Practical learning: why, and how, you should embed it

Despite growing recognition of its contribution to the development of life skills such as problem-solving and creative thinking, practical learning still tends to be seen as the poor relative of academic learning. In new research published this week for the Royal Academy of Engineering with support from the Comino Foundation, we show why this should not be so. When we talk of practical learning in schools, we tend to think of experiments, fieldwork, school trips, rehearsals, performances, displays, exhibitions and projects. It’s easy to make over-simplifying remarks about the curriculum that describe, for example, mathematics as theoretical and physical education as practical. But in fact, all subjects contain theory and practice – mathematics can invite us to solve real-world engineering structural problems and PE requires at least a tacit knowledge of the laws of motion. Our research has begun to shine a light on practical learning in secondary schools, understanding more about why it matters, describing what practical teaching looks like when it is done well, developing a map of promising practices in secondary schools and suggesting how high-quality practical learning is likely to attract would-be engineers to go on to college or university to pursue their engineering dreams. More: Is your classroom a 'wicked' learning environment? How to make it to Christmas without burning out Menopause: How to support school staff Practical learning: what the research says The three most widely used and evaluated ways of promoting practical learning are project-based learning, inquiry-based learning and problem-based learning. While many teachers believe that these are effective ways of learning, many others do not. The three methods have become distracting educational brands, touchstones that can all too easily indicate whether a teacher is a so-called traditionalist or progressive. Researchers who dislike them argue that there is not enough evidence of their efficacy as methods when compared to more didactic forms of teaching and have concluded that they should not be used. But this is the wrong question. All we need to know is whether, when done well, problem-based learning and its ilk are as effective as more traditional methods in ensuring achievement in examinations. It turns out that, when done well, research suggests that project-based learning, inquiry-based learning and problem-based learning seem to work as well as more didactic approaches in terms of student achievement. Specifically, inquiry-based learning and problem-based learning can lead to gains in knowledge and its retention in science; in literacy and numeracy, the picture is more mixed. Interestingly, a lot of the research we reviewed spends at least as much time justifying its choice of pedagogy as looking in detail at learning outcomes. The added value of practical learning If we want students to leave school with a set of useful learning dispositions as well as with good levels of knowledge and skill then we need to focus our research efforts on what else students learn when using such approaches. We found evidence to suggest, for example, that project-based learning, inquiry-based learning and problem-based learning enhance engagement, motivation, self-regulation, communication and problem-solving, especially in situations where knowledge has to be applied in a new context. There is more to be understood, but the signs are promising. It is clear that simply asking whether practical pedagogies are better or less effective than more traditional ones invites unsubtle binary disagreement. Especially as, if either can be effective in terms of achieving similar examined outcomes, our attention needs to turn to what other benefits that methods such as project-based learning, inquiry-based learning and problem-based learning can offer. Practical learning is complex, valuable and an integral part of almost all learning. Without an explicit attention to creating opportunities for practical learning, it is likely to be overlooked, ignored or undervalued in secondary schools that are largely influenced by success at GCSE and A levels. The three methods we have explored in particular – project-based, inquiry-based and problem-based learning – generate unhelpful responses in some school leaders and teachers, at least in part because they are only known by their media hype and not examined through a more critical lens. During a pandemic, providing safe opportunities for practical learning has been particularly challenging. But if we are to build back better then now is a good time to take stock of the state of practical learning in schools. For too long we have emphasised the head at the expense of the heart and the hand; it is time we rebalanced the curriculum. As Harvard researcher David Perkins puts it in research published in 2019: “Play the whole game. Use extended projects and authentic contexts. Combine theory and practice, matching the level and specificity of tasks to students’ prior knowledge and experience. Make the game worth playing. Work hard at engaging learners giving them choices wherever possible. Find the right level of challenge and support to motivate all learners. Pick your moment to introduce theoretical explanations.” The next steps for schools: a checklist In our report, we list more than 30 secondary schools that are already leading the way and from whom we can all learn. The following headings offer schools an agenda for change along with some suggestions for next steps. School culture, leadership and the curriculum Implementing practical learning requires a receptive school culture. Practical learning should be aligned with other curriculum demands, eg, GCSEs. Flexible spaces and flexible seating are required for high-quality practical activity. If practical learning is taking place outside timetabled sessions, consider how it could be aligned with the concurrent curriculum delivery. Teacher networking and professional development opportunities are essential. Support for cross-disciplinary working within the school is desirable. Learning task The context needs to be carefully clarified to show why it is relevant to addressing the task and how it connects with the students’ perspective. The aim of the task needs to be matched with the degree of structure imposed on the problem or question. Careful estimation of the amount of time required is important with time built in for reflection and improvement on the first response. The roles of external participants, organisations and employers should be clearly articulated and carefully agreed upon. Students need to: have a degree of agency in planning their learning; exercise self-management and time-management skills; be involved in decision-making about the task; be able to communicate and share their ideas; exercise a systematic approach to problem-solving; know how to seek information from a range of different sources; collaborate with others; and be given opportunities to take pride in their work. Teachers need to: balance didactic instruction with independent inquiry to ensure that students develop a certain level of knowledge and skills before being comfortably engaged in independent or collaborative work; prompt and manage open-ended class discussion; situate new learning in the context of previous learning; ensure students progress through and experience all stages of the inquiry or problem-solving process; base guidance for students based on the teacher’s knowledge of students’ developmental understanding of concepts, for example in science; place students in groups, as appropriate for the task; expose the links between the practical activity and the conceptual theory, including links between disciplines; and allow time for students to process their thinking following the activity. Assessment Student self- and peer-evaluation of progress needs to be regularly monitored and recorded. Assessment instruments should track progress in terms of content (knowledge acquisition) and habits of mind (character and dispositions for learning). Bill Lucas is director of the centre for real-world learning at the University of Winchester. He is the co-founder of Rethinking Assessment and the author of many books and research reports on creativity and engineering. His latest report, written with Janet Hanson, is Reimagining Practical Learning in Secondary Schools: a review of the evidence. Bill tweets as @LucasLearn.