Just this evening, my neighbor’s 7-year old came along with his dad to take a look at our flagstone walkway that we were getting redone. Looking closely at a couple of thick roots that he (rightly) assumed we might have to get cut as they were getting under the walkway to be built, he deduced, “the Maple tree will die because the roots you’ll have to cut are so thick,” “but if you water the tree well, and keep watering it, it may survive,” he added after a brief silence during which he probably identified a problem and reflected upon his knowledge to look for a plausible solution. “Because the roots suck water to give to the tree, and that same water, if you supply to it, you can save the tree,” he surmised.
Mindfulness and Meaningful Learning -> problem solving:
Noel came across as an engaged learner: he had taken an active role in what he had learned: had done things hands-on- like planting a tree (he mentioned) and not just learned a bunch of facts but had analyzed and experimented with the data. He walked me through his tree planting experience: “I dug a hole which was initially too shallow and I saw the tiny sapling’s roots still exposed.” “How would they get water unless it rains, I wondered.” “I therefore dug the hole bigger so all roots were under the ground and thus able to derive water and nutrients from the soil, and I removed the rocks and pebbles so roots could have room to grow unhindered,” he explained. And now, on encountering this problem, he recreated and perhaps visualized in his own mind the function of a big root of a tree and applied his understanding to bootstrap the tree out of the situation!
Hands-on activities are imbued with opportunities that allow children to reflect and consider options while making choices, thereby increasing children’s overall state of mindfulness. Langer (2000) defines mindfulness as a simple act of drawing novel distinctions and claims that being mindful increases one’s sensitivity to context and perspective. It’s a facilitative state that increase creativity, flexibility, and use of information (Langer, 1989). Ritchhart & Perkins (2000), argue that the real potential of mindfulness lies in transfer of knowledge and skills to new contexts, development of deeper understanding, students’ engagement, and the ability to think creatively and critically.
Most kids in school, however, have a sketchy notion of concepts that they find difficult to transfer to new contexts. Consequently, they find themselves hobbling through problems, while parents/teachers often blame it on them saying, “they don’t toil enough! Although the gap between ability and application is well documented in the literature on thinking, yet not much has been done to address the issue nor efforts made to improve thinking- the kind if thinking behaviors that assist individuals take an active role in the learning process. A phenomenal amount of evidence supports task engagement as one of the key factors in ensuring meaningful learning that “sticks.”
Unless individuals engage and take an active role in what they are studying, their learning is far from meaningful. When they do things hands-on, ask questions, seek clarifications, hypothesize, look for evidence to support the same, and recreate in their own minds the process involved, then learning is meaningful and can be applied to various contexts (Gardner, 2009). Otherwise, the learning (if at all) gets obliterated soon after exams and children simply find themselves buffeting between classes and challenges. What happens when people actively engage with tasks?
Learning by Doing: Authentic activity and autonomy
My 4-year old niece, just in a few keystrokes, can access new domains of information using which she can download music and her favorite programs, play her favorite games, and use the search engine to tell me what she wants for her Birthday gift. Picking up on the tiny details that draw her attention through repeated, random pressing of keys to begin with, she grows in her understanding of how things work. Most of her understandings are shaped by what she sees on the screen as her fingers wriggle on the keys, and the only way she’s able to navigate her way around technology to entertain herself is by ‘doing.’ Clearly, it would have taken several stepping stones (“failed outcomes”) for her to reach those understandings.
By the same token, in Learning and Design thinking in Makerspaces, 758 Urban Education learners often combine physical and digital materials in a collaborative informal learning environment. Because the youth felt ownership of the program and felt agency in it- they proposed and carried out solutions that kept the program thriving: “I can make any idea real!” Similarly, when individuals do things hands on, reflect, consider and apply concepts, and get instant feedback in terms of results, the very authenticity of the task motivates them as they realize they’re using their learning right here instead of waiting to put the learning to use sometime in the distant future. In occasion of hitting a snag, they question their doing to figure out a reason for the failure and start again, learning from their mistakes and consequently changing strategies.
If seeing is believing, doing is learning through experimenting to reach understandings. (Read a manual on how to ride a bicycle or just ride it!). Doing, in addition to involving our visual sense, involves our mind/brain and thinking in a more deliberate, targeted manner. By involving the mind in a deliberate manner, hands-on activities enable individuals to proactively engage, pushing them to think- creating a visual picture so to say of the process involved; and these very thoughts are what individuals can hold on to in order to retain what is learned.
Instead of making students passive recipients most of the time, if schools could provide space where students try things out, inquire, experiment, and take intellectual risks, learning will be much more meaningful and applicable across contexts. To ensure that children don’t find themselves on tenterhooks on encountering new problems (in exams or in real life), they need to be anchored in knowledge and learning behaviors through such experimenting, questioning, and so forth. When children have opportunities to engage and make meaning, their learning experiences become memorable and then they are more likely to use the learning in real life situations.
Given the plethora of information and problems we need to make sense of in this digital age, it is crucial for schools to enculturate the aforementioned thinking behaviors in children so they become engaged, informed citizens who don’t twiddle their thumbs in a quandary but navigate their way out through knowledge application and make (informed) choices.