Sunday, December 27, 2009

hand, eye, attention and accuracy

It helps to have a target, an objective for learning or for anything else we do. In schools children are expected to learn things for which they have little apparent use. But when we know why we want to learn something, and have a clear use for that which we are challenged to learn, we learn more readily, and have greater enthusiasm for it. No question, it just helps to have an objective, a target so to speak, something to aim at. You can test this for yourself, so don't take my word for it.

Any male who has flown through Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport (AMS) during the last few years will have noticed something distinctive in the men's room. I saw these coming and going on my flights last year to Helsinki. Each urinal is etched with a small black fly which provides a target for men to aim at, thereby reducing spillage by over 80 percent.

This simple idea was proposed by a maintenance supervisor at Schiphol Airport years ago, and is quietly taking hold throughout the world in urinal design. It takes advantage of a natural human inclination... that we take more careful aim and fire with greater accuracy when targets are clearly understood and in clear sight.

At some point in American education, I hope we learn to take advantage of our natural human inclinations instead of fighting them all the time. Imagine what would happen in American schools if we were to reduce spillage of attention by 80 percent? What if instead of minds wandering aimlessly, they were brought directly on target, applied directly on task? It can be a simple thing. We can accomplish it by making hands-on activities central to every school experience. Can an 80 reduction of spillage be accomplished? Is this a reasonable goal?

Among students being tested in research on the use of gesture in answering algebraic formulas, those using gesture to assist verbal response were 4 times more likely to hit the target and get the right answer. That could be described as an 80 percent reduction in spillage. In the case of restrooms at Schiphol, a target marks the difference between the gentleman and the slob. In the classroom, the use of the hands can mark the difference between idiocy and genius. Do the math. Then decide for yourself and maybe one day we'll get around to doing the smart thing by restoring hands-on learning as central to American education.


  1. Anonymous5:44 AM

    In 30+ years of teaching at the community college level, I've tried all sorts of things to keep students engaged in the topic. Some things work, sometimes. But all too often students' minds are full of other concerns.


  2. Teachers and students hands are tied. Interesting metaphor, don't you think? How can a single teacher make necessary changes? Have you every received administration support or encouragement for making your teaching more hands-on?

    My author friend Don Harington taught art history at U of A for over 20 years and said that he had yet to have a potter (haptic learner) get better than a B so he tried to do some hands-on things to get those types of students involved, but there was never enough time to cover the curriculum and do the necessary exercises to engage the hands.

    But what if engagement of the hands was part of the original plan and perceived as an essential element in presentation of course material?