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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Hands on learning: a progressive pedagogy

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 6 June 2024

This is the third of four blog posts about primary education from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (HHCP) at IOE. Each post addresses key points that are included in a new HHCP briefing paper written to inform debate about education in England as we approach the general election. The four posts are:

      1. In the hands of a new government: the future of primary education in England
      2. Children, choice and the curriculum
      3. Hands on learning: a progressive pedagogy
      4. Assessment in primary schools: reducing the ‘Sats effect’
Children doing a science experiment with their teacher. Credit: Drazen via Adobe Stock.

Credit: Drazen via Adobe Stock.

Emily Ranken

Children’s opportunities for authentic, hands-on experiences as part of their learning, such as science experiments, school trips, and ‘forest school’, are decreasing. Rising constraints on school budgets, combined with a detailed curriculum that prioritises traditional, knowledge-heavy content, means that schools are less likely to be able to provide children with these real-life, resource-intensive activities. Yet, they provide children with an essential component of primary education.

There is a growing body of research showing that teaching approaches that include hands-on experiences provide numerous benefits for children. Experiential learning (EL) is a type of hands-on learning that is child-centred and set in meaningful, real-world contexts. Our rapid evidence assessment of the research literature, as part of the Rethinking Curriculum project, showed a wide range of highly beneficial effects of EL for children aged 4-14. This encompassed children’s academic achievement as well as their wellbeing, motivation, and engagement.

Indeed, our research showed that EL is often equally or more effective in supporting children’s academic achievement than approaches which prioritise knowledge acquisition. Studies showed that EL was associated with improved learning outcomes and vocabulary development in science and maths, as well as the development of academic skills such as memory, critical thinking, and problem-solving competence – skills that are pivotal for lifelong success.

At a time when children’s mental health appears to be worsening and poor classroom behaviour may be on the rise, it is vital that schools provide children with experiences that not only teach them essential knowledge but that also enthuse, engage, and motivate them to learn. Our review found that EL had a positive effect on children’s wellbeing, with participation in EL programmes increasing children’s confidence, problem-solving skills, socio-emotional skills, empathy, emotion regulation, and in-class behaviour.

Many studies in our review reported that children themselves had an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards these learning experiences, with many children expressing a keen interest in participating in more activities with a hands-on, experiential component in the future. Such enthusiasm is critical at a time when school absenteeism is reaching alarming levels. Whilst there are many reasons for children missing school, a curriculum that that does not meet the needs of all children is likely to be an important contributory factor.

Increased engagement and motivation resulting from EL was particularly notable in children with special educational needs or behavioural or emotional difficulties. Injecting more fun and interactive learning into the curriculum therefore not only enhances educational outcomes but may also play a part in addressing these systemic issues by making learning more appealing, engaging, and inclusive for all students.

The diminishing access to hands-on learning opportunities presents a significant challenge. However, the compelling body of evidence underscoring the benefits of such approaches strongly supports their integral role in primary education. School trips and other opportunities for hands-on and experiential learning should not be viewed as an optional add-on to the curriculum, but as an essential component of it, and it is vital that the primary curriculum is shaped to reflect and facilitate this. Hands-on learning should be an element of the curriculum that is rigorously planned and adapted as needed to be inclusive of all pupils. In doing so, we not only enhance children’s experiences of school, but also equip them with the enthusiasm and skills necessary for future success.

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