It is time to question 'mind over matter'
We have sequenced the human genome, but when it comes to understanding learning, our scientific understanding is inadequate. Our educational practices often rest on outdated and misleading assumptions. Nowhere is this clearer than in practical and vocational learning.
To understand the low status of manual work, we need to go back 400 years and remind ourselves of what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio called "Descartes' error".
Descartes decreed that mind and body were separate: minds were capable of knowing God and reasoning; bodies were mere flesh. Enlightenment philosophers could not comprehend the intelligence of bodies, but their thinking legitimated the disparity of esteem between manual and mental that still bedevils education today.
We now know that such assumptions are wrong. Research from cognitive sciences and, especially, the new discipline of embodied cognition, shows that we think not just with our minds, but also with our bodies.
A new model of "mind" is emerging, in which physical activity and practical learning play a key role. "The hand," as Jacob Bronowski put it, "is the cutting edge of the mind." What happens to the quality of your thinking when you doodle, lie in a bath or go for a jog? Our bodies are not just a way of transporting our minds around: what we do with them is intimately connected with the quality of our thinking.
A fuller account of embodied cognition is published in Bodies of Knowledge: How the learning sciences could transform practical and vocational education.
The Centre for Real-world Learning takes this as a jumping-off point for a more sophisticated model of learning, one as applicable to plumbing as to medicine. We assume that there are useful frames of mind that aid effective learning of all kinds.
At Oxford and Cherwell Valley College, a major research effort is testing our attempt to develop a universal language for learning, and exploring its implications for teaching. Society assumes that vocational learning is cognitively simpler than scholarly learning, and has not scrutinised the skills, strategies and attitudes that enable some people to learn fast and excel at hairdressing, cooking or mechanics. We expect to find vocational learning to be at least as sophisticated as academic learning. And if we are right, this knowledge should help to rebalance the esteem in which different educational pathways are held.