Learning by Doing is one of my mantras this year: I spoke about it in my opening meeting to students, and will repeat it regularly.    Aristotle and contemporary brain research agree: students learn best and remember most when they do the hands-on work of learning.  But it is not easy, I know it is not, to stage-manage this kind of learning.   Anthony Cody at Teacher Magazine offers some tips on a recent blog posting.

He begins with the counsel to not wait to implement hands-on activities, but to begin your year with a bang.  Then to the heart of his advice.

What’s the Big Idea? Make sure you start your activity by emphasizing a major question that yours results will answer. Post this on the wall. Connect it to the standards. Make sure the students know that they will be responsible for answering the question with evidence.

I think this is essential:  make sure students know and understand what it is they are trying to learn and do when they engage in hands on activities.  For this reason, I have come to prefer the term Problem-based learning to Project Based Learning, because it reinforces this essential point: students should know what problem they are seeking to solve, what new understanding they are striving to acquire while they are doing their project.  This cuts through a lot of the challenge of aimless students being silly, or not clear what they will be accountable for.

Have clearly written procedures. Students want and need to know what they are going to do, and what they are responsible for recording and learning. Make sure you communicate basic procedures so students have a great chance to succeed the first time. Have students work in smaller, cooperative groups.

Things will inevitably go haywire. If you’re doing a lab experiment, and there is actually anything happening that is truly unsafe, you should be prepared to halt the activity immediately. Make it clear this is not a punishment, but a chance to learn.

Lesson planning for hands-on activities will be most effective when they build in some expectations that things might go awry.

Reflect together. Begin by having groups share data or the results of their research or their collaborative products. Troubleshoot what they’ve come up with. Ask students to think critically about their results and those of their peers. In science or math class, see if they can find sources of error, and emphasize the importance of accuracy in measurement, and the value of multiple trials, if appropriate. Return to the big question, and see if students can write a conclusion in which they cite evidence to answer it.

Always, reflect, troubleshoot, critique, build in students’ metacognition skills, and strive to respect their voices as to how we can learn to do learning by doing better.