After decades of neglect, educators and policymakers are belatedly realising just how important – and costly – the teaching of practical knowledge actually is, argues Gareth Sturdy in the Education Forum’s latest Teach Secondary column…

When I trained to be a physics teacher in the mid-1990s I never imagined that 25 years later I’d be working from a makeshift classroom at the back of a hair salon, surrounded by sinks and blow-dryers.

I’ve spent the last couple of years out of schools, mainly teaching hairdressing apprentices basic numeracy and literacy for Functional Skills qualifications in a work-based learning setting. It’s been a privilege, allowing me to meet many fantastic people who, despite struggling with the basics of primary-level learning, possess the acumen and skills needed to run very successful, fast-paced businesses.

And yet, I so often hear these people describe themselves as ‘failures’ at school. When I’ve asked my apprentices what they mean by this, they invariably give an answer along the lines of, “I wasn’t academic. So I’d sometimes get into trouble. I was just good with my hands. So I didn’t leave with many qualifications.” These conversations have made a deep impression on me, given my classroom background, and I soon came to realise that such narratives contained several PhDs’ worth of research questions.

How can someone spend over a decade in formal education, yet leave barely able to read or multiply? What do we actually mean by the word ‘academic’? Are teachers and students even talking about the same thing? Above all, to what extent is practical knowledge – that ‘being good with one’s hands’ – different from abstract, conceptual and propositional knowledge? Is there enough room for this approach to making sense of the world within the field of academic knowledge?

Read the full article on TeachWire, or watch the Education Forum debate that inspired it below…