Learning by doing: why we’ve embraced a practical primary curriculum

Headteacher Kate McGee explains how her school is using practical activities such as gardening, cooking and filmmaking to teach English, maths, philosophy and beyond. This is from the Guardian…

At Manor Primary School we have always taken a practical approach to learning, not least because there are some 53 different languages spoken by our pupils and we get a lot of new entrants who speak no English at all.

Attending a school where you don’t understand the common language can be a very daunting prospect for a child of any age, especially those between the ages of four and 11 years old. So, getting the children involved in practical activities that teach them English, among other subjects, is a highly effective way of engaging them in their learning.

In my experience, this is the case with all pupils, not just those that don’t fully understand the language they are being taught in. Children respond better when being engaged in practical activities, rather than reading from textbooks. They grow in confidence if you give them a task to do, which they are able to achieve. And this can be incorporated into teaching the national curriculum in an effective, engaging and enjoyable way.

Working with The Open Futures Trust, we are incorporating four key strands into our curriculum – these are named askitgrowitcookit and filmit. Each of these strands enables us to teach our children core subjects through practical activities, including philosophical style discussion sessions, gardening, cooking, and film-making.

We are located in a heavily built up area and there is very little green space within the school grounds, so we have set up raised beds, which are currently full of carrots and potatoes, and greenhouses to grow our summer produce. The crops can then be used in the cooking strand, when the children make a wide range of dishes from their home-grown vegetables, giving them a great sense of achievement.

Through the development of this garden, the children are learning where their food comes from and how to cultivate it. They also learn about the seasons and timing, and how to apply a range of mathematical skills and knowledge while developing their English and communication skills. And all of this can be integrated right through all subjects and year groups.

The philosophy side of our curriculum will be more familiar to many schools, through the well-known P4C (philosophy for children) programme. This is an incredibly important part of the learning process. It gives the children a chance to reflect on what they’re being taught, developing their ability to question, reason, hypothesise, and debate with their fellow pupils and teachers. This then helps their reasoning, questioning and learning right the way across the curriculum.

Of course, as with any changes, incorporating a practical curriculum can throw up a few obstacles for schools. On the filming side of our teaching programme, bringing in new technology takes time; staff need to learn to handle new equipment before bringing it into their lessons effectively.

These skills can be passed onto the children who film their gardening projects and develop their IT skills by creating short clips that can be shared with their parents and friends. The films are also being shared with schools in India, through the filmit website, as part of the programme’s partnership activities, so the children are learning about different cultures as well.

If a school has a lack of green space, such as ours, embedding a garden can be difficult – not to mention learning how to make the most of it afterwards. I knew little of horticulture before we brought gardening into our school, so there is a great opportunity for us teachers to learn alongside the pupils. The children absolutely love being able to go outside and dig up a few potatoes to use in their classroom kitchen. Some don’t know where foods originally come from, so there’s the added benefit of teaching them about the origins of their food and healthy eating. It is definitely worth the effort of developing new skills to bring this practical learning into the school…

Having the flexibility to deliver core learning in ways that engage our children is very important – and a curriculum focused around a variety of practical activities with tangible outcomes hits the nail on the head. It boosts engagement and helps to improve attainment; the children want to come to school if they know they are going to be planting tomatoes, cooking a new recipe or creating a film. Generating a buzz and an excitement around learning is vitally important if children are going to develop their literacy and numeracy skills, their understanding of science and ICT, as well as develop their wider skills and knowledge. How better to learn the months of the year than to sow seeds in March and get excited for the harvest in July? Or use a computer by creating and editing a film of your friends? Or develop an understanding of the complexities of the English language through cooking something delicious? The practical approach works and our pupils are testament to that.

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