“The reason we have a hands-on approach to training our teachers is simple: teaching is all about modelling. It is all about allowing children to see something, and see how it works, and you can’t do that by just from learning by rote.”
So says Sarah Wright, senior lecturer in primary education at Edge Hill University, who has helped introduce a range of different hands-on approaches to teacher training at the west Lancashire institution.
“In geography we create rivers from sand in trays, pour water in and watch erosion happen; in design technology we create fairground rides with motors, and pop-up books with card and glue sticks. Even in the likes of religious education we will create symbols in playdough. We are modelling to our teaching students how it should be with their children in the classroom.”
Wright admits that putting teaching students through their paces in this way can, on occasion, lead to some raised eyebrows. “Some initially think, ‘why are you getting us to behave like 9-year-olds?’; but actually, what is good learning for a 9-year-old is generally good learning for people of any age.
“We have got a real ethos of let’s do, rather than let’s sit and chalk and talk, because that’s not going to make a good teacher is it?” It is an ethos shared by a range of institutions – and there are good reasons for it.
“Teachers have got to learn to be out of their comfort zone, and that sometimes they are going to need to make a little bit of a wally of themselves to be a teacher,” Wright says. “And it is getting them to experience something new which is hopefully what their children will be doing every single day.”
It is not just at primary level either. Deirdre Butler, a professor in Dublin City University’s Institute of Education, is internationally recognised for creative approaches to teachers’ professional development. At the institution’s LEGO® Education Innovation Studio, all teaching students are encouraged to let their imagination run wild.
“We have been using LEGO for more than 20 years here very successfully, and what we have found especially useful is the addition of the computational layer, so we have sensors and programme them as well,” Butler says. “Twenty years ago they thought we were mad to use LEGO and robotics with school children, but you can do really interesting stuff with the materials.”
She cites the philosophy of “constructivism”, which theorises that students of all ages can learn more effectively by building external structures that they can actually share with other people.
“It develops the collaborative aspect as well as knowledge about construction,” she says – something that is particularly important for new teachers. “It is a 21st-century skill – being a critical thinker, problem solving, working collaboratively and having an innovative mindset. Those are the ideas we are trying to get across [to our trainee teachers].
“It is very unfair to expect teachers to develop innovative different environments for the people and children that they work with if they haven’t had experience of doing something different themselves.”
Activities are often set around a theme – a recent example being the global shortage of drinking water. “Our students researched their ideas, and then using the robotics they actually built prototypes of what their ideas could look like: simple things like a motion sensor, so when you brush your teeth the running water turns itself off if you aren’t using it.”
This prototyping means teaching students can actually put their ideas into practice. “When people talk about Stem education, a lot of the time it is mostly about science, with a bit of technology and maths, but not much focus on the engineering.
“By using the LEGO and these [robotic] materials, they are looking at scientific ways to deal with problems and at the same time working on the engineering.”
There is also a LEGO Innovation Studio at PXL University College in Belgium. Jochen Didden, a lecturer in ICT and media at the institution, has worked at the studio with trainee teachers.
“Research has shown that when you use your hands, between 60 and 80 per cent of your brain capacity is activated,” he says. “And you can do much more with your hands than you are aware of: think of tying a shoelace, or eating with chopsticks. Probably something that you can do, but can’t explain how to do.”
Back in the UK, at Staffordshire University, Katie Leonard, a lecturer of secondary education, agrees that getting hands-on is essential to engaging students – and ultimately helping them to engage their own pupils.
The university’s Clay for Learning module shows trainee teachers how to implement clay to enhance students’ learning development across subject areas and disciplines.
“By using clay at all key stages, it encourages curiosity, develops resilience, builds stamina and develops creative skills,” she says. “Trainees gets hands-on, developing language and concepts that their fingertips discover.
“We explore a range of things that are made from ceramics, including the usual suspects of tableware, sculpture and toilets, but then also how ceramics are used to make parts for space shuttles, Formula One cars, replacement hips and teeth, to name just a few.”
Opportunities for hands-on learning approaches can be found across all key stages and subjects – it is simply a matter of finding an approach that works, even if that means leaving traditional methods behind.
“There is a raging, bubbling debate at the moment between 'trads' and 'progs' in education,” says Wright, back at Edge Hill. “But it is not about choosing a side, it is about choosing a teaching method that best suits what you are teaching for whomever you are teaching it to. It is about using your own brain as an educator to learn what is best.”
Chris Parr is a journalist and education writer