Many teachers who have gone through the Critical Skills Programme (CSP) have declared it has changed the way they teach forever. Why does the programme raise such enthusiasm? Colin Weatherley, manager of CSP in Scotland, looks at its development and explains its strengths.

In 1992 the small, rural Gilboa-Conesville School in upstate New York, was bottom out of the 19 schools in its state district. Students were openly smoking pot in the school and vandalism was rife. The pass mark of senior students in English was 40%. In the summer of that year English teacher Peter Fox took Level 1 Critical Skills training. Within two years the students’ average results had risen to 70% and by 1999 to 90%.

Schools in Jersey and England have reported similar improvements in student attainment levels and behaviour. In a Bristol action zone, annual discipline referrals fell from 231 to 26 in 12 months, while in Jersey, a study in 2004 by the late Professor Ted Wragg and his team from Exeter University of the impact of CSP on the island concluded that: ‘The Critical Skills Programme empowers teachers, enhances pupils’ learning and is appropriate for its purpose of preparing children for adult life in the 21st century.’

Two further reports, in 2005, reinforced this positive message. The first, also in Jersey, was by Serco Learning Consultancy and concluded that ‘[where] teachers were giving an emphasis to “Critical Skills” the accuracy of their assessments was high and pupils’ standards were rising above the levels measured by tests in previous years.’

The second, by the University of the West of England, quoted an Ofsted inspection report which associated CSP with the development of 16 desirable qualities, including raising achievement; improving aspirations; sense of responsibility; development of problem-solving and ICT skills; sense of community and care; and greater parental involvement.

It was in Edinburgh that UK Critical Skills training began back in 2000. Since then around 1,000 Scottish teachers have undertaken the training. Feedback suggests it is dramatically changing the way those teachers practice. But while it is still relatively early days in Scotland, the impact on American schools such as Gilboa-Conesville is clearly evidenced.

‘It was about the time when our test scores started to rise,’ says Joe Beck, Gilboa-Conesville’s superintendent about the impact of Peter Fox’s training. ‘When Peter’s colleagues saw the impact on his classroom, many of them asked to take the training too. Within four years the scores had jumped dramatically. The climate of the school changed as well. Now it’s a really nice place to be.

‘And it wasn’t me; it was because those teachers did that training. All I did was to give them my full support in taking the inevitable risks involved in making the changes from traditional to experientially based teaching.’

More than the scores improved. Within two years annual discipline referrals fell from an average of 100 to less than 20; and vandalism costs from $2,000 to $300.

These facts are remarkable enough; but perhaps the most remarkable thing about CSP is that it was not consciously designed from brain-based principles of learning, because it pre-dated most of the important research in that field. It is a classic example of a ‘grass-roots’ initiative, designed by a group of outstanding practitioners. And that is the main reason why one of the commonest comments about the training is: ‘It works!’

How the programme began

CSP began in New Hampshire USA in 1981 as a partnership between the education and business communities to answer two key questions. The first question, addressed by a group of educationists, was:
What skills and dispositions are vitally important for students to have by the time they leave school in order to be successful in their lives?

The second question, addressed by a group of business leaders, was:
What skills and dispositions are currently lacking in the workforce that impede individual and organisational success?

The two groups’ conclusions were remarkably similar. They culminated in two lists:

Critical skills

  • problem solving
  • decision making
  • critical thinking
  • creative thinking
  • communication
  • organisation
  • management
  • leadership.

Fundamental dispositions

  • owners of life-long learning
  • self-direction
  • internal model of quality
  • integrity and ethical character
  • collaboration
  • curiosity and wonder
  • community membership.

A group of outstanding classroom teachers was then asked to address a third question:
What would a classroom be like that gave conscious and purposeful attention to the development of these skills and dispositions through mainstream curriculum learning activities?

The next step was to develop a course enabling teachers to translate that vision into effective practice.

The Critical Skills model

The CSP classroom model is based on four broad educational ideas, which provide purpose in the classroom, engage young people in their learning, enable classes to run more smoothly, address curriculum targets and focus on quality work.

  • A collaborative learning community is an intentionally structured classroom culture within which teachers and pupils support one another in pursuit of clearly articulated goals.
  • Experiential learning creates an environment in which pupils are able to interact in real-life contexts, to construct individual meaning, and to engage in complex actions that reflect life outside school.
  • Results-driven learning engages pupils in thoughtfully designed experiences that ensure that they practise and develop desired knowledge, skills and attitudes.
  • Problem-based learning is the use of thoughtfully designed and related challenges as the primary (yet not exclusive) teaching approach. These challenges pose a problem for pupils to solve as individuals, in small groups, or as a full learning community. They create the ‘need to know’ – allowing pupils to develop and apply their knowledge, demonstrate skills and attitudes, attend to their process, and see the big picture that makes the work worth doing.

The CSP ‘Experiential Learning Cycle’ illustrates how these broad ideas are integrated into the overall teaching approach (see diagram). It consists of six parts: (1) Specific curriculum targets – the desired outcomes. (2) A problem-based ‘challenge’ – a thoughtfully designed problem for pupils to solve. (3) A pupil cycle – what the pupils do as they work collaboratively to solve the problem (engage, exhibit, debrief). (4) A teacher cycle – what the teacher does to support the pupils (design, coach, feedback). (5) The meaningful context – the big picture to which the challenge is connected.

(6) The collaborative learning community environment – what the classroom should look, sound and feel like.

Beyond the classroom
But CSP is not just limited to teaching; it can also be used effectively for department and interdepartmental management, enabling staff to work collaboratively on the development and organisation of effective learning experiences for pupils; and for whole-school management, including staff development and development planning.

The Critical Skills classroom
The most characteristic activities in CSP classrooms are Challenges, which typically require pupils to:

  • read and discuss the challenge description
  • identify the criteria by which the quality of their product will be evaluated
  • think creatively by brainstorming ideas for a product that will meet these criteria
  • think critically by evaluating the merits of each suggestion against the agreed criteria
  • decide how to proceed
  • allocate tasks – eg facilitator, recorder, timekeeper, quality checker
  • devise a time management procedure
  • work both independently and interdependently to prepare their product in the given time-scale
  • research the topic of their challenge, using a range of resources and technology
  • exhibit their product in some way – eg role-play, PowerPoint presentation, poster, diorama, instruction booklet
  • answer questions about their product from fellow pupils, teacher and sometimes others – eg teachers, janitors, parents, community leaders, business people
  • evaluate the degree to which their products have achieved the success criteria
  • reflect on their learning, evaluate the development of their knowledge, skills and attitudes, and decide which of these they will need to focus on in their next challenge.

Critical Skills training There are currently two levels of training for classroom teachers.

Level 1 lasts for six days, in two three-day parts. It focuses on two main issues:

  • How to create a Collaborative Learning Community – by developing a classroom ethos in which self-esteem, motivation and engagement are maximised and stress is minimised.
  • How to redesign mainstream curriculum content as Challenges – complex, open-ended problems which pupils work actively and collaboratively to solve.
  • Level 2 takes three days and focuses on the use of powerful formative assessment techniques to monitor and evaluate the development of pupils’ knowledge, skills and attitudes.
  • Most CSP training is now ‘in-house’, where the cost of a Level 1 institute for 25 teachers is £17,500 + VAT – equivalent to £117 per teacher per day. A single place at an open institute is £1,080 + VAT for the full six days (£540 for each part). The cost of Level 2 training is half of these figures.

The ‘holy grail’ of CPD As Linda Kirkwood points out in the case study on p8, the training is expensive. But is it worth it? The achievement of significant and sustainable improvements in the quality of learning and teaching represents the ‘holy grail’ of CPD. Unfortunately, it is also extraordinarily elusive. However, Professor Wragg’s study in Jersey found that ‘85% of teachers said that they had changed their teaching as a result of the programme, which is unusually high, as is the figure of 96% describing it as either very influential or influential on their classroom teaching.’

Three key principles have underpinned Jersey’s success:

  • the CSP training itself is of the highest quality
  • the training is both extensive and intensive
  • adequate follow-up support is then provided for Jersey’s teachers.

If we wish to promote significant, sustainable improvements in learning and teaching in our schools, the key factor to consider is not cost but cost-effectiveness. And as the Jersey study demonstrates, there is now overwhelming evidence to show that the Critical Skills Programme is highly cost-effective.

Contact: Colin Weatherley [email protected]

For further information about the CSP model and training opportunities in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel islands contact Linda Marshall ([email protected]) or visit:

Case study: ‘It is the teachers themselves who have benefited most’

Around half of my staff is trained in the Critical Skills Programme, some to the highest level, which means the ethos is well embedded within the school. The methodology is used in class and out, including working with partners outside the school. I use CSP when working with my SMT and it is fantastic. Two years ago we reorganised the pupils into tutor groups of 20, and linked them with a teacher who will be their tutor for the whole time they are at this school. It means every teacher is a tutor, and they all use critical skills with their group classes. I’m loathe to call it PSHE, because that limits what we do; it is more development of the pupil. We’ve found CSP methodology works brilliantly in this area. For example the first years have a brain day, when a conference in held on how the brain works, and all tutor groups are set challenges. The best are then chose by the pupils to be presented at the conference. We’ve also covered bullying and eco-awareness using CSP. The sixth year buddies are also trained using CSP methodology to help them develop the skills to work with the youngest pupils. But it is the teachers who have benefited the most. The idea of taking a more pastoral role as envisaged by McCrone has meant a paradigm shift for many. It is no longer just guidance; they are creating a cohesive unit that will be in place for up to six years. Using the CSP approach made that shift much more manageable. This is a large school, 1,140 pupils, but using CSP and arranging the pupils into tutor groups has had dramatic effect. The pupils feel much more part of the school than they ever did before. But while I really support CSP and have seen the benefits first hand, I will not be sending the rest of the staff on the course. It is expensive, and we only have an annual CPD budget of £15,000. But if I had an extra £100,000 it is the first thing I would do. Fortunately, we now have two qualified CSP trainers on our staff to provide strong support to our untrained staff.

Critical skills training is intense, you can’t pick it up overnight. You change your whole approach to teaching, so the six-day training is important. However, you can embed parts of it within your ethos by running taster days and designing cross-school approaches. But you also have to keep it up, keep spinning the plate, so that teachers don’t slip back into their old ways. It is up to the head and the senior management team to keep it going.

Linda Kirkwood, head teacher, Oban High School

Case study: ‘A totally new way of teaching’

Three years ago I began the Critical Skills Programme. At that time I was doing learning support and was working across classes, which is why I think the headteacher suggested it to me. I had also just finished a three-year distance post-graduate certificate in dyslexia, and was ready for something new. But I had never done anything like this before. When I started I had been in teaching for 15 years, the last 10 as learning support, yet here I found something that totally changed the way I taught, and what I thought about teaching. It takes you away from the idea of you being the teacher and the children being learners, as it is based on experiential learning where the children take responsibility for their own learning. They are set challenges, which they have to take forward to a point where they can exhibit their learning. It is so much more exciting for them, more motivating. Other teachers in my school are aware how much more the children enjoy school, how enthusiastic they are, and it has made others want to do the course. Two have just completed Level 1, and another two are keen to start. It is an intensive course, where you develop your own critical skills through doing the programme over two three-day sessions or one six day session. In a similar way to how I take my classes now, I was set challenges to complete within a small group or as a whole group of 23. Some of them are extremely challenging, they take you well out of your comfort zone, right to the edge. But that is good, because too often as teachers we sit tight in our comfort zone and don’t budge. You have to build communities, and work with and trust individuals you have only just met.

I have just completed Level 2 of the programme, which is a further three days beyond the first six of Level 1. I’m now moving forward to become an intern to coordinate, which means I can lead training sessions. But it is not something you can cascade down to other staff. They have to go on the programme themselves to experience the full benefits. Once you’ve done the six days you are ready to begin introducing it into the classroom, but it is not like a shorter course where you find you begin with good intentions and soon find yourself back to where you used to be. This is a totally new way of teaching, and it is something you introduce gradually. You also have to be prepared to not get it right first time. But I stuck with it because I saw the immediate benefits of improved behaviour and better concentration. I think everyone who does the course sees this.

Kathy McGrane, Gullane Primary School, East Lothian