Hands-on learning is not just for kids

I attended a local school board meeting a few weeks ago at which a team of teachers gave a presentation about a survey they had conducted on bullying. The report was to have been presented months earlier, but the team had difficulties collating and analyzing the data.

One of the teachers said the team had not realized they needed to ask all participants the same questions in order to be able to compare answers given by different groups of stakeholders.

I came home wondering why such a small survey in a restricted setting was so difficult.

And don’t most people know about what happens when you compare apples to oranges? Basic survey design is a skill that the NCTE/IRA standards say students should develop before high school graduation.

Why did these women trained in education have so much difficulty handling what to me are routine information analysis tasks?

The first reason is that they studied to become teachers and I didn’t. Teacher education coursework at the bachelor’s and master’s degree level typically doesn’t include instruction in how to do original research, whereas my undergraduate psychology program required a course in statistics and a senior research project.

Two young men working in office side-by--side, one on phone

But I probably would not know much more about research than the teacher team if it weren’t for my work experiences.

In college, I was a reader for a visually handicapped student with whom I took several courses. Instead of reading her the statistics book with its diagrams and formulas, I took her to the chemistry lab where there were chalkboards on three walls. I taught her the material, writing everything on the board in letters big enough for her to read. Tutoring her, I learned how to think in terms of usable data.

Much later at Syracuse University, I was graduate assistant for William E. Casey Jr., who is now vice president for special projects at the Wall Street Journal. Students in one of his newspaper classes conducted phone interviews for a political polls using questions developed by professional journalists. I helped key in the results. From that experience, I learned not only about wording questions, but also about how to organize a survey project.

I needed that knowledge when I and a colleague were assigned to develop election polling for The Journal, in Martinsburg, WV. She and I developed the questions, designed the sample, trained interviewers, and wrote the news stories while continuing our regular work and meeting our daily deadlines. My colleague was Marcia Langhenry, now with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, who was a team player before the term became a buzz word.

My work experiences—from cleaning rat cages to developing instructional packages for the pharmaceutical industry—are where I got my real education, the knowledge and skills I use every week. (They are also where I began developing a network of professional contacts outside academia.)

Perhaps preservice teachers need more hands-on experiences early in their academic careers to give them a context for their classroom experiences.

Perhaps in-service teachers need hands-on professional development opportunities in the form of sabbaticals working in jobs other than education.

I even go so far as to recommend ELA teachers find summer work as a way to find out what actual skills entry-level employees must have.

Photo credit: Business contact! by Wagg66