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There’s Nothing as Practical as a Good Theory

Stuart Middleton


15 October 2018

Conferences often have great appeal especially when they are characterised as a “world congress.’ And while the programme basks in the glory of X plenary sessions, Y presenters and Z delegates, the highlights generally originate from the casual conversations with some of the folk who are there, the ideas you scoop up and note in notebooks or on scraps of papers and the  general enthusiasm generated by the conference/congress theme.

The World Congress of Colleges and Polytechnics held just an such event in Melbourne last week. The title of this post was in fact a sub-heading in a pamphlet published by the Victorian  Curriculum and Assessment Authority on “Applied Learning”. It outlined four key underpinning principles which were:

  1. applied learning is an approach that emphasises the relevance to the “real world outside the classroom;
  2. applied learning will involve students and teachers with partnerships and connections with organisations and individuals outside the school;
  3. applied learning is concerned wirth nurturing the student in a holistic manner to take account of personal strengths, interests, goals and previous experiences;
  4. applied learning plays a part in the transition from school to work.


Inevitable in these kinds of summary advice lead to some simple (simplistic?) pieces of advice.

  1. Start where students are at.
  2. Negotiate the curriculum. Engage in a dialogue with students about their curriculum.
  3. Share knowledge. Recognise the knowledge students bring to the learning environment.
  4. Connect with communities and real-life experiences.
  5. Build resilience, confidence and self-worth – consider the whole person.
  6. Integrate learning – the whole task and the whole person. In life we use a range of skills and knowledge. Learning should reflect the integration that occurs in real-life tasks.
  7. Promote diversity of learning styles and methods. Everyone learns differently. Accept that different learning styles require different learning or teaching methods, but value experiential, practical and ‘hands on’ ways of learning.
  8. Assess appropriately. Use the assessment method that best ‘fits’ the learning content and context.

Furthermore the pamphlet points to advantages of applied learning:

  • improved student motivation and commitment
  • providing a context for learning the generic skills that are valued in the workplace, e.g. problem solving, working effectively with others and in teams, leadership and personal responsibility
  • learning engages students
  • improved self-esteem and confidence for those involved
  • improved transition for students from school to work and/or further education
  • a way of catering effectively for students with different preferred learning styles
  • providing a meaningful context for learning both theoretical concepts and practical skills.

The point of regaling all this to you is to emphasise that there is developing some level of international agreement which was clear at the Congress about the value of applied learning, about its importance in moving education systems closer to the key purpose and role of education in supporting economic development through expanding the size and competence of the skill base on which the future of economies rely.

I used to think that the failure to do this was quintessentially a feature of English-speaking education systems but it was heartening to see the progress being made in this regard in many countries. Of course the principles outlined above seem a little commonplace – they are but they are crucial.

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