Making in the classroom: "Decades of research confirm that making and doing things cement knowledge in ways that lectures can't"

Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen, editors of the fantastic kids' activity book Unbored have an article in the Huffington Post about the power of making in the classroom.

In fact, the idea of "learning by doing" stretches back to education legends Maria Montessori and John Dewey, both of whom felt teachers should act more as guides to students' independent discoveries than as founts of information. Decades of research confirm that making and doing things cement knowledge in ways that lectures can't. "Think about the driver and the passenger in a car," says Adele Diamond, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and one of the founders of the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience. "The driver is hands-on and the passenger does what students normally do in class, which is sit passively. The driver will learn the route better because she has to actively use the information."

Making mistakes and trying again and again (and often again) until you succeed also encourages what's now being called a "prototyper's mind," an asset that many experts believe will be key to the 21st century job market, where the majority of careers today's kids will pursue have yet to be invented. "Facts can be looked up," says Diamond. "What students need to be learning is how to reason and problem-solve and be creative. Kids should get rewarded for taking a chance and trying something new and not always have to be so worried about making a mistake."

Unbored: The Power of 'Making' in the Classroom



  1. My schools always had the “make” classes in a different part of the school, and were really looked at as alternative studies- not important for the future cube fillers of the country.

    I have actually been told to “think outside the box” at my current job!

  2. “To understand the theories of physics you must try, failing now and then, just as to understand the riding of bicycles you must try, falling now and then.” – Albert Einstein

  3. This is unknown?

    I would say most High school classes are make and do already.  Science classes are largely lab-oriented with actual hands on time. English classes are actual reading and writing.  A history class is problematic, yes.

    God knows teachers and curriculum inventors have been trying to find a way to teach this stuff and make it stick and “make learning fun” but in a typical class you will have a substantial fraction who will not get the current lesson in the time you have to spend on it , no matter how great the make and do aspect of it is. 

    Then they are unready for the next lesson which builds off the previous one, even though it is “make and do” also.  They may “do” quite a bit without understanding why. 

    A proposal that plans to have the students “Making mistakes and trying again and again (and often again) until you succeed” sounds great, but how will you pay for the gi-normous amount of time it takes to guide all that failure and how to deal with the growing disparity between the early succeeders and the chronic failers?

    Have either of these writers been teachers in a school?

    1. You sound like a teacher with more excuses than answers.

      School is boring, and memorized knowledge has been made irrelevant. It is time for change, we no longer need to produce so many cube drones.

      How do schools test for wisdom and problem solving outside of instruction? This is what the article proposes.

      1. Memorized knowledge may be less important than it was before but it is still valuable.  As a teacher, I run into the problem of most of my students not wanting to retain anything b/c they “can always google it.”  That is not the same as learning it and understanding it.  There is some information that is important to know AND retain AND understand – not just be able to google it.

        YOU sound like someone who has never worked in a profession who everyone else thinks they know how to do your job better than you – without ever having attempted it.

    2. You have! I recognize it. I worked for six years as an elementary school classroom volunteer and similarly found a huge chasm between the *notion* of hands-on building projects and the actual experience. The group projects are the worst. Usually one go-get’em boy will take it over, while everybody else sits around bored. Yet, unlike a demonstration lecture — showing how it’s done — the go-get’em boy provides no explanation to the others. I’m not saying never do hands-on, but it really is very hard to execute properly in the limited time frame of school.

    3. “I would say most High school classes are make and do already.  Science classes are largely lab-oriented with actual hands on time. English classes are actual reading and writing.”
      This is simply mistaken, and I know only one person whose high school experience looked like that (based on students I met at a highly ranked college who attended mostly well-funded high-performing high schools) – and yes, it’s something I’ve often asked friends and acquaintances, most of whom went into STEM fields, about. (Obviously not a serious study, but a sample size of about 30 people). My high school science classes had lecture every day and were scheduled for 40 minutes of lab every other day – but almost all the labs were used for extra lecture and longer tests, with at most 12 real lab periods per year. And none of those labs were real experimentation of any kind, they were all painfully scripted and required no thought. Middle school was worse in the same direction.

      The one (extracurricular, though as I said I’m aware of 1 high school that uses the method) organization I know of that uses a totally invention-oriented approach is The Math Circle, 
      What they’ve found, it seems, is that yes there is a start-up time cost in getting kids who’ve never had to really think for themselves to do so, but within 10 1 hour sessions they get a group of five to eight year olds inventing fractions and the rules for adding them, by themselves, and that they remember it better than students who were just taught it. The trick is that it is much more demanding on the teachers, who need to 1) resist the temptation to step in and lecture, and sometimes let the students explore pathways they know will fail, and 2) actually understand the material and where it comes from, in a way none of my elementary school teachers and at most 2 of my high school teachers did. My 4th grade teacher couldn’t multiply and divide numbers with decimal points without a calculator, and my cousin, an elementary school teacher, can’t do 6th grade algebra.

    4.  It may not be unknown but it’s certainly unpracticed. Labs were mostly reserved in my school for honors/AP students, and since I wasn’t good at math I was restricted to regular physics and chemistry, which were mostly applied math classes which I, surprise, wasn’t very good at. Also surprising to my teachers: when I had to build anything for class I was really good at it. Like my floundering in algebra means I can’t build a load-bearing bridge because I’m just bad at numbers and not that math was taught in ways that didn’t work for me. In short: the way we often teach and divvy things up academically are stupid and behind the times to many, many people– and it may not be the teachers so much as the administration, I know, but it still results in a poor experience for students. Also the physics clubs (like the robotics club) were restricted to AP science students, so no getting in on the extracurriculars either!

      We had two physics experiments and a handful of hands-on chemistry exercises. I didn’t really do much hands-on science work until college and by then it’s a lost cause– that was the first place I had an actual “lab” (1 hour a week, 3 hours of lecture a week).

      And I went to a prestigious and overpriced private school, one of the “best” in my city. I had more lab experience than many of my peers who went to public school.

    5. Former teacher, here.  While I strongly disagree that “most High school classes are make and do already,” I think that you’re probably right that this idea can’t work effectively, at least within the current paradigm of fundamentally flawed and failing models of schooling.  

      As long as individuals are being forced to temporarily memorize arbitrary facts with arbitrary milestones, grouped, for no logical reason, by age, and expected to progress at the same rate, it would, indeed, be hard to allow students to learn by making mistakes.  

      There would, after all, be less time for the temporary memorization required for useless standardized tests.

  4. I loved chem lab. Maybe we also should have had model kits for molecules and some more hands on in physics.

  5. When I taught I tried explaining and demonstrating. Then the students demonstrated I’d just wasted my time and theirs. Then I gave a written exercise to a student, stood 6 feet away from the equipment to avoid temptation, and talked them through it. The first one was slow and shaky but by the end it was being done bang, bang, bang.

  6. i was zoned for the biggest, best equipped vocational school in my county.  couldn’t wait.  then they sent me to the academic magnet because I was smart.  so instead of doing interesting things, i sat all day and learned to sleep sitting up.

    I knew I learned by doing, and they wouldn’t let me.  total rip-off.

    1. Every time that I expressed any interest in doing anything artistic, I was forcibly redirected to academic subjects. Because doing what interests you doesn’t grease the wheels of the machine. Or service guarantees citizenship. Or something like that.

      1. That sucks.  There were definitely some perks being an intellectually curious latchkey kid of a disinterested single parent.  As long as my report card was filled with A’s and my homework was done, she didn’t give a crap what I did with my free time as long as I didn’t burn anything down.

  7. Music class. That’s probably the most effective, broadest-based, cross-applicable, longest-running, and fun make-and-do component of K-12 education. And it hasn’t gone away; in fact, it’s making a comeback.

  8. It is unfortunate that some commenters seem to assume “learn by doing” means “vocational rather than academic subjects.” While I agree that we have grossly underfunded and unfairly stigmatized vocational training, hands-on applies just as well to math, science, and history. We learn language by using it – reading, writing, and speaking. We learn music by playing instruments and singing. Why not learn math by inventing it for ourselves, and science by experimenting (and when that is impractical, by studying experiments) and using our self-invented math? Not exclusively. We need a common language and notation – we need to call it the Pythagorean theorem, not “Bob’s rule” or whatever. But lecture should supplement, and in many cases follow, trying it out. I had a great physics professor in college who said that if you don’t feel it in your bones, you don’t understand it. When I was *in* his class I felt like I didn’t understand a darn thing, but afterwards I realized that was only because he expected so much. He always asked open ended questions with minimal direction, like “Derive rainbows” or “What angle does the wake of a boat make with the boat?” and the hours spent in groups discussing those problems were more valuable than dozens of traditional problem set problems.

  9. Even Confucius understood that:

    “You hear and you forget. You see and you remember. You do and you understand.”

  10. As I was reading the comments, I reflected on what I remember from high school chemistry and physics. For example, I remember the basic principles of chemical reactions, valences, how to read chemical equations etc. I remember the distinction between organic and non-organic chemistry (more or less). I can find my way around a periodic table and understand what most of the numbers mean, and how the groupings work.

    But I don’t remember anything I learnt by doing a hands-on experiment. In fact, the only experiment I can recall at all was using a bunsen burner and blow-pipe to reduce(?) some lead oxide to lead metal. But I can’t recall how it worked; i.e. why blowing air onto oxide at high temperatures resulted in non-oxidized metal. 

    Similarly, I can’t recall a single thing I learnt from a physics experiment, but plenty of stuff from the lectures and tutorials. Understanding of basic physics is something I treasure.

    The experiments exercised my hands and perhaps taught me skills. The lectures and tutorials exercised my mind. I think doing the experiments taught you how to do the experiments.  The principles they were demonstrating were learnt elsewhere.

    1. This is a fine illustration of how different people learn in different ways.  Unfortunately, our current school system is designed in a way that ignores this essential fact.

  11. My kid went to an IB high school in a failing big-city district. It takes a motivated teacher with a supportive administration to implement this kinda teaching.

    Here’s an example of how it worked in her English class, junior year.  The kids were reading 20th century American stuff. All were reading James Baldwin. As the final assignment they were told to create something that reflected their interpretation of Baldwin…how he felt, his experience, or how his writing resonated with them.  Any media was allowed. Anything goes.  

    My kid chose to write a song.  Dad recorded it.  She got an A.  A good example of Making. And one that isn’t vocational related. And her understanding of James Baldwin, I think, is much deeper than someone who simply wrote an essay or filled out a worksheet.

    PS: Shout out to some of the great teachers at Reagan HS in MKE. Erica Breitbarth, who teaches all kids music theory. Adam Murphy, geek king, musician and teaches ‘band’ with passion. John Peacock, the coolest Math teacher ever; who built the school a recording/DJ mixing studio. And knows that music and math are forever twinned.

  12. Sometimes it just depends on the teacher–not the curriculum or the school. I remember being a huge science and art junkie up through junior high. When I hit high school, chemistry was just a book with a ton of complex problems. The lab was 2 or 3 experiments. End of story. Art was a cranky old hag who hated 90% of her students (save for her favorites, of which, I was not).

    The classes I excelled in were writing (where we got to– you know–MAKE STUFF with words) and civics, where we did mock trials. Both English and History departments were staffed with fun, engaging, and intellectual teachers. 

    The point being, that there’s more than one way to “make” as a method of learning and a student’s success often relies on the initative of the teacher.

  13. Not really arguing with Christina Ward but inspired by her post: Is “appreciating” a complex work of art the same as *understanding* it? And how might one establish that “understanding” has occurred? The problem with accepting a song or a poem or collage as the output of a classroom experience is that the song/whatever is yet another complex work, the components of which might be called “sincerity,” “technical competence,” aptness,” and so on. An essay or other discursive presentation, however, demands that the student evert the internal processes of understanding and appreciation so that other people can compare it to their experiences of the work.

    That bringing-to-consciousness and integrating of gut reactions and more “rational” analytical procedures is what I aimed at when I was teaching literature–in fact, the practical goal was to get students to articulate complex responses to complex experiences that happened to be stories or poems or plays. Getting there required a certain amount of not-doing-stuff (that is, me telling or explaining things like rhetorical practice or literary tradition or historical setting) so that the doing-stuff part (class discussion, drafting a paper) could proceed.

    Every discipline that I have encountered requires a certain amount of grunt work–either telling-about or repetitive practice–that just isn’t fun. I didn’t learn to play guitar by thrashing around on the neck, and after I got my fingers to behave I profited by some pretty dry explanations of theory (chords and scales and such) that provided a framework that made sense of the physical and ear skills I gained during the often frustrating entry-level period. (That was more than fifty years ago, and I still cringe at the awfulness of being an incompetent newbie. Not that there still aren’t cringe-worthy moments.)

    1. Russell, Completely valid observation.  In the spirit of brevity, I didn’t tell of the numerous essays the kids did write..  Essay, Lit Crit, Science papers being a core activity for the International Baccalaureate program, wherever in the world it is taught.

      I would have made my point better to explain that at Reagan the teaching staff is integrating Making on all levels with the traditional reading/writing regimen.  

      I will also say that there are cringe-worthy failures in these types of experiments.  Some kids feel paralyzed by the challenge.  Others are lazy thinkers, yes they are! (I nearly wet myself with laughter as one very frustrated teacher was regaling me with her bewilderment that a small section of the class had decided that Catcher in the Rye was just about him trying to get a prostitute and no amount of explaining would change their minds.)

      Another teacher working with Catcher also assigned the stupidest assignment I’ve ever heard of. One, that as you suggest above, devalues the literature and puts too much focus on the kids’ post-modernism ‘what do they think it means’ kinda BS.  The assignment was to write a personal ad for Holden Caulfield. My kid got that one Freshman year.  I told my kid to go with her gut. She wrote a little essay as to why the assignment was stupid and didn’t serve to further the understanding of the novel.

      I think Balance is the key here.  And good teachers get that. Good parents get that. And when we (including the taxpayers who don’t have kids but understand the value of education to a functioning society) all get it….amazing things can happen in schools.

      1. The assignment was to write a personal ad for Holden Caulfield.

        Did J. D. Salinger sue the school for copyright infringement?

  14. One of my young friends who is a RPGer had a terrible time understanding algebra, especially story problems.  Then I started couching the problems in terms of figuring out how to get the most bang for your buck when creating a Champions character.  Near-instant comprehension.

  15. As a college professor, I consider it important to read critiques of what I do and so I make a point of reading what Mr. Frauenfelder has to say.  For what it is worth, it seems to me that Frauenfelder’s comments keep setting up a false alternative between lecturing versus learning by doing, one that does not reflect what I do in the classroom or what my colleagues do.  There is certainly need for both and I think that a successful teacher weaves together a variety of techniques for the classroom.

    Take the teaching of sciences (not my field, by the way).  Every science course at my school involves a significant lab component where the students learn by doing.  In that component, they also learn proper lab techniques from recording data to experimental safety.  Nevertheless, they also have non-lab components where the professor lectures or has a Q&A or where students make presentations — or some other variation on that theme of conveying lots of oral information.  Science courses include the latter because some memorization is flat-out necessary.  There is no way to make students be minimally literate in Chemistry by doing everything hands on.  If you took that approach, you would likely be stuck with the basics because the advanced concepts of a field often depend on dozens or more basic ideas.  My colleagues solve that problem by teaching some of the basic ideas hands on, others by lecture/presentation/memorization.

    The same applies in other fields such as learning conversational Mandarin.  Such classes involve hardly any lecturing; they involve a great deal of practice conversation.  But there is still no escaping the fact that the professor may have to give an occasional lecture / presentation on grammar and that the students had to do a lot of memorization to get there.

  16. Can’t let this one go. As the wayfaring professor points out above, the flat lecture-vs-doing dichotomy is at least partially a false one, and anyone who has pursued a complex discipline such as medicine or music should recognize how data- and behavior-acquisition interoperate. I don’t think any halfway reasonable person supports a Gradgrindian approach–though I sometimes wonder about those who are most enthusiastic about standardized testing as a means of measuring both student and teacher success. (As I wonder about those who think that all learning should be “fun.”)

    This is anecdotal, but one of the most effective teachers I had in grad school was a brilliant off-the-cuff talker. I don’t say “lecturer” because, even though I’m certain he had worked out his approach to medieval literature with some care (he wrote books, after all), what he seemed to do in class was improvise on a theme. When he talked, we listened and were amazed. Chaucer–and medieval poetry, and all poetry–opened up in ways that remain with me more than forty years on. He had a colleague whose seminars on the interaction of linguistics, rhetoric, and prosody were much more “active”–once the basics were outlined, we applied them by composing snippets of verse or prose. That had a powerful effect on my understanding of the machineries of poetry–as did another seminar conducted by a major poet, in which we field-stripped poems under his strong, quasi-Socratic direction.

    All three of these teachers (and a couple others whose approaches mixed their classroom techniques in similar ways) changed the way my classmates and I understood literature. The doing-stuff parts really were both fun and instructive–but the opportunity to look into the mind of a brilliant scholar-reader as he rambled on was every bit as useful. I’ve spent a good chunk of the last twenty years hanging around working musicians, and the similiarities between those men in the classroom and a good player on the bandstand are striking. I’m a better reader and a better musician because they combined “knowing that” and “knowing how” so thoroughly. And “knowing that” starts with the student absorbing from the teacher. (Ask any traditionally-raised Hawaiian how slack-key guitar is learned.)

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