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Hands On, Minds On

“Hands on, minds on.” I wish I was the clever soul to have coined this phrase. But, it belongs to Gary Kuppelman, a retired science teacher who taught environmental science in the small rural community of Blissfield, Michigan for thirty-two years. Kuppelman’s “hands on, minds on” philosophical approach to teaching was featured September 11, 2020 in the “On Teaching” series of The Atlantic.

Mr. Kuppelman’s efforts were driven by several factors. First were his personal experiences as a struggling student. As he grew to understand his unique learning challenges, so did his recognition that to teach science to all children, he would need to move beyond the traditional approaches of textbooks, lectures and occasional lab activities. Second, he realized that science education in the elementary grades was spotty, at best. This article, authored by Kristina Rigza, cites a 2003 review of 110 studies on children’s attitudes toward science in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. The analysis found that student interest in science “begins to wane after age eleven, suggesting that the elementary years are a key time to build and sustain engagement” with the subject.

Through her writing, Rigza calls attention to studies that have examined the amount of time dedicated to the study of science in the elementary grades since the mid-1990s. These studies “found variation between states, but generally show an overall decline, especially in schools serving high numbers of low-income children. Meanwhile, jobs in the STEM-related fields are now projected to be among the fastest growing in America, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics."

A key driver to Kuppelman’s interest in developing an environmental science lab in his school, one that would come to serve all students in the district, was his profound recognition of the power of curiosity. In his words, “All lessons should start with the interests of young children.” As Rigza reports, “In Kuppelman’s view, children are born with all the traits of a good scientist: They are curious, eager to investigate their surroundings, and happy to experiment. But too many students enter elementary-school classrooms that extinguish that passion with lessons that are disconnected from their lives and the natural world around them.”

The lab he created has become a model of inquiry-based STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) instruction. But, the big payoff must be to observe the levels of student interest and engagement. Here’s what kids reported to Rigza as she prepared to write her article: “ ‘I learned that even though hamsters are the same species, they all need and like different things,’ the fifth-grade zoo keeper said. ‘Every day feels like a field trip day,’ a seventh grader told me. ‘The lab is so awe-inspiring in our little town,’ said one high school senior, who applied to several colleges to study computer science. He credits the lab with making science and math his favorite subjects.”

“It’s hard to explain to people who are not teachers what it looks and feels like when something in nature or science touches a child’s sense of awe and wonderment,” Kuppelman said. “But my colleagues and I see it every day. That’s the payoff. There is nothing else like it.”

Gary Kuppelman was absolutely correct in his assessment. Kids are inherently curious and they are excited to explore their surroundings. He is also correct in his grim acknowledgement that, too often, our instructional practices extinguish passion.

A systemic extinguishing of passion must not be what public education is about.

In my 2018 book, The Education Kids Deserve, I devote significant attention to the role of curiosity in learning. I attempt to tackle the reality that while curiosity is recognized to be a significant marker of academic success, it is under-valued and under-utilized in American classrooms.

It’s undeniably true that children are incredibly curious, which I define as the joy of exploration. It is this universal yearning to understand, in intimate and personal ways the wonder of their world, that propels children to discovery. Susan Engel, a renowned authority in understanding human curiosity states: “The need to resolve uncertainty and explain the unexpected is the engine of early cognitive development. Research confirms that . . . it (curiosity) is necessary to a child’s intellectual growth.” (2009)

Sadly, allowing student curiosity to flourish and to serve as a springboard for learning that is personally relevant, is frequently ignored. In her 2013 article in Educational Leadership, Susan Engel observed: “Given that curiosity has such a positive impact on learning, you might assume that teachers are doing everything they can to encourage it. But, that is not the case.”

Why not? That would be the reasonable next question. Sir Ken Robinson offers this explanation. “So, in place of curiosity, what we have is a culture of compliance. Our children and teachers are encouraged to follow routine algorithms rather than to excite that power of imagination and curiosity.” (2013)

Why is that? Because curiosity driven, inquiry-based learning, is messy. Allowing kids to learn through the pursuit of their interests, their curiosity, might imply a level of activity that flies in the face of what we typically define as a well managed classroom. There will be movement, activity, elevated voices, laughter. We don’t utilize student curiosity because it’s challenging and requires a set of skills that may feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable to traditional teachers.

Traditional classrooms focus on factual content. It is infrequent that students get to engage in intellectual dialogue that strays too far from the facts. Managing questions like “why is that?” or “what if it was different?” requires added teacher skills and confidence that are the product focused training and funding. But, according to a professor of science education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, “it’s worth it.” This professor, John L. Rudolph, believes that this strengthens students’ depth of understanding and their development of necessary problem-solving and communication skills according to Rigza’s reporting.

And, in my view, the ripples of this approach extend even further: literature, writing, global history, human ethics, the arts and creative enterprises. The sky’s the limit when we embrace “hands on, minds on.’

I cite several researchers and experts in the discussion of curiosity in my book, The Education Kids Deserve. Here are a few:

“The greatest advantage of curiosity lies in its power to motivate learning in areas of life and work that are meaningful to the learner.” (Price-Mitchell 2015)

“Curiosity may increase learning by motivating individuals to think more about the material being presented, and has obvious links to theories that propose distinctions between ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ learning.” (Pluck and Johnson 2011)

“Curiosity creates an openness to unfamiliar experiences, laying the groundwork for greater opportunities to experience discovery, joy and delight.” (Kashdan 2010)

“Curiosity isn’t the icing on the cake, it’s the cake itself.” (Engel 2013)

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