The Role of Hands in the Educational Process
Deanna Newell-Gush, July 2023
Education is a complex activity that is intended to foster the intellectual, emotional, social, and physical growth of learners, all in tandem. Within this intricate education structure, the hands stand out as a highly active and influential factor that significantly contribute to the success of education (Holstermann et al., 2010). Hands allow people to interact with their surroundings, control items and freely express themselves because of their exceptional tactile and motor capabilities. Not only are the hands useful in modern education, but also in the historical context. Hands have played a crucial role in human development and invention throughout history (Holstermann et al., 2010).
The hands have always been at the center of the most revolutionary discoveries and innovations, from the artisanal achievements of ancient civilizations to the limitless technology that we are exploring today. Touch and dexterity are powerful tools that help human beings traverse their environments, learn new information, and grow as a group (Holstermann et al., 2010). The positive contributions of hands can also be seen in hands-on activities such as pottery which facilitate mental, physical, and emotional development through direct experience.
Due to the undeniable significance of the hands scholars and teachers alike have come to appreciate the value of physical activity in the classroom. Ernst Bühler’s writing “From Play to Work” is one of the valuable resources that illuminate the transforming power of play and experiential learning. Learners can tap into their natural curiosity, spark their creativity, and hone their problem-solving skills by actively handling objects and materials. In addition Bernard Graves’s talk on evolved intelligence stresses the importance of integrating sensory data and cognitive processes through experiential learning. Besides, Rudolf Steiner’s philosophical views provide even greater depth to our appreciation of the hands’ role in learning. Steiner’s First Teachers Course offers interesting insights into the hands’ function as a link between the physical world and the mind. Activities that require the use of one’s hands are excellent for fostering not only a well-rounded education but also self-control, determination, and the freedom to express oneself. In order to gain more understanding of the role of hands in education, this essay explores the role of this crucial body part from personal experience and as perceived by various scholars.
One’s Reflected Experience in Crafting Pottery
Students gain the most from a learning experience when they use their senses and hands to explore and manipulate real-world materials and things. I have first-hand experience in making pottery, and I can reflect on my experiences to shed light on how hands contributed to my learning process. I have seen first-hand the positive effects of pottery creating on a child’s mental, physical, and emotional growth. By delving deeply into the material world of pottery, we set off on a path that shapes our educational experiences by cultivating sensory awareness, spatial cognition, and fine motor abilities (Klamer, 2012).
One of the contributions of pottery to learning is it enhances attention to detail among learners. Making pottery encourages a close relationship with the materials. The more I work with the clay, the more I can feel its texture, temperature, and malleability. My sensitivity to touch has been greatly enhanced by the many hours that I’ve spent working with clay, and glazing. This heightened sensitivity has helped me notice and value subtleties in my surroundings outside the sphere of ceramics.
Understanding spatial relationships and proportions is crucial in pottery manufacturing, and requires both spatial cognition and creative problem-solving (Klamer, 2012). As I help glaze the clay, I imagine the finished product in my mind and then bring it to life. It’s like a dance of creativity as my hands, eyes, and brain work together to paint the clay with glaze and place it into the kiln with its high heat In order to create what I see and what I imagine in my mind (Hetland et al., 2015).
The technique has helped me to visualize and handle three-dimensional objects, an achievement relevant in the fields of mathematics, engineering, and architecture, among others.
Due to the difficulty of the work required, pottery is a wonderful approach to enhance your fine motor abilities. As I work with the clay, my fingers get stronger and more dexterous, allowing me to make finer and clearer adjustments. Fine motor abilities, including hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity, can be greatly improved by the practice of pottery making (Hetland et al., 2015).
Many academic activities, including writing and drawing, require one to have complete command over ones hands at all times. It is also worth noting that making pottery is more than just a technical process; it’s also a way to express one’s innermost thoughts and feelings while practicing mindfulness (Hetland et al., 2015).
I never imagined that clay is fired in a kiln with a chimney where it undergoes several physical and chemical changes as a result of the high temperature, where the process of firing transforms the malleable clay into a durable and permanent ceramic material. The firing process transforms the malleable clay to something so beautiful that it takes your breath away. The firing of the clay is where the magic happens, it goes through an intricate journey as it undergoes a fiery transformation where there are both physical and chemical changes that occur in the kiln.
So, what happens to the clay during the firing process? The process consists of water removal, chemical changes, decomposition of organic materials, sintering, vitrification and colour development. It all depends upon the firing temperature and the duration of the heat, it is dependent on the type of clay used and this will determine the outcome of the desired look and feel. I learnt that different firing techniques such as oxidation or the reduction of the atmospheres in the kiln, can be a further factor in the final appearance of the fired clay.
We built a kiln with the guidance of our teacher who explained the process of firing clay, working with our hands and through teamwork and problem solving when the chimney was not smoking enough to provide the right temperature for our clay. We remade part of the kiln again, making a bigger hole for the chimney which provided the right environment for the clay to fire. I imparted my feelings, ideas, and goals into this team building project.
Making and firing the clay is a form of therapy because of the positive effects it has on the mind, body, and spirit (Klamer, 2012). This all-encompassing method of teaching acknowledges the value of encouraging students’ emotional intelligence and giving them opportunities to express themselves creatively.
Ernst Bühler in his “From Play to Work” discusses the need to offer children to engage in activities rather than only lessons in order to memorize (Bühler, n.d). John Dewey’s comment, which emphasized the use of one’s hands in learning, is consistent with Bühler’s viewpoint. In light of Bühler’s beliefs, hands-on activities encourage both experiential learning and active participation in the classroom. Hands-on learning provides youngsters with a direct and sensory-rich experience with materials and objects (Bühler, n.d).
This kind of participation arouses their interest, inspires them to go out and learn more, and lets them piece together information from their own experiences rather than just reading about it.
Learning that is more directly applicable to real-world situations is enhanced by the active participation that comes from working with one’s hands.
Bühler posits that the gap between abstract ideas and their practical application can be closed through children’s hands-on problem-solving, creation, and other practical activities (Bühler, n.d). Teachers can help students retain information and apply it in practical settings if they provide them opportunities to engage with the material hands-on.
Bühler adds that children who use their hands in class learn more and feel more in control of their own learning. Children develop and improve abilities, including fine motor control, hand-eye coordination, and analytical reasoning through hands-on play (Bühler, n.d). Children gain self-assurance, independence, and the ability to take initiative when they are actively engaged in the learning process.
Another importance of hands in education, which Bühler appreciates, is the child’s ability to stimulate one’s imagination and sense of play. Children’s natural creativity blossoms when they are encouraged to explore, experiment, create, and express themselves via the use of their hands (Bühler, n.d). Children’s creative potential flourishes when they are given the opportunity to engage in hands-on activities that spark their curiosity about the world around them.
Bernard Graves’ presentation: Will Developed Intelligence.
In his talk on developed intelligence, Bernard Graves highlights the importance of the hands in learning by stressing the importance of integrating sensory input and cognitive processes through hands-on inquiry. One of Grave’s major arguments is about sensory integration, where he posits that students are able to combine tactile experiences with cognitive processes through the use of hands-on exercises. Students’ numerous senses are stimulated at once when they use their hands to investigate and handle materials. Learning benefits from this multimodal approach because it facilitates a deeper, more holistic comprehension of course material.
The scholars also argued for the ability to instil learning by doing as facilitated through hands-on investigation, which encourages students to actively engage with the physical world. They state that through engaging in such experiential learning, students can move from theoretical understanding to practical application. The ability to remember and absorb information is much improved when students are able to physically engage with the material being studied.
Hand-eye coordination and other fine motor abilities can be honed when students actively use their hands in the classroom, according to Graves. He stresses that hand muscles and dexterity can be improved by carefully handling items. Besides, involvement and learner empowerment are fostered through hands-on activities. Individuals become active agents in their own learning when they use their hands to explore, create, and engage. Motive and understanding are improved as a result of students’ heightened curiosity and control over their own studying.
Rudolf Steiner: First Teachers Course, Methods of Teaching
This offers valuable insights regarding the importance of using one’s hands as a teaching tool. Steiner argues that the hands act as a conduit between the learner’s external environment and his or her internal reality (Rawson, 2021). People engage with their surroundings by touching and manipulating things with their hands. Learners are able to make meaningful connections to the world around them through their participation and the experiences they get from these interactions that shape their thinking.
Practical, hands-on activities are highly valued by Steiner because of their potential to promote holistic learning experiences. According to Steiner, it is through engagement in hands-on activities that learners tandemly activate their senses, emotions, and intellect (Rawson, 2021). As such, learning is more holistic when the hands are used as tools for experiencing, producing, and expressing. On long-term individual achievements, Steiner argues that working with one’s hands for a higher purpose promotes personal growth and discipline (Rawson, 2021).
Students gain attention, patience, and determination as they work on a task with their hands. Hands-on pursuits, with their emphasis on slow, deliberate motions, are excellent for developing self-discipline and sticking with a task until completion.
Steiner recognizes the value of manual expression as a means of expressing artistic and creative impulses (Rawson, 2021). He argues that students develop their innate creative potential through participation in artistic pursuits, which provide a tangible outlet for their thoughts, feelings, and aspirations. Learners are able to do all three of these things and more by participating in artistic activities, including painting, sculpting, and crafts.
Rudolf Steiner, First Teachers Course, Anthropological Foundations
Steiner’s emphasis on the significance of hands in learning extends to his “First Teachers Course,” specifically lecture six on anthropological foundations. In his discussion of how children learn to think and reason, he delves into the hands’ intimate relationship to brain development (Steiner, 2020). He argues that via hands-on play, children develop skills in sensory exploration, spatial reasoning, and problem-solving. He adds that hands are instrumental in merging theoretical and practical considerations. True education should promote rather than discourage the separation of theoretical study and hands-on training (Steiner, 2020).
Students are better able to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-world situations when they have opportunities to put their theoretical knowledge into practice through hands-on learning activities.
Just like other scholars Steiner recognizes the value of engaging in hands-on activities for the development of fine motor skills. He says that training one’s hands helps one become more precise, coordinated, and deft with one’s hands (Steiner, 2020).
He also reiterates the importance of using one’s hands as a means of expressing one’s personality and creative potential. Students develop their aesthetic senses and channel their inner artists via hands-on art projects like drawing, painting, and making (Steiner, 2020). Steiner believes that encouraging creativity helps people develop their imaginations and strengthens their appreciation for the finer things in life.
The ethical and moral development of learners can also be aided by engaging hands during one’s educational process. Steiner argues that doing morally and ethically sound work with one’s hands helps one develop a sense of ethics (Steiner, 2020). Learners build empathy, compassion, and a feeling of social responsibility through physically engaging in acts of kindness, cooperation, and service to others as manifested by activities on their hands. Hands-on experiences can help students develop morally by giving them real-world opportunities to put their newly acquired knowledge into practice.
It is undeniable that the hands play a pivotal role in the instructional process. We can attest first-hand to the fact that learning to make pottery, firing greatly improves one’s sense of touch, sense of balance, and sense of spatial orientation. According to Ernst Bühler, learning is most effective when students actively participate in the process. In his talk, Bernard Graves emphasizes the importance of engaging all of one’s senses and processing information cognitively. Additionally, educationalist Rudolf Steiner’s thoughts highlight the significance of the hands in bridging the inner and outside worlds, encouraging self-discipline, and strengthening the will. Teachers may foster students’ all-around growth and comprehension by realizing and capitalizing on the power of hands-on learning.
Buhler, E. (n.d). The transformation of play and learning processes during early childhood into joy in work. The significance of the hands.
Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K. M. (2015). Studio thinking 2: The real benefits of visual arts education. Teachers College Press.
Holstermann, N., Grube, D., & Bögeholz, S. (2010). Hands-on activities and their influence on students’ interest. Research in science education, 40, 743-757.
Klamer, A. (2012). Crafting Culture: The importance of craftsmanship for the world of the arts and the economy at large. Erasmus University of Rotterdam.
Rawson, M. (2021). Using artistic, phenomenological and hermeneutic reflective practices in Waldorf (Steiner) teacher education. Tsing Hua Journal of Educational Research, 37(1), 125-162.
Steiner, R. (2020). The first teachers course. Anthropological foundations. Methods of teaching. Practical discussions.
Graphic designed by Anca Paraon, 2021 student
Essay by a 2021 student:
To what extent do I regard myself as a free being?
I am going to consider how free I perceive myself to be in terms of my physical being, soul being and spiritual being. Am I free in my physical form? My physical form has many needs for example I require water, oxygen, food, sleep, to be the right temperature, and to be able to excrete waste products to survive. These are all very fundamental needs and in this basic way I do not feel free of my physical body. Arguably I do have a choice to for example completely refuse say food, water, or sleep if I decided to do so; thankfully I have never been in a situation where I felt minded to do so. That said in another way I do not endlessly eat food or drink water, so I do have control of my intake of water and food and of course I do choose to get out of bed every morning and when to go to bed at night. That said, even here there are limits to my choices for example normally I’ve got to get up for work, to look after my family and so on. Again, though it’s arguably because of the choices I’ve made in the past, for example to have a child, that I now must get up and look after him. In this way I would say I have “situated freedom”, I make choices within the parameters and framework of the life I have chosen to lead but also a life which has been influenced by the choices other people have made and also from external environmental factors. From the policies of governments to natural phenomenon like storms and to the truly microscopic level for example from the impact of viruses and bacteria.
Is my soul free? This is a very complex question and one which I suspect many philosophers have grappled with through the ages, but the question is do I regard my (soul) self as a free being? Again, my feeling is to say no, that I don’t regard my soul to be completely free. All the soul choices I make are the result of my conscience, which to a great extent was shaped by my up bringing. I was brought up in a “church” family. Not piously religious of the type my mum experienced as a child in Scotland. She went to her grandmother’s every Sunday, and the children were not allowed to run around or play or even read a book not even the bible. My childhood experience of Christianity was in contrast a very positive one. We went to church every week (without fail), to the badminton club, to the youth club, to the choir, to scripture union classes. The church was our family and our social life, but a branch of Christianity, the URC or United Reformed Church which was very ecumenical and to cut a long story short, I was brought up in an environment of safety, love and fellowship which of course impacts upon my soul. It could be argued that I had the freedom to reject these values, but I am not sure that it would be so straightforward to do that, I think they are very deeply ingrained in me (not indoctrinated, that would be a very unfair way of portraying it) but ingrained to the point where I am not even aware they are there for me to reject them. So, when I consider the soul decisions I have made in the past, I think, I did have free will, but at the same time I couldn’t have made a different choice.
I think I need to give an example to explain what I mean. About 15 years ago I was walking home from work, and I saw this youngster of about 11 years old, with a drunk lady who had collapsed and wet herself on the street quite close to my house. As I walked near a youth cycled past in the other direction and made a horrible comment to the pair. I could not have walked on by, I stopped and helped. It turned out the child was the nephew of this lady, and she was an alcoholic. Together we got her back to my house, I found a clean pair of trousers for her, and whilst she was changing, I spoke to the child to check he was ok and what the situation was. When my husband got home, he felt I was wrong to have done this, that I had put myself at risk, but to this day, I know I could not have “not helped”. That simply was not an option. So back to the question in hand “is my soul free”? No. I don’t think my soul is free. This is because I think it has been shaped by my past and by the values I was brought up in. I believe that my soul being also has “situated freedom”. It is bounded in a similar way to my physical being by my past choices and by the impacts of other people choices upon my life together with all the other situations which go to collectively make up my personal psyche.
Regarding the freedom of my spiritual being. This is the hardest question of all to answer not least because I believe Steiner himself said that to a large extent the spirit is not really knowable; if I’ve correctly understood what I’ve read so far. Of all the parts of our being this should be the freest since it is not limited by either physical or emotional need. However, I’m not sure if I am an accurate judge of whether my spirit is free as I am not sure if I have full access to it, which rather neatly brings me onto the next question.
To what extent do I experience myself as a spiritual being?
I have found this is a very complicated question to answer because I am not sure that I have enough understanding of what you mean by “spiritual being”. Here our recent tutorial was very helpful, talking with other students on the course about how they interpret this question. In our group two of the members had long associations with Steiner schools, whilst two of us are very new having only really been introduced to this since September. Reflecting on this I would say that for me, it is way too early to answer this question with any great clarity. I am still in a state of moratorium and trying to assimilate what I have learnt in the last five months. If you can imagine how somebody might feel if they woke up tomorrow and they were told that a new continent had been discovered? That is how I feel at the moment, and I think it takes time to absorb all this new information.
If, as one of our group members, who went to Steiner school, explained, spirituality is like a journey; looking back there are key points in my life that this would apply to. For example, in 2017 my husband was offered a job in Leeds. That year (2017) my son was in years 5 and 6 at school and so the move would mean a brand-new start for us all at the same time as he was due to start secondary school. We spent much of the summer holidays and autumn looking for a house and planning our life up there. It seemed like a good move as I was really worried about my son starting secondary school in Cardiff. By the first week in December 2017 everything appeared to be in place, the house, the school, the job. We were to stay in Cardiff for another six months and that week we had a meeting with my son’s new violin teacher. It was a memorable meeting, and as I left, I thought, “well if for some reason we did end up staying in Cardiff, everything would be ok”, because I could see that this new teacher would been a brilliant positive role model for my son. Within three days of that meeting and thinking that thought, everything fell through, the house, the job and the move but I knew everything was going to be ok. As it turned out I was right in more ways than I could have guessed and bizarrely I think that even things like me taking this course now actually stem from that point. So, if that is what’s meant by experiencing myself as a spiritual being, then I can see that could be the case.
On the other hand, another member of our group, who had been associated with the Steiner school for 20 years, said they felt that spirituality was more to do with having a role or a drive. If that is the case, then again, I would say a lot of the choices I have made during my life would fit in that pattern. For example, the jobs I have taken have been motivated much more by a sense of having a positive impact on people’s lives rather than to make lots of money. I am not sure if that is down to my temperament or if that is that my spirit guiding me, but as I said earlier the whole concept of the spirit is very new to me, so it is difficult for me to say.
How might the two be related? I think the two are highly related. I suspect a person who feels more physically free than I do also feels more spiritual. I do not feel free and I think this is maybe why I don’t see my own spirituality. When I was a youngster, I was addicted to TV. Growing up in the 70’s my viewing was limited to two hours of children’s TV, plus a plethora of 50’s black and white films (Flash Gordon, numerous westerns and of course Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes) and of course the Open University programs that were screened at 6am in the morning. One OU program that stuck in my mind was about physics or maths. In it, the lecturer said the following “imagine you were not a 3D being but a 2D being”. There was an accompanying graphic that showed two squares bumping into each other and generally interacting. “Now imagine that a 3D object comes and pushes you out of your dimension into a 3rd dimension. You wouldn’t know what has happened simply because everything about you means you do not have any capacities to interpret it. You cannot comprehend a third dimension because nothing about your biology would allow you to do this.” Due to this I feel I cannot discount concepts, like a spirit, just because I have not previously acknowledged them in myself, but I can see that if somebody is able to perceive their spirit then it would be, by necessity, intertwined and related to their free being.
How might this be relevant to my role as a teacher of children?
I think being more aware of myself is highly relevant to being a teacher of children, because to acknowledge this dimension in myself means I have to acknowledge this in other people, including the children I will teach. I think this is important because it changes the role of the teacher from being one of purely educating (delivering knowledge) to being one of nurturing the understanding, growth and development of the whole child. Therefore, I think it will make me a better teacher to acknowledge this even though I don’t fully comprehend this at the current time.
Presentation created by Lisa Westwood, 2021 student
Essay by Monika Koncz-MacKenzie, 2021 student