What is your wish-list for the kind of skills you would like your students to leave school with? This issue explains the QCA’s framework for Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) and provides ideas on how you can apply this in practicedoc-8880733

Resource 1 Concept Star model.pptdoc-8880733 Resource 2 Concept Star resources.ppt

The QCA has come up with its own list – a set of Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills grouped into six main areas:

  • Independent Enquirers
  • Team Workers
  • Creative Thinkers
  • Self Managers
  • Reflective Learners
  • Effective Participators

Published in 2007, the QCA’s Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills Framework has been billed as an essential part of meeting the aims of the Secondary Curriculum, namely that young people should become ‘successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens’.

However, while many of the teachers and school leaders that I have spoken to see the emphasis placed on personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) in a positive light, many have also expressed concern. 

In this first issue of Learning and Thinking Skills, we explore some key questions and concerns about PLTS, and identify some of the challenges for teachers. You will also find some practical strategies and tips to help you, your department or your school take the framework off the shelf and make it your own. 

Over the next three terms, this e-bulletin will offer practical ideas, classroom resources, useful case studies and digests of relevant research. We look forward to exploring and sharing learning and thinking skills with you.

Concerns, questions and opportunities

Concerns

Some teachers and leaders are worried by the very idea of an ‘off the shelf’ PLTS framework, wanting guidance instead on how to develop their own ‘student profile’ – one that is meaningful to colleagues and students because authored by them. Most are concerned about how it can be implemented in a meaningful way, wanting to avoid a quick ‘tick box’ audit exercise that fails to engage staff seriously in exploring how PLTS can be brought in from the margins of the curriculum.

If you find yourself sharing these concerns and irritations, don’t worry – you are in good company! In a recent article for Learning and Teaching Update, Professor Guy Claxton went so far as to claim that, for him, frameworks such as the QCA example ‘seem more like potential paving slabs for the road to hell than well worked out guidelines for a revitalised education.’

For Claxton, ‘the real moral heart of education is about character’. What kinds of adults do we want our children to become, and what skills, dispositions, interests and concerns should our curricula therefore aim to nurture? The risk is that an off-the-shelf framework, however well constructed, becomes a substitute for genuine dialogue amongst educationalists about ‘values and character’.

His concerns may mirror yours – as they do mine. I’ve summed them up in the following questions.

Questions

1. How do we make the QCA Framework our own; how do we make it meaningful to us as a school community – staff, students and parents?

2. The skills and competencies that it contains are phrased in such a way that no one could possibly disagree, but do we share a common understanding of what they all mean?

3. Do we have an agreed vocabulary for talking about the skills and habits of mind that our students will need if they are to flourish in times of escalating uncertainty, complexity and choice – and do our students share this?  

4. What is your understanding of, for example, ‘personal responsibility’, ‘initiative’, or ‘creativity’? What does ‘actively embracing change’ mean to you?

5. What should we do to narrow the gap that exists between the fine words of the wish-list, and the daily reality of school life?

6. How do we go about teaching personal skills such as ‘courage’ or the thinking skills involved in being an ‘independent enquirer’?

7. Can such qualities and skills be taught? And if so, how?

And here’s another thorny one:

8. What does progress in personal, learning and thinking skills look like? Can they be assessed, and if so, who should be involved?

Opportunities Although implementing the PLTS framework in a coherent and effective way is clearly a considerable challenge, it also presents huge opportunities. Some teachers, departments and schools have seen the recent changes as a licence to place more attention on the processes of learning and not just the products; an opportunity to engage pupils in more active, enquiry-based learning, to concentrate more explicitly on helping pupils to think and learn more skilfully and to develop positive dispositions and habits for learning.

New systems of assessment are developing – beyond the constraints of summative tests, SATs and GCSEs – which offer richer and more inclusive ways of demonstrating what our young people have become and what they can do by the time they leave full time education. 

If we are serious about creating ‘successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens’ who can continue to learn and negotiate the complex information and cultural landscapes of a globalised world, then PLTS need to become the driving force of the curricula that we create – not forced to the margins by subject content and rendered ineffective.

Practical strategies

Here is a sequence of activities being used by schools and subject departments to engage staff seriously in exploring and critiquing the PLTS framework for themselves.

Click here to download the QCA PLTS framework

1. Work as a school community (or as a department team at the very least) to develop your own ‘student profile’. Pose the question: What do we want our students to be like by the time they leave school aged 18? What skills will they have? What dispositions? What concerns?

2. Everyone’s suggestions can now be grouped together in a way that makes sense to you all. Create group headings. Small teams can do this together, whole staff teams may have to delegate this activity to a representative group of staff. Some schools have also included parents, students and non-teaching support staff in the process.

3. Compare your resulting ‘student profile’ with the QCA PLTS framework. What are the similarities? What are the differences? Influenced by your local context and/or ethos, the ‘student profile’ that you have drawn up together may be different is significant ways.

4. Talk about what the skills and dispositions you have identified mean to you – developing, in the process, a shared understanding and vocabulary. You may like to use one of the activities below to structure this discussion.

a. Concept Star
The discussion generated by a Concept Star activity will help you and your colleagues to start developing a shared understanding of what the six skill areas of the PLTS framework are all about. Download the Concept Star model and cards

  • In pairs or small groups, select a coloured card showing one of the six skill areas, for example ‘Creative Thinkers’. 
  • Using a set of disposition cards (all drawn from the framework itself) select up to six dispositions that you feel are the most vital for this particular skill area. Talk together about why you chose them.
  • Arrange your chosen disposition cards in a star formation around the central ‘concept’ of the skill area. To continue the example, placing a disposition close to the central ‘concept’ means that you feel it is of crucial importance for a ‘creative thinker’. Dispositions placed further away you will see as having relatively less importance.
  • Share your Concept Star – and the thinking behind it – with other groups.

b. Concept Mapping
You and your colleagues can use a Concept Map to explore the connections that you see between different concepts – in this case, between the six different skill areas detailed in the PLTS framework. Concept Maps will help to reinforce your understanding of these skills, and in particular will help a group gain a deeper, shared understanding of how the skills interrelate.

  • Give each pair or small group a set of six cards showing each of the skill areas detailed in the PLTS framework. Alternatively, use the headings that you and your colleagues created in activity number 2. Spread these cards out across a large sheet of paper.
  • Map these six different skill areas by drawing lines between those that you see as related.
  • Write on each line why you think they are related – the most important linking idea that you have discussed.
  • Each group shares their Concept Map – and the thinking behind it – with other groups. Look out for commonalities and explore any significant differences.

Clearly, there are no ‘correct answers’ in this activity and there will be more than one appropriate link between pairs of concepts.  

5. As a staff or department team, will you adopt the QCA Framework? Do you need to amend it with your own ideas? Or will you prefer to draw up your own framework based entirely around the headings you and your colleagues have identified, reflecting the language you have used?

6. Will you develop a ‘pupil friendly’ of your chosen framework? This will give you a chance to think about the shared vocabulary that you will use to make the different skill areas more accessible to young learners.

The next step is to start thinking together about whether the skills and dispositions that you have decided to work with can be ‘taught’ and if so, how this might best be done.

The next e-bulletin will begin to look at the implications of a skills-based framework for classroom practice.

Downloads and more information

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2008

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of Thinking Through School. Previously a youth and street theatre worker, teacher and PGCE tutor, she now directs ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, and works as a freelance education consultant and writer.

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