Hands On

An exemplary "school case"

To ask questions, to formulate hypotheses, to experiment is possible at the tender age of six, and even earlier. This is the credo of ‘Hands On’, a teaching initiative sparked by the meeting between a Nobel Prize winner for physics, Georges Charpak, and very young children. Inspired by an American experiment, the idea has taken root in France after a decade and is now rebounding in an impressive number of countries.

‘It was a kindergarten class on a June day, in a Parisian suburb,’ remembers Yves Quéré, physicist and member of the French Academy of Sciences. The teacher had asked the children to trace each other's shadows in chalk on the courtyard, every hour. Looking at the sort of radiating patterns they had made by the end of the day, the class tried to explain what had happened. A little four-year-old girl shouted, ‘Teacher, it turned!’ The outburst however ingenuous, nevertheless clearly showed that the little girl had understood that, somewhere, there had been a rotation.’

I don't know...

The study of real objects - no screens, no photographs; interaction between the children; the children themselves handling things. This constitutes the research approach. ‘Science is based on the phrase I don't know, and not the opposite,’ the physicist elaborates. This episode reveals all the elements that have made ‘Hands On’ a success. The initiative, which began in 1996, marks the beginning of a crusade by three French academicians to renew and rehabilitate science teaching. In addition to Yves Quéré, this adventure began with Pierre Léna, astrophysicist, and Georges Charpak, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics (1992). Three researchers dissatisfied with the ever decreasing share of funding that scientific teaching at the primary level received. The trigger for this was a visit to a Chicago ghetto, guided by Leon Ledermann, one of Charpak’s American colleagues, where a teaching experiment called Hands On was underway. ‘The school was quite typical of this neighbourhood, with 99% being African-American, most of whom were well below the poverty level, the Nobel laureate remembers. I saw happy children, happy teachers, and an intelligent programme. The kids had an hour of science each day and they took great pleasure in their experiment notebooks, kept since the age of five or six, in which they described what they were doing.’ When he returned to France, Charpak obtained support from the Minister of Education and from the Academy of Sciences to launch an experimental project involving some 350 schools.

Scientists' guarantee

Ten years later, ‘Hands On’ has become an institution in this country. It has its own Internet site, 10 principles, a charter, an annual prize (awarded by the Academy to the most dynamic schools), literature - books and brochures -, conferences, and even radio broadcasts, thanks to a partnership with the national information network, France info. And above all, it has an impressive capital of teaching experience, appropriately endorsed by that guarantee of scientific excellence, the Academy of Sciences.

It is very interesting that ‘Hands On’, which began as a resolutely international approach, with the help of American Insight documents, in turn awakened a veritable craze abroad. ‘Many people have made the same observations as we have,’ remarks Yves Quéré. ‘Through the IAP (1), where I was co-chairman until last year, the Academies of Sciences from some 15 countries have become very involved with this method, in both the major industrialised countries and in emerging countries, such as China, Brazil and Malaysia, as well as in countries such as Senegal, Morocco, etc.’

The promoters of the project are thrilled to see this craze because, for them, it is not only the future of science that is at stake. Educators participating in the project observe, for example, that there is also an improvement in language skills. The children have to formulate questions and hypotheses and be able to understand the answers. ‘Syntax takes form when there is rigorous reasoning,’ the researcher points out. In addition, the teamwork and mutual listening that are the heart of the project, also teach tolerance and openness.

  1. Inter-Academy Panel, International Assembly of Science Academies

To find out more

  • www.lamap.fr
  • And soon: www.mapmonde.org
  • Recommended reading
    Georges Charpak, Piere Léna, Yves Quéré, Les enfants et la science. La main à la pâte, dix ans après, Odile Jacob, 2005 Yves Quéré, La Science Institutrice, éd.institutrice, Odile Jacob, 2002