Personal learning and thinking skills are an integral part of the secondary curriculum. We reflect on previous attempts to introduce cross-curricular strands to the curriculum and look at a few examples of PLTS in action

Personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) are promoted by the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA). Previous attempts to build life skills, such as initiative, imagination and integrity, into programs of learning and assessment schemes include: the Certificate of Personal and Vocational Education (CPVE) and the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) in the 1980s; cross-curricular strands in the 1990 national curriculum; core skills and key skills through the last two decades.

None of these flourished. The strong currency value of traditional, subject-based qualifications sees off top-down, well-meaning, even well-funded efforts.

The PLTS framework, available from September 2009, sets out six ‘groups’ of skills, according to which learners develop as:

  • independent enquirers
  • creative thinkers
  • reflective learners
  • team workers
  • self-managers
  • effective participators

The QCDA declares ‘Each group is distinctive and coherent. The groups are also interconnected. Young people are likely to encounter skills from several groups in any one learning experience. … In order to acquire and develop fundamental concepts such as organizing oneself, managing change, taking responsibility and perseverance, learners will need to apply skills from all six groups in a wide range of learning contexts from ages 11 to 19.’

Never mind that ‘skills’ are not related to knowledge and understanding, or that qualities are not discussed. Never mind that planning and assessment must be complex, if single activities contain multiple groups of separate, yet linked skills. Never mind the idea that learners ‘apply’ PLTS: do they first need to be taught them and then understand them? What is the model of learning here: prescription and transmission, constructivism, or something else?

QCDA brings no coherent or substantive research or theory to the defining, teaching and assessing of PLTS. The language of PLTS is controlling, even aggressive: ‘the framework captures the essential skills of: managing self; managing relationships with others; and managing own learning, performance and work’. These are not seen as human dispositions and inspirations that might be fostered by exciting educational opportunities and challenges.

Despite this, colleagues in some schools and colleges take advantage of the invitation to construct inventive schemes of work which are characterized by authentic enquiry and real-life-related projects. On the QCDA website, as well as on Teachers TV and Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (Opening Minds) websites, there are many examples of thoughtful and energetic commitment to enriching teaching and learning. These show students, teachers and leaders breaking the subject-bound mold, as best they can. They see PLTS have much in common with social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) and learning about citizenship through personal, social and health education (PSHE).

Top Valley School and Engineering College, Nottingham, has posted its experience on You Tube. Students’ attendance goes up by 6% on mornings when their new skills-based curriculum is running.

Many of the QCDA case studies helpfully explain:

  • the background and context; eg explanation of the motivation and rationale
  • the main focus and purpose of the work
  • how the work is directed, resourced and facilitated
  • how other imperatives and initiatives are linked to the introduction of PLTS
  • how standards are being raised.

Stratford High School, Warwickshire, wanted to ‘tackle variation in the attention given to PLTS and to allow learning processes to be the key focus of lesson planning. The intention was [to embed] routine internal assessment procedures, with reports to parents and target setting periods with students. The project was managed by two assistant heads through a weekly meeting. Two school improvement groups were set up to improve teaching and learning and the assessment and data procedures acted as focus groups. Each group contained 11 members of staff, including newly qualified teachers, support staff and experienced curriculum leaders’, supported by the appointment of two one-year honorarium posts.

Winterhill Comprehensive School, Rotherham, took forward their work on: objectives-led lessons with clear learning outcomes; written feedback; systematic monitoring of curriculum area practice; five-part lessons; and consolidation strategies. ‘The aims were to align general learning skills with coverage of the key stage 3 curriculum content, and to promote self assessment. A skills-based approach was adopted for year 7 information and communication technology. It involved learners in continuous, day-to-day assessment of their own development of the skills, and enabled and informed periodic tracking of progress by both learners and teachers and the identification of learning priorities.’

‘St John’s School and Community College in Marlborough has been using the RSA Opening Minds competency-based model of teaching in years 7 and 8 for six years. Teachers work on the basis that the most important part of learning is the process, not the outcome, and aim to help pupils become ‘creative thinkers’. Staff are committed to focusing less on the delivery of subject content and more on encouraging pupils to value and celebrate their work. Teachers help pupils to define the nature, purpose and attributes of creativity, so that they can develop a common language for talking about and assessing creative thinking skills. During peer group sessions, pupils work through the bullet points listed under ‘creative thinkers’ in the PLTS framework, relating these to their own creative skills. They then reflect on this with a peer, who takes on the role of a critical friend or coach, to help them identify successes and targets for improvement. This coaching model helps pupils to understand the characteristics of creative thinkers, and to develop an awareness of the learning process. The teachers’ role is to help pupils engage in open and meaningful activities, building in ‘moments of reflection’ for peer assessment and individual target setting. Learning activities are geared to developing skills, and pupils maintain a learning log to chart their progress.’

Such examples give grounds for cautious optimism that independent enquiry, creative thinking, reflectiveness, cooperation, initiative and responsibility, and participation might one day find formal recognition in academic qualifications. They certainly offer plenty of practical ideas for whole-school development, innovative teaching, and achievement representing the gamut of the Every Child Matters agenda (DfES, 2003).

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2010

About the author: Dr John Blanchard is an independent consultant and author of Teaching, Learning and Assessment (2009, Open University Press): contact him via [email protected]