Learning activities in traditional classrooms lean on two main methods: auditory and visual learning. Classroom lectures and group discussions require auditory processing skills, while written materials such as books, powerpoints and whiteboard notes provide visual inputs.
However, as everyone who has ever dissected a frog or fired up a bunsen burner knows, there’s a third approach: kinesthetic (or kinaesthetic) learning.
Referred to colloquially as “hands-on learning,” kinesthetic learning incorporates physical activity, role play, field trips and other real life, tactile learning opportunities. This umbrella term can be as low-tech as using manipulatives to teach math or studying nature by hiking through a forest; it can also involve high-tech experiences, like learning in a virtual reality environment.
Known to especially benefit people with adhd, kinesthetic learning has something to offer all types of learners. While certain subjects, like lab sciences, often adopt the kinesthetic learning style, it’s becoming more wide-spread across the various disciplines as educators recognize its benefits for engaging students and enhancing retention.
The third in a series of three in which we analyze the different learning styles, this post will discuss what is a kinesthetic learner and the benefits of hands-on learning for any student. (See our posts on the learner characteristics of visual learners and auditory learners.)
So much of traditional education is focused on limiting body movement, encouraging students to focus on their eyes and ears, and turn off everything else. “Hands to yourself.” “Sit still.” “Read silently.”
Worse, when we train kids to associate movement with athletics and sitting still for “real” learning, we create an unhelpful dichotomy they’ll spend years unlearning. Instead, we should bring movement into the classroom on a regular basis, whether it’s having kids role play historical events, sending them on sight-word scavenger hunts or making nature walks a part of the science curriculum.
When you roll up your sleeves and start physically manipulating materials, building models or exploring an environment, you need to process the immediate feedback — no dozing off. Whether the hands-on experience confirms your suspicions or surprises you with something totally unexpected, it gets you involved at a deeper level than if you had just read about it or watched a video.
At Prisma we believe all learning should incorporate a hands-on element because applying learning in a practical way is the only way it will ever be memorable and concrete: Our learners invent new technologies, perform lab experiments — like creating and testing their own recipes — and complete design challenges in workshops. They also take advantage of our flexible schedule to make time for experiential learning opportunities like getting out in nature to make scientific observations, visiting museums to learn about history and art.
While the category of hands-on activities is broad, we recommend taking a project-based approach: present students with a real-world issue, give them a broad set of tools with which to confront it, and then let them get to work problem-solving.
When we see students learning by doing, we see them build a sense of ownership and obtain mastery of new concepts. At the same time, it helps them understand the relevance of what they are doing, making it more likely that they’ll want to dig in deep and learn more.
The problem with “learning types” is that they artificially divide the learning process into discrete activities that don’t reflect real life. Each of the three different types ostyle has something to offer in different circumstances, to different students, at different moments.
The best environment will be the one that incorporates all three in a way that suits the goals and the needs of the learners — and does so in a purposeful way that has learners reflecting on why they do what they do.
When students think about how they think (metacognition), they’re in a better position to decide for themselves what they need — and be open about trying something new when their old approaches come up short. At Prisma, we build in these kinds of reflections throughout the learning process, so that students don’t just lean on their preferences out of habit but instead, develop a growth mindset as part of the journey.
All that said, it’s no secret that we believe that kinesthetic learning is a crucial part of learning — one that often gets overlooked in traditional classrooms.
Visual and auditory learning techniques seem more “serious.” Books and lectures are traditional symbols of education, while walking around in nature seems like relaxation, constructing a model seems like art, and moving your body seems like gym.
Beyond these stereotypes (which, fortunately, are ever less widely accepted), visual and auditory learning techniques are simply easier to manage in large classroom settings, than experiential outings or hands-on experiments. (They also map more closely to the assessments public school kids are expected to complete.)
When you homeschool, these problems don’t exist. That’s one of the benefits of homeschooling that informed our development of Prisma: We want to create an environment where hands-on education is the norm, not the exception, because we believe that it instills the most profound kind of learning possible.
At the same time, we encourage integrating auditory, visual and kinesthetic approaches, whether it’s by curating a diverse library of materials to help students get started (podcasts, videos, books, magazines, well-chosen websites, etc.) or by offering different tools to help the demonstrate their mastery of a concept (audio recordings, writing, 3d modeling, interdisciplinary projects, etc.).
Then, as you see your child start to gravitate towards certain tools and methods and struggle with others, help them get curious about why. Chances are, it’s not because an assessment told them they were a certain type of learner.
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