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Hands on Learning: A Solution to Student Disengagement?

Al Qasimi Foundation
June 10, 2014

This April, a group of ten educators, policymakers, and researchers boarded a plane from Ras Al Khaimah to Australia in search of one possible solution to the issue of male student disengagement, a common challenge in public schools across the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

“Research in the UAE reveals that boys are not only lagging behind girls in terms of academic achievement, but they are also dropping out of school at higher rates than their female counterparts,” says Ms. Susan Kippels, Research Associate at the Al Qasimi Foundation. 

“What’s both interesting and alarming,” she continues, “is that boys’ decision to drop out of school in the UAE is largely linked to poor school experiences. Often, students aren’t invested in their education because they’re not engaged in the classroom.”

Aware of this, the Al Qasimi Foundation looked at many initiatives designed to revive male students’ interest in their schools and their studies, but found that many programs simply remove students from their school communities, a solution that would not translate well into communal contexts like those in the GCC. However, the Hands on Learning (HOL) program, based in Victoria, Australia, could be a potential fit for boys in the UAE because it addresses the problem of disengagement while keeping students in their local school contexts. 

In an effort to further understand the Hands on Learning program and explore whether it could be implemented in schools in the UAE, the delegation from Ras Al Khaimah visited five schools in which the program has been established in Frankston, Victoria and met with principals, HOL staff, and HOL students at each school. 

Established in 1999 by Russell Kerr, who is now its CEO, HOL represents a targeted student engagement method that is designed to keep students at risk of academic failure in school and to improve their perspectives so that they may be able to achieve more in terms of curricular and extracurricular accomplishments. 

“‘Hands on Learning’ refers to building meaningful projects within the context of the local school, projects that serve schools and communities alike,” explains Dr. Natasha Ridge, Executive Director of the Al Qasimi Foundation. “The result is that students enjoy learning and that they become essentially reintegrated into the school system as they gain confidence, self-esteem, and practical skills.” 

In the HOL model, small groups of students spend one day each week undertaking “creative building projects that benefit the school and local community,” which, the Australian group explains, helps students gain “confidence and a sense of personal achievement.”

Hands on Learning instructors also function as mentors for the students. The result of these factors seems to be that when students return to their classrooms for four days of the week, they are better motivated and prepared to take advantage of educational opportunities. 

“It’s helped me because now I’m always in class. Before I was always trying to get out of class, but now I don’t have to. I’ve made some new friends,” says Grace, an HOL student in Australia.
The visitors were introduced to the on- and off-site HOL projects that were undertaken by the students. Students take responsibility for their HOL projects from inception to completion. Successful student ventures have included constructing HOL work sheds and wooden platforms; restoring automobiles; and building functional pizza ovens, community boardwalks, footbridges, and picnic tables.

“It’s like a reward,” explains Zac, another HOL participant. “I do my work quicker. It gets me back in focus because I’m distracted in class. Hands On is the day I can talk and walk about, and it gets all my energy out. I’m more settled when I do it.”

Principal Yaqoob Laiwad Al Nuaimi of Al Jazeera Al Hamra Secondary School echoes this sentiment, observing “The program encourages students to investigate, explore, and be accountable for their own work.” 

Impressed not only by the achievements of the students but also by the skills they have gained through the program, Mr. Al Nuaimi further notes that the program “gives [students] the opportunity to find solutions to difficult problems and encourages them to expand their mental and physical capacities by allowing them to work from abstract ideas to real-world applications.”

The HOL program is also significant because of its social component and its positive impact on how students relate to their peers and their social environments. 

“[Because] HOL encourages productive interactions [among students] and such interactions may extend beyond school boundaries, the program can also benefit the community and the environment in the long run,” says Principal Mohammed Mulla from Saeed bin Jubair School.

Not only did the educators and policymakers from the UAE observe the benefits of the program for students in Australia first hand, they also received training from HOL staff and schools. 
After a week Down Under, the UAE delegation of policymakers, educators, and researchers returned to Ras Al Khaimah with the conclusion that the Hands on Learning program holds real promise for their community.

As a result, they have already begun collaborating on a plan to pilot HOL in two schools in Ras Al Khaimah, beginning this September. In the long run, these leaders hope this program will offer local students a compelling way to develop their confidence and skill levels in a context that reconnects them to their schools and communities, that benefits individual students as well as their country.