Institutional prejudice against practical learning, and in favour of abstract reasoning, has never seemed more present in England's education system. Assumptions persist that reasoning requires more "intelligence" than activity, and that learning to be abstractly argumentative is a better preparation for life than learning to solve practical problems in immediate, concrete situations.
Yet most of us see that the nation will only prosper if it can produce people who make things, as well as people who shuffle paper. We need workers who have technical skills and know what to do when they encounter unexpected problems.
The swing in secondaries towards English Baccalaureate subjects is a shift away from the practical towards the academic. However, practical learning is not just about vocational courses. It is, and should be, a part of more traditional subjects, too.
Most pupils spend at least half their time in formal education working with their hands - doing experiments, drawing, dance, drama and sports. The proportion may be even higher in studio schools, university technical colleges and FE colleges, and rises when you factor in the less formal activities pupils take part in at school.
So, just as it is vital for pupils to be articulate, they also need to be able to "manipulate". Yet we remain uninquisitive about what works best in terms of teaching and learning.
In the US, the researcher Matthew Crawford has done much to rebalance thinking in favour of practical learning in The Case for Working with Your Hands. He wonders, "given the intrinsic richness of manual work, cognitively, socially and in its broader psychic appeal, why it has suffered such a devaluation as a component of education", and argues that "educators who would steer pupils toward cognitively rich work might do this best by rehabilitating the manual trades, based on a firmer grasp of what such work is really like". He is at least partly right.
Crawford is on to something when he says we must understand manual work better. The Western world has considered it to be less intelligent only because the scholastic assumption has prevented us from looking closely at the innards of practical learning. Given that the effectiveness of all education systems depends on the quality of teaching and learning, we think it is time to try to understand it better.
The practical has to take precedence over the theoretical. Part of practical learning is learning by watching - but it is not simply "sitting by Nellie" and absorbing skills through your mental pores. Sometimes we need to deconstruct what Nellie is doing.
Neither is it just "problem-based project work" with the occasional infusion of watered-down theory. The theory needs to be taught in a way that ensures it will come to mind when it will be needed. The blending and sequencing of experiences that recruit the right learning method for the moment requires subtlety and care.
Here are some key practical learning methods:
- Feedback and being coached.
- Peer conversations.
- Enquiry and exploration.
- Teaching and helping others.
- Real-world problem-solving.
- Playing, innovating and experimenting.
- Thinking critically and producing knowledge.
- Listening, transcribing and remembering.
- Drafting and sketching.
- Reflecting on experience.
- Learning in virtual environments.
- Learning via games and role play.
Each of these methods has its place. But we need to know the research that suggests the contexts in which, and the purposes for which, it can be most beneficial. Here are two examples: learning by practising and learning by being coached.
Learning by practising
Practice makes perfect, but not if it is mindless and not if it is the wrong kind of practice. We know from research that a blend of different kinds of practice tends to lead to the best learning. These include:
Getting the feel: On first trying something new, the body has no recollection of how an action should "feel"; no beginnings of "muscle memory". Over time, the body establishes a template of how it feels when the action seems to be going well. Watching and trying to copy others who are more skilled than you is helpful here.
Automating: Until "muscle memory" has been established, the golfer makes unreliable shots. But here, the learner works on automating the skills to the point where conscious thought is no longer required for each element of the action. Although the golfer may still need to process distance and wind speed, he does not need to consider his swing. Time, repetition and attentiveness are required at this stage of practice.
Picking out the hard parts: When an action refuses to lead to the desired outcome, the learner deconstructs that action to consider at which point the process erred. This can be difficult and boring.
Improvising: Automated practice can become staid and lack creativity. Effective practice can involve a level of playfulness in trying new ways of working. Smooth expertise needs leavening with playfulness to stop it becoming robotic.
Doing it for real: Skills become refined when they are tested in real life, which may be competitive or pressured. Plumbers and beauticians, cricketers and cellists need to practise their skills under increasingly stressful conditions to make sure that they do not revert to a more stereotyped or simplistic way of thinking and acting.
Learning by being coached
Sports scientists know that sports coaching is complex and delicate. Like any teaching, its success depends on a subtle and fluid understanding of the psychology of learning. The kind of coaching that occurs in the context of practical learning is no different. Some of the facets of the effective coach are exemplified by the work of Andy Banks, who trains British Olympic diver Tom Daley (pictured, below right).
Planning: In coaching the champion diver, Banks helped him to plan backwards, thinking through "this is where he needs to be, this is where we are now, so what are we going to do now to achieve that?"
Dictating or facilitating: Banks also describes how his role changes over the course of the life of a young athlete. He begins as a "dictator ... because they haven't got a clue about anything" and becomes an "adviser" and "facilitator". But even in this progression, there must be scope for flexibility.
Supporting emotionally: The ability to control emotions comes with maturity. Young people may need help on an emotional learning journey, especially when there are high stakes. Banks describes the importance of recognising the start of a downward spiral, and the use of "happy thoughts" and breaks in coaching Daley.
Talking through failures: Banks describes the way he helped Daley to understand why and where he had gone wrong, and the importance of "focusing on process and totally ignoring everything else that's going on".
Encouraging coach reflection: Banks suggests that those who want to follow in his coaching footsteps should glean ideas about how to coach from as many sources as possible, believing that all information "is worth assimilating".
Clear messages are emerging from our research. First, in today's politicised teaching arena, pedagogy can too easily be a loaded subject. Certain methods can become overhyped and stereotyped as a result of politicians' need to look effective (eg, synthetic phonics and Assessment for Learning). Direct instruction can be stigmatised as "old-fashioned", while more pupil-centred approaches can, equally unhelpfully, be dismissed as "trendy".
Second, it is easy for teachers to become too used to a small number of methods and use these exclusively. Good practical teaching is not a matter of simply sticking with a few tried-and-tested techniques. It requires a blend of approaches: expert demonstration followed by practice, structured problem-solving leading to a reflective debrief, pupils teaching others, teachers being explicit about what is going on as they model a new skill, freedom to experiment coupled with coaching feedback and so on.
Third, a few general principles of practical instructional design have become clear. For example, in his book Visible Learning, John Hattie highlights four essential features of high-quality practical learning:
- The learning arising from any learning experience is given explicit attention in the moment.
- Learners have specific, challenging, practical goals in mind. Learning tasks are constructed with those goals in mind so that they are beneficial.
- Feedback is clear and plentiful. Learners recognise the need to welcome and listen to feedback.
- Teachers recognise learners' self-concepts and are able to coach them to develop improved learning dispositions and strategies.
Ron Berger of the US-based Expeditionary Learning initiative observes that something interesting happens when learners discover the deep satisfaction of struggling to produce their best work, when "an attitude of craftsmanship" is born. "This one word says it all," he says. "It connotes someone who has integrity and knowledge, who is dedicated to his work and who is proud of what he does and who he is. Someone who thinks carefully and does things well."
Professors Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton are directors of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester. Their research for the City and Guilds Centre for Skills Development will be published on 6 December
- Choose a learning method you have not yet used. Find out about it and fit it into your own practical teaching.
- Encourage groups of pupils to develop the ability to critique their own work in progress, as well as learning how to provide gentle and effective feedback to others.
- Explain to pupils why you have designed their learning the way you have, and suggest ways in which they can use what you are teaching in a range of contexts.
- Find small ways to train pupils to become participants in designing and improving their own learning experiences.
- Make sure you mix up the different kinds of practice. After a really hard session of "trying to get it right", see if there is a way to reinsert some creativity or playfulness into the process.
- Berger, R. An Ethic of Excellence (Heinemann, 2003)
- Crawford, M. The Case for Working with Your Hands (Penguin, 2010)
- Claxton, G., Lucas B. and Webster, R. Bodies of Knowledge (Edge Foundation, 2010)
- Claxton, G. and Lucas, B. "Anti-manualism", Open to Ideas (Policy Connect, 2011)
- Dixon, M. et al. "Coaching for performance: an interview with Olympic diving coach, Andy Banks", Reflective Practice, 133 (2012), 339-354
- Hattie, J. Visible Learning (Routledge, 2009)
- Hetland, L. et al. Studio Thinking (Teachers College Press, 2007)
- Lucas, B. and Claxton, G. Wider Skills for Learning (Nesta, 2009)
- Perkins, D. Making Learning Whole (Jossey-Bass, 2009)
- Sennett, R. The Craftsman (Allen Lane, 2008).