the reason teachers are loving the tech is because it is easily accessible, quick to set up and pick up, and can often be adjusted. Hands-on activities are not quite that simple, so if we’re going to use them, we need to make sure that we are not running around the school looking for enough scissors for all the students in our class, or digging to the back of the staff supply cupboard for the last few drops of glue.

Back to the Basics

It is time to get back to the basics in the classroom.

We need to find the happy medium between creative, manipulative, ‘real’ play and learning in the classroom and using technology to supplement.

Here’s some ideas to improve the balance in your classroom.

#1 | Aim for a minimum of a 50-50 split when picking centers 

When you’re picking your centers, don’t forget the importance of hands-on learning! If you have 6 different centers lined up for math today, make sure that at least 3 of them include actual paper and pencil, manipulatives, or working on the dry erase board. Anything that will get students using their hands!

#2 | Have ‘screen free days’ 

Plan a day once every two weeks where screens aren’t used at all. Spend the day demonstrating and practicing writing on the board and chart paper, reading from real books, cutting and pasting…you get the idea.

#3 | Use combo activities

Find a way to add manipulatives, writing, coloring, or any other fine motor action to an activity that would normally be done 100% on the computer. If students are reading a text on the computer, have them write their answers to questions on a whiteboard or piece of paper, or have them illustrate the events of the text as they read it. Get creative!

These are just a few ideas to get you started, but really this post is about taking an honest look at your classroom and auditing your use of technology and screens for educational purposes. We don’t want you to stop using technology altogether, we just want you to remember that sometimes we need to get back to the basics of solid, fundamental teaching and the importance of hands-on learning! 

If you’re reading this post toward the end of the year, consider doing an activity like these class plays which provide a really good combination of both computer work and hands-on activities, or if you’re reading it at the beginning of the year, you may enjoy this post on 5 ways to build community at the beginning of the year, which is full of tech-free fun!


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