Several years into my 30-year career as a professor, I had an experience that ultimately upended my entire approach to teaching. I came to see the conventional classroom in a whole new way—as a sensory deprivation chamber—and developed a hands-on antidote I call “thinking with things.”
As is true for so many good ideas, this one began with a failure. I was a harried assistant professor with two young children at home, teaching a course on sustainable development for which there was no textbook. In those days before everything went online, I was handing out photocopied readings a week or more before the assignment was due. But on this day, as I pulled into the parking lot, I realized that I had forgotten to distribute the article for that day’s class. It can be hard enough to spark a class discussion of an assigned reading under the best of circumstances, but on this day I knew that no one could have done the reading. Casting around desperately for an alternative, I spotted the tub of Lego in the back of my car (doesn’t every parent of young children have Lego in their car?). I’d been curious about what would happen if I brought physical materials into my classroom and decided on that day that I really had nothing to lose.
In class, my students gathered around a table as I asked them to work individually to “sketch a sustainable community” with the Lego bricks. I wasn’t asking them to construct buildings but to use individual bricks to suggest particular features—like a public library, train station, housing, or senior center—of a neighborhood plan. I gave them about five minutes to arrange their communities. As they worked they were engaged but also chatting happily. Then we went around the table and each student told all of us what they had built. The look in their eyes told me that they had found the exercise fun and engaging, but the results of their building told me that they had retained nothing from the readings we had done and the film on suburban sprawl that we had watched. I gave the group feedback on what I found missing from their constructions then asked them to work together to revise the neighborhoods on the table, joining them with infrastructure that would be more sustainable. Five minutes later, the tabletop town was significantly improved.
I’ve never forgotten that first day with physical materials in my social science classroom. The fun and engagement were palpable, and every student participated and spoke. Also unforgettable was the clear indication that my students had not absorbed the lessons I was trying to teach.
Since that day, the vast majority of my class sessions have some active, tactile element. Developing these brief in-class exercises has often been challenging but well worth the reward. I teach design thinking by having students use pipe cleaners to design a perfect homework setting or modeling clay to propose pop-up shelters for the homeless. I offer sticky notes, collage materials, and flip chart paper and ask students to work in pairs to create a poster that educates others about a topic that interests them. For longer projects, a colleague and I have given students simple robotics materials and asked them to create a concept prototype of a device that promotes sustainability. Once I started thinking about the material culture of the classroom, so many ideas presented themselves. And the student feedback was overwhelmingly positive, which made the effort more than worth it. It made the classroom fun and surprising for me too.
In time, I became determined to understand some of the foundations of this instructional alchemy. I learned about the research showing that we think with our hands, our bodies, and our immediate environments, not just with the contents of our skulls. So-called embodied cognition points to all the knowledge and skills we have—the know-how—that can’t necessarily be expressed in words (the “know-what”).
When we engage students’ hands and bodies in exploration and construction, we are teaching the way human beings really learn. A thinking with things approach to teaching has many compelling advantages:
- It promotes active, engaged learning that goes beyond the use of clickers and think-pair-share, tapping into embodied thinking and learning.
- Every student is engaged because every student is making then speaking about what they made. This means that every student participates and has a voice.
- Student thinking becomes visible to both the instructor and other students, enabling formative assessment and constructive critique.
- A culture of hands-on making creates positive emotion in the classroom, leading to greater engagement and motivation. Many students have told me that my class was their favorite in college.
- Students who find the sensory deprivation chamber—the conventional classroom—most disabling may find that a thinking with things approach brings out their strengths.
- For faculty, this new approach can be revitalizing. Moving from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side can bring increased satisfaction and intellectual stimulation. It has for me.
What stands in the way of making the change to a thinking with things classroom?
- It’s challenging to make a radical departure from the way most of us were taught. Pedagogical inertia is real, and there are not yet many resources to support making this change.
- Faculty are skeptical that students will welcome this approach and may think, They just want to be on their phones, or, They just want to be passive.
- Most classrooms are not configured for working with physical materials. Students may have chairs with tablet arms rather than tables, and there are often no cabinets for storage of materials between class meetings.
- Procurement and management of physical materials consumes some extra time and resources, although I have found that I get great returns on my investment.
- At some institutions, the reward structure encourages faculty to put their effort into scholarly productivity rather than the improvement of teaching.
In my workshops for faculty, I have each participant identify a teaching challenge they would like to address. Some select concepts that are particularly difficult for students. Others focus on process issues like increasing active participation, building teamwork, or icebreaker exercises for the first class meeting. I have yet to find a topic that is not in some way amenable to a thinking with things approach.
Every academic discipline is different, with its own fundamental concepts and its own culture, so your implementation of thinking with things in the classroom will depend on your subject. But here are some examples of how you might use this approach in your teaching.
- Create a tactile icebreaker exercise for the first class meeting. I often give students small boxes of Lego and ask them to build something that evokes a favorite environment in which to study. You can hand out old magazines or some clip art and ask students to make a biographical collage. With modeling clay, students could make a portrait of their future selves (as a nurse, a writer, an attorney, a physicist . . .). There are so many choices.
- Make an alternative visual or notational system. Visual representations, such as the periodic table or Western musical notation, are central to disciplinary thinking, but these representations are not the only ones possible. Students can use materials to create alternative representations that emphasize different features of the phenomenon they are studying, thus actively constructing multiple views of their subject.
- Create graphic organizers. Concept maps, flow charts, decision trees, character maps, logic models, diagrams, and a host of other graphic representations are important in most fields. I have had students use sticky notes, Tinkertoys, K’Nex, Lego, pipe cleaners, and other construction and art materials to make graphic representations of their insights or plans. Small groups can also collaborate on these tactile depictions. In a workshop for faculty, one group surprised me by making a three-dimensional concept map, taking advantage of the fact that Tinkertoys can support such representations.
- Make project thinking visible and support rapid iteration. Mid-semester, my students get started on projects they will work on for the rest of the term. (In my classes, the prompts are something like “propose a product or intervention that could improve a social/economic/environmental problem of your choice.”) I lead them through an iterative design process that starts with brief notes and a pencil-and-paper sketch, proceeds to a five minute slide presentation, has them develop a concept prototype and receive critique from me and the class, then ends with a public, open-house presentation that includes a poster, an artifact they have created, and an “elevator pitch.” Using multiple media to work out their idea makes their thinking visible and emphasizes different aspects of their work at the different stages of development.
This list is just the start of what you can accomplish when bringing a thinking with things approach to your classroom. While it’s work to plan and set up for this method of teaching, I think you will find that your effort is more than rewarded with the increased student engagement, positive affect, and deeper learning that is possible. If you’re like me, you too may feel revitalized.
Kristiansen, P., & Rasmussen, R. (2014). Building a better business using the Lego serious play method. John Wiley & Sons.
Kuhn, S. (2021). Transforming learning through tangible instruction: The case for thinking with things. Routledge.
Kuhn, S., & Davidson, J. (2007). Thinking with things, teaching with things: Enhancing student learning in qualitative research through reflective use of tools and materials. Qualitative Research Journal, 7(2), 63–75. https://doi.org/10.3316/QRJ0702063
Sarah Kuhn, PhD, is professor emerita of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the author of Transforming Learning through Tangible Instruction: The Case for Thinking with Things (Routledge, 2021). She is eager to hear from faculty interested in exploring a thinking with things approach and can be found at https://www.thinkingwiththings.com.