Hands on Learning

Turning a hand to better school outcomes

It’s just over 20 years since Russell Kerr saw an opportunity to help school children at risk of losing their way by providing a practical solution that became Hands on Learning.

Hands on Learning in action at Mount Evelyn Primary School, Pic: Jessica Harris

Russell introduced the program at Frankston High School in Victoria and has helped pilot the program across the state and to take its first steps in to Queensland, NSW and Tasmania.

In 2017, Hands on Learning (HoL) became part of Save The Children Australia, an association brokered by a mutual supporter of both organisations, John Cameron of the Cameron Foundation.

His rationale was clear. “Large NGOs like Save The Children have an important role to play in identifying and fostering innovative start-ups such as Hands on Learning, who have proven their models and face the challenges of scaling,’’ John says.

As a result, Hands on Learning is poised to grow. “We have a proven methodology, so we know what we do works,’’ Cameron Wiseman, head of School Engagement at Save The Children, says. “And we are much more confident about expanding our footprint because Save The Children Australia has the expertise, infrastructure and experience of delivering programs across the country for many years.’’

The theory behind Hands on Learning is simple and has not deviated from Russell’s original vision – to help disengaged students find ways to stay connected with school by providing them with practical lessons, whether it’s carpentry, cooking or building. The proof is clear that many students who take part not only stay at school but use their practical experience as a basis for further training and trade apprenticeships.

The students spend one day a week in a group of 10 children, literally doing “hands on learning.’’ There are two adults – one is usually part of the school’s teaching staff, the other is what HoL call an “artisan teacher’’, who is the practical or creative teacher, employed as an education support staff member. Save the Children provides specialised training and support to improve outcomes from the small cohort of disengaged students, some of whom will have come from troubled families or have had traumatic experiences. The school pays the education support staff, so it needs to know the program works to make that investment.

The program’s impact goes beyond the acquisition of basic skills: there is the importance of a constant adult role model in the class, the vital capacity to develop teamwork and the sense of achievement that comes from producing something, whether it’s a billycart, a window frame or a batch of scones.

“It’s the cohort we’re targeting – they’re kids at risk of potentially not good outcomes,’’ Cameron says. “We’re working on the micro-social skills and it’s the alternative to putting all these kids in one class – and risking a teacher getting burnt out – or the kids moving on to another school.’’

What does happen is that many teachers who have experience of the program become its advocates – if they move schools, they often contact HoL about trying to establish the program at their new school.

Save The Children raises $1 million a year, mainly from a variety of private and philanthropic sources, to supports schools who are running the program. HoL was initially supported by Social Ventures Australia and most of the original high-value donors have stuck with it but now there is a push for the Federal government to fund a national roll-out of the program.

The expansion plans have their own challenges. Tasmania has a chronic school retention problem that is clearly an opportunity for HoL. At the moment, there are five schools signed up for the program and there is no dedicated funding resource for a HoL school support program in Tasmania.

As Cameron puts it, the two decades of Hands on Learning has given evidence of the value of its approach. “We are custodians of the program,’’ he says. “Ultimately, it is the students who are the real project.’’ And Russell is still advocating for the program, and after all this time, happily calls himself an “elder’’. 

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