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Discover the Surprising Connection Between Hands & Brain

You Can Take the Teacher Out of the Classroom

Even though it's been a few years since I was a teacher in a classroom, I'm still fascinated by children & the way they learn.

Lately, I've been doing a lot of reading about brain development & learning.

As scientists have improved our understanding of neurology, biology & human development, we have started to gain insights into why we learn the way that we do and why certain techniques may be more effective than others.

For example, several recent studies have suggested that writing by hand results in increased brain activity in critical areas, better retention of key concepts during instruction & more effective learning outcomes.

One 2012 study by psychologist Karin James tested children who had not yet learned their letters. And she came to an interesting conclusion.

The children were sorted into three groups & asked to copy a letter that they were shown.

  • Group 1 drew the letter freehand onto a blank paper
  • Group 2 traced the letter from an outline
  • Group 3 found the letter on a keyboard and typed it on a computer screen

Can you guess which group had the most brain activity associated with reading and writing in adults?

If you said the "freehand" group, you get a gold star! (Sorry...once a teacher, always a teacher!)

Learning More By Getting It Wrong

To me, the most fascinating part of the study was Dr. James' thoughts on why a freehand writer would use more of her brain-power. A child learns better because she's getting things wrong.

Remember that these are kids who don't know how to read or write. You can imagine that those free-hand letters looked nothing like they were supposed to look. They were probably unreadable to you or me.

But there is more educational value in a child's first illegible letter-marks than in the more clearly traced letter or the perfectly typed one. The messiness itself, the imperfections, the ways that her attempts fall short of perfection–there's another word for it.


"This is one of the first demonstrations of the brain being changed because of that practice," Dr. James said in her study.

Brains literally being changed. That is the power of hands-on learning.

When you give a child the chance to learn with hands-on practice, you are giving her permission to fall short, to fail to measure up, to be imperfect. And in that grace, she finds deeper learning & a more memorable experience than she could ever experience with the pure, perfect theoretical concepts in a textbook or tutorial.

But she learns more than the lesson itself. She learns how to iterate. She learns how to improve. She learns how to strive for something better than what she can produce today.

And that's a skill that she'll be able to use throughout her entire life.


If you're interested in more studies connecting better learning with writing by hand, check out these recent articles:

As you can tell, I'm pretty passionate about hands-on learning. I truly believe that we all learn better when we get our hands dirty, combining our creative & analytical sides.

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