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Learning by Doing

by Thérèse McNamara

Most teachers understand the importance of “experimenting” or experiencing using a hands-on approach. This type of learning is particularly valuable for children with autism and other special education needs, such as auditory processing challenges, executive function disorder, and visual-spatial difficulties.

 A child who sees or perceives in a way that is different from what you or I might experience may not understand verbal directions or explanations. Or, she may understand only parts of the directions that are being given. It may be challenging for her to connect what she is hearing to a mental image or a kinesthetic response.

Modelling your expectations for her will begin the learning process but the real power will be in “doing with.” In the same way that a golf pro might put his hand over your hand to help you achieve a specific grip, a teacher may use a hand-over-hand approach to help a child personally experience the execution of movements required to hold a pencil, press down on paper, and move from a top-down, and  left to right position. The repetition of these actions will help the child with special needs learn firsthand, not only through auditory and visual means, but by kinaesthetically feeling the muscles and joints setting pathways to the brain as they move, over and over again. For children who experience visual spatial challenges, these supported and precisely practised movements reduce the area of focus and inspire confidence in developing skills.

The learning by doing strategy can be applied to a wide range of learning areas from physical to academic: sports, writing, reading with fluency and expression, building models to solve mathematical problems, etc.  The uses of frameworks like “the answer sandwich” teach children to apply a practised model to show their comprehension of texts or to apply higher levels of thinking.

Please share your ideas about how you teach students using a learning by doing approach…



 Thérèse McNamara is a school administrator, special education resource teacher and mother. In her 30+ years as an educator, she has worked as a classroom teacher, computer/curriculum consultant, and education officer. She holds a Masters of Education degree with a focus on Literacy and has taught additional qualification courses for 3 universities. She has reviewed and written a number of professional learning resources and supports the application of evidence-based, best practices to support all students.


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  • Kathleen Corrigan

    When I was reading about learning by doing I began to think of that horrible skill – printing. Fluent, legible printing is important if a student is to share ideas in written format. (Yes computers can fill in eventually but there is a lot of other learning that comes from printing, not just writing, but that is another post!)
    The line that caught my attention was “The repetition of these actions will help the child with special needs learn firsthand, not only through auditory and visual means, but by kinaesthetically feeling the muscles and joints setting pathways to the brain as they move, over and over again.”
    Traditionally, when one was learning to print we completed pages and pages of e’s or h’s or whatever the target letter was for that day. Think back to a full page of lines where you can make 50 or more e’s. What do the first few e’s look like? What do the last few e’s look like? Right, the first ones are careful and well executed (or as well as you can manage if you are 4 years old). The last few are sloppy, rushed, and imprecise. I would suggest that when we are working with a student we encourage them to practice the letter 3 or 4 or 5 times (preferably on a few surfaces), not 50. That way the child will take the time to form it carefully and the final brain and muscle message will be the successful version, not the sloppy version. Further, the final visual image will be the successful version, not the sloppy version. This 4 or 5 repeats can be repeated at different times (including in places the letter has value, like in a name) until it has become fluent. That helps good neural pathways form.

    • Janet Lee


      I can relate to your post. When I work with adult learners, I find that it is more difficult to rewire those neural pathways because they have already been formed. It is so important to attach meaning to the learning by introducing letters in context. When an adult can learn letters using background knowledge such as a name or a place I often see the aha moment occur. Once this happens change comes quickly and I see results!


  • Donna

    One of the ways to help students learn how to figure out the main idea and use this to start a summary is to create a main idea framework. I found that my students who needed this were more successful with these questions on the CASI tests, and gave them a way of approaching the dreaded summary of the story question! At first, I had misgivings that I made it so structured, but after working in the Learning Center where students had not been successful with other more open-ended methods, I am at peace with this. Students are smart enough to know when they need the structure and when they can approach these types of questions with their own style.

    First: I plotted out the format that would make sense to achieve a complete answer. So:

    This folktale is about making good decisions and how the three little pigs found the safest and best way to build a house. The author wants us to think that doing something the fast, easy way isn’t always the best way.

    Next: Choices: These are brainstormed into charts: Genre/theme/
    This (folktale, story, chapter, article, film, video, poem, non-fiction article,) is about (theme choices: friendship, adventure, family relationships, nature, fear, making decisions, choices, bullying) and (who, what, when, where, how, why) . . . .

    We add another sentence:
    The author wants us to think about . . .

    By giving some structure into breaking down the information required, the child has a way to approach the question. Having the charts handy provides a way of finding the right word without having to retrieve it from memory. Again, the starting point is sometimes all it needs to help our children access an open-ended question.

    • Donna

      I forgot to add that “we learn by doing” by physically taking the format of the sentence on the board on magnetic strips and choosing the “choices” to make a coherent sentence. By having blank strips, we can add our own ideas and add those to the choices available. This allows the students to practice orally without having the mechanics of writing or typing bog down their thinking. I have also provided the template for them to import into their folders to use on the computer, with WordQ or Kurzweil. Practice with moving the word and phrase strips physically, is an important motor skill that helps them transfer it to writing or typing it into a computer or test page, or helps with oral communication if they have this question scribed. (Forgot to add this information to address the focus of Learning by doing!)

    • Janet Lee

      Thanks for the summary template, Donna! I agree that structure helps students to feel more confident while writing CASI. Your template would be great to get students started. I like how you are incorporating the sentence strips in to the gradual release. I think that once students felt comfortable with the template they could easily transition in to writing their own style of summary. How do you keep students from getting stuck in a formulaic way of writing? What do you do to get students to the next step?