Constructing Meaning ☆

| September 8, 2010

During our Reading and Math Buddies training, doctoral and master’s students from across the Teachers College disciplines found themselves constructing spheres, trapezoids and parallelograms and drawing circles in an effort to understand how young learners construct meaning.

Because we are a diverse group of learners, we all approached the tasks differently. Even though some of us had not thought about the abstract concepts of cylinders or diameters in a long time, the activity required us to reckon with the origins of our knowledge. Many of us valued seeing a model of what we attempted to create, and we appreciated checking in with one another and with Dr. Arno throughout the process. As we debriefed, we discovered that some of us craved written or oral directions (or a combination of the two). All of us appreciated the positive reinforcement from other fellows.

Hands-on learning isn’t simply about having fun, and this wasn’t just an art project. People who have trouble thinking in abstractions need to manipulate and experiment with representations in a low-risk environment before they are responsible for applying knowledge to high-stakes situations. Even though our comfort levels in working with the terms and tools at hand differed, we all recognized that the process was more important than the perfection of our products, and this liberated us, freeing us to learn. Focusing on the process also allowed us to take pleasure in the diversity of our creations, and since we applied our learning in a variety of ways, we all learned more.

Hands-on learning does require time and materials, but that shouldn’t preclude it from our classroom environments. Henry David Thoreau once said, “I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation!—Why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it.” Modern students shouldn’t feel this way about education. Our hands-on learning was a cognitively rich experience that emphasized depth and mastery over breadth and coverage. We forget how much of the lessons that last a lifetime are drawn from the well of experiences, and undoubtedly, we will add these ideas to our toolbox for supporting our buddies.