Hands-On Creator Jennifer Lawson: An Interview

Hands-On, a collection of comprehensive, ready-to-use resources for teachers in Canada was founded and written by series editor, Jennifer Lawson. In addition to writing, she teaches at the University of Manitoba in the Faculty of Education and is a local school board trustee. 

Jennifer Lawson is an innovative educator—she has helped shape the future of education as we know it in Canada. She took on the monumental task of creating this incredible resource in the 80s and 90s, when there were no curriculum resources of this kind. Jennifer has created something that stands the test of time, and Hands-On continues to evolve to respond to the needs of today’s classrooms.

Read about where the series started and how it has evolved in our interview with Jennifer below.

  1. The Hands-On collection of books has been a go-to classroom resource for many years. Where did the concept originally come from, and what made you decide to create these books?

Interestingly, the first Hands-On series was a direct result of my Master’s thesis research. I was wanting to look at how children in the early years best learn science and wanted to compare the traditional textbook approach that was being used at the time (even in grades one and two), with a hands-on approach that focused on the development of students’ science process skills.

To test my hypothesis, I needed to pilot this new approach in classrooms, but there were no resources for teachers to use. It was very much the days of the textbook in the 1980s. So, I wrote grades 1, 2, and 3 Hands-On Science, based on the Manitoba Science Curriculum. I piloted it in nine classrooms in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division, and conducted pre- and post-tests with students to determine the development of their science process skills and knowledge. I also included surveys for teachers on the value of the resource and the approach being used.

Shortly thereafter, I was approached by Peguis Publishers, the company that has since become Portage & Main Press. They have been publishing the Hands-On collection since the 1990s.

  1. Your passion for a student-driven inquiry approach shows throughout the entire Hands-On collection. Where did this passion come from and how do you incorporate this approach in Hands-On?

I graduated with a Bachelor of Education majoring in Canadian Literature and Music. I was definitely a humanities person. I had taken one science course in my four-year degree, and only because I had to! Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to love teaching science, let alone writing resources for teachers.

Once I began teaching in 1980 (grade 2 in Souris, Manitoba), I began to dig deep into the science curriculum to ensure my commitment to addressing the expectations. As teachers, we are obligated to teach the curriculum, in each subject area, for our grade level. I vividly recall working on the grade 2 unit on solids, liquids, and gases, and loving it. I learned so much as a teacher about the value of a hands-on, student-centered approach to teaching. And I saw in my students a kind of motivation and engagement that I had not seen when using other approaches. After a few years in the classroom, I decided to go back for my Master’s degree with a focus on science, to explore this area further. 

I believe as learners, both children, and adults, we are more engaged and successful in the learning process when the pedagogy focuses on real-life, activity-based learning. And that is what the Hands-On collection is all about. 

  1. There are many editions of most of the Hands-On books. How would you say the Hands-On collection has changed over the years?

 The main changes have come about by addressing current research in education, and specifically within each subject area. So, for example, the current emphasis on differentiated instruction inspired us to include the activity centres in many series. These activity centres focus specifically on the various ways in which students learn. This allows students to work on tasks using their strengths, but also challenges them to approach tasks that might be outside of their skill set, helping them to develop new skills.

We also make significant changes in each new series based on the current curricular focus and local context. For example, in the newest edition of Hand-On Social Studies for Ontario, there is a strong emphasis on Indigenous knowledge and perspectives, which is a key aspect of the most recent revisions to the curriculum. As another example, the new Hands-On Science for British Columbia includes a focus on multi-age learning environments and student self-assessment, both of which are addressed in the redesigned curriculum for BC. 

  1. As a former classroom teacher yourself, can you describe what makes Hands-On so useful for teachers?

For this one, I asked a practicing classroom teacher, who has also been a contributing author for many of our resources:

  • Curriculum-based content
  • The format makes it easy to plan and implement. Every lesson is laid out step by step.
  • A teacher can open up a HOS book to the unit of their choice and get started right away.
  • Hands-on activities and a variety of research-based teaching strategies
  • Design and inquiry projects

All students can participate in some capacity in each unit.

  1. Hands-On resources are considered by many teachers as the best and the only resource they need to teach in their classrooms. Why is that?

All of the Hands-On resources are developed with a brand-new teacher in mind. That is not to say that they aren’t just as valuable for an experienced teacher, but we include everything that a teacher might need in terms of background information and content, guiding questions, materials, and activities. Since we focus specifically on the curriculum expectations or outcomes, teachers can be sure that they are addressing curricular obligations. Hands-On resources provide the teacher with everything they need to teach an inquiry-based, student-centred program.

  1. You’ve worked on every book in the Hands-On series. Which series has been your favourite and why?

I love different Hands-On books for different reasons. With my background being in science, the most recent Hands-On Science and Technology for Ontario was a fabulous project to work on in terms of infusing inquiry-based learning and differentiated instruction. The Manitoba series for social studies is another favourite because of the local context. Many other resources, not written specifically for an individual province, are unable to address local issues and content. There is such amazing work done in Hands-On Social Studies for Manitoba, especially some of the history of the Métis people, the Red River Settlement, and Louis Riel. Another favourite is the brand-new Hands-On Science for British Columbia. This one challenged me as a writer because it was our first resource for multi-age classrooms. And I always love a challenge!

Order the Hands-On series for your classroom today.



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