The joy of practical matters

23rd April 2010 at 01:00

"Old dogs, new tricks" comes to mind. I am learning to carve, in readiness for retirement.

My first carving was on a chunk of beach-combed fence post with old chisels I found in the shed. I had postcards of "The Three Graces" and thought what I had done was braw. Then I went to an evening class, and it was an education - in all ways. The teacher was a couthy bloke, who wandered from workbench to workbench, chatting away, stepping in only to correct whatever we were doing wrong.

It always does teachers good to be put in the position of gormless idiots whose hands don't always do what their brain wants, giving us an inkling of what it is like for quite a bunch of our pupils.

I also liked it because I forgot everything else for those couple of hours - I'd arrive, greet my classmates, select my pouch of chisels and get going. When things got a bit boring, I'd wander round to see how the others were doing - wolf, unicorn, elephants (two), Celtic cross, Aberdeen Angus Bull - until I found myself sounding a bit teachery and would slink back to my workbench.

Mind you, what I produced was actually so beautiful that my old fencepost has been relegated to the wood pile, and I am boastfully proud enough to have my finished carving on the mantelpiece, although she is modestly turned into the wall. Two reasons. First, the grain of the wood on her back is so lovely and, second, because the bosoms are a bit high and pert; they started off lower and rounder but I kept getting it wrong .

It strikes me now that we may underestimate how much pupils enjoy what they make in school. We tend to think that they like practical subjects because they aren't brainy. But maybe it goes deeper than that, and we do our academic kids a huge disservice when they don't have time to carve, or build furniture, or cook or make clothes.

Being self-sufficient is part of life - and a necessary skill. I was not fond of my home economics teacher, but she taught me to cook, and I made a blouse with collar and cuffs and buttonholes in second year. My Higher in home management might be mocked by some - especially those who experience my current home-management skills - but I'm a good cook. Is that any different from the pleasure I get identifying evidence of glaciation when hill walking? Or the way I ordered my dinner in Paris last week using French learnt 45 years ago?

Perhaps there is "no fool like an old fool" - but education doesn't just have to be about writing and exams. Let's put more practical skills into the curriculum for all ages and abilities and see whether it makes our kids happier and more competent.

Meanwhile, pass the plasters, because I've cut my finger on the ruddy chisel again.

Penny Ward is a secondary teacher.

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