Get motivated, bring back HE

17th December 2010 at 00:00

My favourite subject as a pupil was home economics. I enjoyed it because it was different from other subjects that usually involved being stuck behind desks and listening passively to teachers. It offered active and experiential learning at a time when the prevailing pedagogy was didactic teaching, rote learning and bums on seats.

My class was also an interesting experiment at a time, not that long ago, when home economics was a means of preparing girls for home-making duties. Boys were timetabled, instead, for lessons in woodwork and metalwork.

So, I was part of a class of trail-blazers: young boys breaking through the glass kitchen ceiling, or door, actually, to shatter the outdated idea that preparing food, using fabrics and managing budgets were only for girls. We embraced the whole idea of gender equality and the opportunity to make cakes and wash our football tops.

Home economics was popular because it offered a tangible return on our endeavours, yielding cakes, fabric bookmarks and other concrete end products (my overcooked scones, for example). And, at the end of the course, we received a certificate for successfully acquiring various skills, including not setting anything on fire.

Home economics has continued to improve and develop into one of our most sophisticated disciplines, involving highly- relevant lessons on nutrition, fabrics and the management of family budgets, with useful connections to maths, science, enterprise and health and well-being. It develops key skills through topics that really matter.

It has also highlighted, better than most subjects, ways in which pupils can become more active problem solvers and has shown that learning through doing is often the most effective form of learning.

Some teachers are taking the subject into new areas with investigations and debate on controversial issues, such as the horrible mistreatment of chickens and other animals to provide us with cheap food.

Environmental issues, such as the impact of "food miles" on carbon emissions, are also becoming popular topics.

Back at my old school, we only had home economics on our timetables for a short time. It was, I suppose, a module and our teacher cleverly told us at the beginning of the module that if we successfully achieved all the learning outcomes, we would be rewarded with a certificate. For some of us, it was the only certificate we ever received at secondary school.

So, now, I would like to offer the key principles of my home economics education as a model for all our secondary schools to adopt. A modular approach, I believe, is the proper way forward for the delivery of home economics, and a host of other subjects, in the lower secondary school. In place of the 14 or so subjects presently on most S1-3 timetables, I suggest we have a core of six subjects, which are taught throughout the year, with the remaining subjects organised into modules that would be taught, for four or five periods a week, in rotation.

This would facilitate greater continuity and progression in learning and create more timetable slots for interdisciplinary experiences.

Modular courses work well in universities and, besides, the present overcrowding of subjects on lower secondary school timetables is neither sensible nor sustainable.

The second lesson from my home economics education is the usefulness of a tangible reward for completing a module satisfactorily. A certificate, house points, or whatever, would make, I am convinced, a huge difference to motivation and attainment levels in S1-3.

John Greenlees is a secondary teacher.

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