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Dive into the handwriting debate

A proactive debate in education at the moment - indeed, one that verges on being a wind-up - is whether children still need to learn handwriting.

But it is a rather one-sided debate. Even though most adults in Britain today will write more on a keyboard than with a pen, few are willing to argue against it as a necessary skill for pupils.

A key argument for retaining handwriting lessons is the role they play in teaching pupils the very basics of reading and writing. By forming letters by hand, over and over again, children grow more accustomed to their shapes and functions. It is one of the oldest and most traditional forms of what now might be called kinaesthetic learning.

Yet there is a tendency for those outside schools to forget how hands-on a lot of learning is. In their imaginations, teaching is reduced to transmission, with pupils spending their entire time sitting quietly and absorbing knowledge from their teachers' speeches, as if watching a lecture, or television.

Professors Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton argue that most pupils, in fact, spend more than half their time in formal education learning in a hands-on way. The two professors are based at the University of Winchester in its Centre for Real-World Learning (an institution whose title alone is more than a little mischievous), and have recently been carrying out research on practical forms of learning for the qualifications body City and Guilds.

Their article today is a sneak preview of that research, due to be published next month. Practical learning is not just part of BTECs in bricklaying and other vocational courses, they argue, but all learning.

Among the examples they give of good practice is the support given to the diver Tom Daley by his coach Andy Banks. The Olympic coach demonstrates many of the best qualities of the practical teacher, they write, including the way he has consciously shifted his role from "dictator" to "facilitator" as his charge has grown more adept on the high diving board.

Is that hands-on learning or feet-on learning? Actually, it doesn't matter whether the lesson is on handwriting or backflips: let them roll up their sleeves and dive in.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

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