I first saw the ‘head, heart, hand’ approach used when I was a student. At the time it was mostly used in relation to developing ecoliteracy and to encourage people to make ecologically sustainable choices.

It has re-emerged in a number of guises since then, in forest school, in mindfulness and as a way to think about and apply some of Dewey’s theories of learning to everyday life. But if you strip it back to its origins, the phrase ‘head, heart, hand’ was being used as early as the 1800s by Pestalozzi in his ‘new’ model of teaching.

Last month, I saw it used beautifully in a science lesson. The students were collecting data on force and area by dropping a weight from different heights. The teacher had logged the questions she had been asked in previous lessons, and used those infer why the students had become stuck. This helped her adapt the way she introduced material to the students to help them understand better and get into the main learning more quickly.

Why students get stuck

The reasons why students stop working tend to fall under one of the three parts of the head, heart and hand approach.

Head

This is the cognitive part of learning. A student who is in the ‘head’ space might feel like this:

“I know what I need to do over the course of the lesson or activity. I understand the expected outcomes and I am clear about what the final goals are and what a finished piece of work will look like. I may not yet have the route mapped out, or the steps I’m going to take, but I understand where I am going.”

Things a student might say that suggest they’re stuck in the ‘head’ space might include:

  • I don’t know how to use the information in the question together.
  • I don’t understand why these factors are linked.
  • I don’t know how this table and that chart fit.
  • I don’t see how what I am doing now links to the lesson outcomes.

Heart

This is the emotional part of learning. A student who is in the ‘heart’ space might feel like this:

“I feel confident in this learning. I have reasonably strong feeling about the activity and am prepared to give some significance to it. I feel comfortable accessing this task. I know that I may find some of it difficult, but I feel that I will be able to battle through. I think the activity is interesting and relevant to me, and I can understand the point of it.”

Things a student might say that suggest they’re stuck in the ‘heart’ space might include:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • Will I ever need this?
  • I don’t like this subject.

Hand

This is the practical part of learning.  A student who is in the ‘hand’ space might think like this:

“What are my practical next steps? I know what I am intending to do, I have a reasonable idea about how to get there. But what am I going to do now, or next? What pen do I need? What equipment? Where will I write the first number down?”

Things a student might ask that suggest they’re stuck in the ‘hand’ space might include:

  • What should I do now?
  • Where should I write it?
  • Which sheet do I need?
  • Where should I put my book?
  • Can I use a calculator?
  • Do you have a ruler?
  • Should it be in pencil?

Listening to my students

When I am teaching now, I pay close attention to the types of questions that students ask. Listening to the sorts of questions they ask helps me determine where their blockers are.

It was a real eye-opener that most of the issues were initially to do with ‘hand’ stuff – the practical element. Students weren’t clear which pen to use, or what sort of paper, or how I expected them to work.

The truth is, I did not mind what they did in most cases. They students had the option to decide, but they did not feel they had the ability or confidence to make that decision.

I found that most of those questions could easily be culled with a bit of prep, which meant that students instead asked more of the questions I wanted them to ask – the ones that exposed their misconceptions and the areas where I could help them make progress. Plus it meant a lot less stationery admin!

It also helps me to have agency over students not making progress. If I can eliminate the issues that are easy to fix before the lesson starts, I can get the students stuck on the right things. I want them to be stuck on the ‘head’ questions, thinking about how elements link, working on the connections and developing a strategy, not distracted by ‘heart’ or ‘hand’ questions, so that they can enable them to engage with a topic in a deeper way.