Future Reflections          Winter/Spring 2008

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Encourage Hands-on Learning

by Mary Jo Thorpe, Education Program Specialist
NFB Jernigan Institute

Mary Jo Thorpe and Nathan Clark, MD, experiencing “hand thinking” under sleepshades during the 2005 Circle of Life Science Academy. As Thorpe explains, through the use of touch, Clark is able to learn so much more than what an audible description can provide.As part of the NFB’s initiative to promote interest in subjects related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), the Future Reflections editor has asked the NFB Jernigan Institute to submit several useful articles relating to this area over the next few editions. These articles will provide concrete suggestions to parents and teachers about best practices they can use to empower their blind students and help them gain more from the study of STEM subjects. It seemed best to start with fundamentals, and nothing is more fundamental when talking about the education of blind or low-vision children than a discussion of the importance of hands-on learning. So, here are some tips we hope you will find useful:

Tips to Encourage Hands-On Learning
In many ways, we live in a “hands-off” society. Phrases such as “Do not touch!” or “Hands off!” send a message that using our hands to examine something is socially inappropriate and unacceptable. However, the use of touch to gather information is a valuable tool, and vital to a blind student’s learning.

“Hand thinking,” as research psychologist Selma Fraiberg refers to it, allows the student to form a mental picture of one’s surroundings through touch. It is an effective and completely respectable method of gathering information for observation and learning. Numerous blind students are given so many “don’t touch” messages that they become timid and ineffective in using this skill of exploration. If we as educators and parents do not break that pattern, then the students are truly handicapped--not by their blindness, but by their lack of experience. The following are some points to keep in mind when encouraging hands-on learning.

1. Be cautious not to limit your blind student’s exploration because of your visual bias. Just because it looks yucky or unpleasant to you, does not mean that it will feel that way to the touch. Even if it does, so what? Dissection material for a biology lab class is a good example. Through the use of touch, students will gain experiential knowledge rather than relying solely on descriptive knowledge and, as a result, have more meaningful learning experiences.

2. Use the hand-under-hand teaching method. This occurs as the instructor places his hands under the student’s to demonstrate a particular task or motion, or as a way to gently lead a student’s hand to a particular object to explore. It can be thought of as the alternative to a sighted student watching a demonstration. Hand-under-hand allows the student to maintain more control over his or hands than if the instructor grasped them and moved them in the traditional hand-over-hand approach. More control over their own hands gives blind students a higher level of control over the entire learning process. Of course, the method works best if the instructor also incorporates strong verbalization, concise instructions, and clear movements with his hands in a way that is easy for the student to distinguish.

For example, when teaching concepts where a student needs to be shown how to hold a tool or instrument, the instructor can hold his hands under the students’ to help the students understand the motion their hands need to make, or to demonstrate the correct hand or finger position. This practice can also be helpful when an instructor is trying to explain concepts that are ambiguous or highly visual.

3. Like any other skill, students need to have proper tactile observations modeled and articulated for them so that they know what and how to examine with their hands. Since most visual learners (that includes most teachers and most parents) may be unfamiliar with tactile exploration and observation, here are a few suggestions that can help you help your blind student make meaningful observations and gather appropriate information tactually.

When we allow blind students to explore objects by touch, we are giving them the opportunity to form mental pictures made from their own observations. Verbal descriptions are still helpful and sometimes necessary, but these are intrinsically someone else’s interpretation, someone else’s view of reality. Blind individuals can visualize, through the use of touch and mental reflection, just as sighted people do. As teachers and parents we must be patient while our learners take the time they need to form those mental images. With practice, blind students will learn to perfect their use of touch as an effective tool.

Additional Readings
“Another Way of Seeing” by Deborah Kent Stein, Future Reflections volume 22, number 1 (Convention 2002), pp 27-30. http://www.nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr9/fr03co12.htm

“The Barrier of the Visible Difference” by Kenneth Jernigan, Gray Pancakes and Gold Horses (Kernel Book 14), 1998 National Federation of the Blind, pp. 1-15. http://www.nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/books/kernel1/kern1401.htm

“Educated Fingers” by Barbara Pierce, Future Reflections volume 23, number 2 (Special Issue—The Early Years), pp. 75-77. http://www.nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr14/fr04se19.htm

“Hand-Over-Hand Guidance: What Lesson Do We Teach?” by Andrea Story, Future Reflections volume 19, number 1 (Winter/Spring 2000), pp. 17-19.

“Teaching Exploration: Correcting a Glaring Flaw in the Education of Blind Children” by Geerat J. Vermeij, Braille Monitor volume 47, number 9 (October, 2004), pp. 700-705. http://www.nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/bm/bm06/bm0609/bm060908.htm

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