A report commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering has linked the perception that practical skills are less valued than theoretical skills in the UK’s education system with a looming skills shortage.

The report, prepared by researchers at the University of Winchester’s Centre for Real World Learning, said young children are natural engineers, but that the primary school system fails to foster this mindset, and that even secondary school teaching of engineering is highly variable in quality.

Researchers interviewed a wide variety of engineering educators and practising engineers as part of the Thinking like an engineer – implications for the education system study, in order to identify six “engineering habits of mind” that generate very specific ways of addressing and approaching problems.

These included:

  • Systems thinking
  • Adapting
  • Problem finding
  • Creative problem solving
  • Visualising
  • Improving

The report makes a strong case that if the UK wants to produce more engineers, the education system needs to be redesigned so that these habits of mind become better embedded.

“Young children exhibit engineering habits of mind in the raw,” the report said. “When the cardboard structure they have built is strong enough to support the weight of other toys and becomes a medieval castle, there is the thrill of persistent and successful experimentation.”

However, the education system has come to expect young people to move away from practical learning as they grow up and to become more theoretical and abstract.

“Schools, like post-Enlightenment society, choose to persist in believing that people who design, make and fix things must be less intelligent than those who can write essays, make speeches or understand quadratic equations,” said the report.

It proposes that the engineering teaching and learning community consider redesigning curricula – primary, secondary, further and higher education and, potentially, family learning – starting from the premise that they are trying to cultivate learners who think like engineers.

A new National Curriculum for England will be introduced in from September of this year. The report said it offers an important moment to create more opportunities for engineering through the new programmes of study for computing, mathematics, and science, as well as design and technology, and recommends that organisations promoting engineering should seize this opportunity to support schools in introducing more engineering-based content to the new curriculum.

“Engineers think differently from the rest of the world,” said professor Bill Lucas, the report’s author and director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester. “Society badly needs their problem-solving, systems-thinking and relentlessly-seeking-to-make-and-improve mindset. Yet the education system does little to teach in ways that will cultivate the engineers we will need. We leave it too late and, too often, teach it too dully. This has to change.”

Professor Helen Atkinson CBE FREng, Chair of the Academy’s Standing Committee for Education and Training, touted the report’s findings as significant.

“This insightful work suggests that even with an improved public engagement with engineering, our current education system in the UK does not sufficiently develop the habits of mind of young people to encourage them to pursue further study towards engineering careers,” she said.