To my knowledge there is no widespread clear theoretical explanation of what the hands actually do to make learning more real, more intense and more effective, and yet it is a given that "hands-on" learning implies something deeper and richer than the purely academic. And so what is it about the hands? I often think of these questions very late at night, and the answers have greater clarity then that in the light of day when other matters become pressing.
But here is the two-part nutshell... Touch makes things real. What we see and hear may for various reasons be unworthy of trust. Often, what we see and hear have been purposefully distorted or inadvertently misunderstood. But when the hands are brought in as confirmation of other senses in assessment of reality, we know that we are no longer contending with conjecture, but rather truth that demands engagement. For this I repeat my earlier blog post which was used as the opening premise in Matt Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft:
In Schools we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged. --Wisdom of the Hands blog post of October 16, 2006By bringing the hands into direct engagement in learning we make learning real, and demanding of interest and attention.
The second part is that the hands enable physical response to learning, thus the learner is not a mere captive of the system but rather one granted agency. Taking direct action in response to learning is one of the most important character traits of our humanity.Without agency, even the most resilient are reduced to the point of depression.
Make, fix and create...