Brain-Based Research and the Need for Hands-On Learning

Rapid advances in brain-based imaging teach us that students need meaning in order to recall information, according to Differentiation and the Brain by David A. Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson.

Educators need to make content meaningful, whether through connecting the topic at hand to students’ prior knowledge or giving students experiential learning and inquiry-based learning opportunities. The more this topic unravels, the more it sounds like hands-on learning could help teachers address students’ search for meaning.

Click here for more information about hands-on learning and how to build hands-on activities into your core social studies curriculum.

Let’s start by looking at what brain processes can tell us about how K-12 students learn, according to Differentiation and the Brain:

  • Students retain information longer if what they are learning is “meaningful” to them.
  • Learning is largely based on the brain’s ability to make connections between new and familiar “patterns.”
  • Engaging multiple modes of learning using as many media and group configurations as possible increases chances students will find meaning and therefore recall information.

Building on prior knowledge

The idea of building on prior knowledge has been an imperative for teachers for a long time when it comes to supporting recall in students, and for a good reason.  Differentiation and the Brain states, “Brain scans have confirmed that when new learning is readily comprehensible (makes sense) and can be connected to past experiences (has meaning), there is substantially more cerebral activity, followed by dramatically improved retention” (p. 49).

Educators can do their best to build on prior knowledge–but what about when students have little prior knowledge about a given subject? This is where I think hands-on learning can help: when teachers must form a connection between the content and the student without prior knowledge to build on.

Hands-on can make distant, historical topics relatable

When it comes to social studies, students are asked to relate to subjects that are often historically or geographically distant.  However, as Differentiation authors points out, students learn better when the subject is personally meaningful.

While a 10-year old might not be able to personally relate to a colonist dumping tea into Boston Harbor, drawing the location on a map can help her visualize the geography of events that occurred as the story of these events gets revealed, and feel as if she is there. Incorporating hands-on activities with maps can help students ground themselves in a specific location when discussing geography or history. This forms a connection that is tangible, experiential, and therefore memorable.


Meaningful for one student is not meaningful for the next

It can be a real challenge to make activities meaningful to a student body with diverse interests, experiences, and backgrounds. We  know from brain-based research that “by manipulating the new learning in various ways through different processes and sensory modalities, the learner builds more interconnections within and between neural networks. This mass of interconnections provides multiple pathways for retrieving the new learning from long-term memory” (p. 55). This seems to address the need for varied activities, so that every learner has a chance to connect to a prior experience. 

We are more likely to connect to diverse student interests and ways of learning using varied modalities that might include watching, listening, speaking, writing, moving around physically, marking, and handling physical objects, as well as working individually and in small groups. Hands-on, activity-based  learning is a great way to cover all bases in this regard. By helping make connections for students that are both cognitive, social, and kinesthetic, we increase the possibility for them to retrieve and build upon that learning in the future.

Getting hands-on learning into the curriculum

Using hands-on programs that incorporate a variety of learning modalities will not guarantee success, but it will certainly increase your chances to engage students in meaningful ways. These meaningful experiences will ultimately facilitate long-term retention, and more student engagement, and decrease the likelihood of discipline problems. 

The search for meaning continues

Information that students learn absent a connection to their lives is likely to be forgotten. According to Differentiation and the Brain, “Because the brain is constantly searching for meaning, students will give their attention to what they find personally meaningful” (p. 15). It’s up to us as educators to decide whether this is a crutch or a guiding star that allows us to see where students can best connect with a given subject, and how to ensure they will remember tomorrow what they learned today.

I’m curious about whether brain-based research has helped teachers identify strategies to try in their classrooms. Are you using hands-on learning strategies in your classroom? If so, leave me a note in the comments about what has worked for you and your students.

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Dr. Aaron Willis is the chief learning officer for Social Studies School Service, and has been working in the field of interactive and digital education for more than two decades. His primary areas of interest include brain-based imaging, hands-on learning, and evidence-based reading and writing strategies.  Dr. Willis is based in Los Angeles, California, but travels frequently to work with teachers focusing on practical solutions to their professional challenges.

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