Finding a pattern to follow

Schools are under pressure to focus more on knowledge than skills. But it is possible to weave both together, writes Phil Parker
25th May 2012, 1:00am


Finding a pattern to follow

Like a weaver, schools must consider “warp and weft” when they create a curriculum.

The analogy is not one I have invented myself; it was a line said earlier this year by John Dunford of Whole Education, the partnership aimed at reversing the narrowing of schooling. But I think his weaving metaphor is an apt one. If the weft of the curriculum is the content, the knowledge pupils must acquire, so the warp is the skills by which they acquire that knowledge.

If we want truly independent learners, who are not spoon-fed to absorb the requisite knowledge to pass an exam, then we need to give them the skills to become independent. It’s not about eitheror; it’s about mutual dependency.

What I want to show is how a curriculum with warp and weft can empower pupils to learn and free up teachers to facilitate the process.

International perspectives

Such is the pressure on schools in Britain that we don’t often get the opportunity to look beyond our own education system. However, as there is some scepticism about a competency curriculum here, I want to illustrate how this warp and weft idea is being used elsewhere.

Educationalists around the world are fascinated by Finland and its transformation into a global leader in learning. Its Basic Education Act in 2009 established a vision where “citizen skills” were developed so as to deepen learning but also prepare young people to contribute to society effectively. Finland created five groups of skills: thinking, teamwork, creative, initiative and self-awareness or personal responsibility.

A similar shift has occurred in Singapore. This may surprise those who know the country’s reputation for knowledge-cramming. But it has been moving away from its preoccupation with rote learning since 2003, when it developed a vision based on the mantra “Teach Less, Learn More”. Singapore’s improvements since then are down to enabling pupils to learn through core skills such as problem solving, curiosity, collaboration and organisation.

I could provide more examples, but the point I want to make is that our international competitors recognise the need for what Finland and Singapore have called “21st-century skills”. They are the same skills being demanded by employers in this country.

Under the last government we came close to a similar transformation. David Gardner, a senior curriculum adviser at the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, created Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills - familiar to many teachers as PLTS. Although it was linked to the ill-fated Diploma, it had much to commend it. Schools across the country dutifully wrote the skills into schemes of work.

I believe it remains the solution still. PLTS is effectively no different from what Finland and Singapore are using. However there is one proviso: it needs to be understood and used by pupils. That can only happen when young people own it, and too often PLTS was given lip-service; it didn’t drive the learning. I want to show how that is possible.

A language of learning

A few years ago I was working as a deputy head at a comprehensive in Birmingham. Our senior leadership team was looking at a way to make PLTS work better for us, so we deconstructed it and rebuilt it as: Team, Reflective, Independent and Creative Skills (TRICS).

We called our curriculum model “Learning for Life”, and it is now used by more than 50 other schools. The approach does not change what is learned; it changes how it is learned. For schools already partway down the PLTS road, it’s easy to switch over because TRICS is almost the same thing, just with a few tweaks.

The great thing about the four skills is they can be applied at different levels of sophistication, across all key stages. So TRICS is being used in the further education sector now, too.

I should stress here that schools are free to use whatever approach works best for them, or create their own; there are others who did something similar to us. The key point I want to emphasise is that it helps to have a system in place that everyone in your school can use to refer to the skill set, whether PLTS or TRICS. With an approach like that, you can embed the skills across an entire organisation, and it is then that you can genuinely make a difference.

Cynics might wonder if these labels and acronyms are necessary, or just another bit of educational jargon. But a shared form of communication is vital. Imagine you are in a foreign country and you want to find the airport or station. Most of the signs are in a foreign language. But there is a helpful feature that globalisation has introduced: icons. You look on signs for the plane or train icons and follow that direction.

The same idea was developed with TRICS. Icons identify the learning taking place, and they can appear in worksheets, handouts, posters around the school, PowerPoints and as laminated signs that can be held up (I’ve seen great PE lessons doing this). Pupils rapidly recognise which skill is needed and understand why their teacher has planned for the knowledge to be explored in that particular way.

However, in this foreign country you need a smattering of the local lingo. Just enough to appear polite and to find a taxi, a police officer, your hotel or the British embassy. The same is true when you embed skills in the curriculum. Each of the four TRICS contains within them four simply worded competencies. So Team learning consists of: leadership, responsibility, communication and respect (see panels, right and overleaf).

With your smattering of vocabulary, in your foreign land, everyone is able to understand each other. It’s astonishing how few words you need to do this. The crucial factor is that the words themselves must be simple and easily understood by everyone.

Adding literacy and numeracy

Employers who have seen this curriculum model have reacted very positively. One senior manager of an international chemical company described how they had just done away with a middle management layer so teams could develop themselves, and the competencies that teams had to develop were the same as those in the Team learning model.

The CBI liked the TRICS approach, but challenged us to see if we could highlight literacy and numeracy more. So we extended it to TRICS+, where “Literate” and “Numerate” have been added as skills. Schools had requested this shift too because of the new Ofsted framework. The model remains the same; each skill has four competencies.

Schools are finding that it is much easier to support literacy and numeracy across the curriculum using this model. Teachers accept responsibility for delivery because they recognise that they teach those competencies. Pupils recognise the transferability of the skills and competencies because they recognise the shared language of learning. They can build their sophistication through experiences not just in English and maths, but through every subject.

For instance, numerate learning requires pupils to be competent in the way they “convert”. This competence will be used in science, in conversions such as Fahrenheit to Celsius, and in geography, perhaps for currency conversions. Music teachers might want marching time to be converted to 34 time for a waltz. Pupils grasp the language and see where they need to use it.

Teachers need to let pupils develop the skills within their own experiences. When they leave school and go for interviews they can take evidence with them to show how they are mastering these skills. Employers tell us that this is what they want to see; it gives them more of a sense of who that young person is and what they can do.

According to a report published in 2011 by CBI and awarding body EDI, Building for Growth: business priorities for education and skills, 70 per cent of employers surveyed wanted to see “the development of employability skills among young people at school and college made a top priority”. This was not about qualifications, but rather “embedding the skills into the curriculum, as the best schools and colleges already do”.

What it looks like in practice

I watched a Year 10 English lesson with pupils who had a variety of special needs. The objective was to understand the idea of “justification” - providing evidence to support your viewpoint. Pupils watched a TV programme and commented on a character’s actions. The lesson began with a focus on a literacy competence: detect. They watched the programme as detectives, analysing the chosen character’s actions, discussing afterwards the actions they had seen and listing them on the whiteboard. Pupils were told to work like the police, analysing the behaviour of other people (there was discussion about how this was done in police programmes they had seen).

The teacher took a competence from Creative learning: imagination. Pupils contributed their ideas about how the actions on the whiteboard identified a characteristic. The teacher then linked this to an Independent learning competence: individuality. The class’s challenge was for every pupil to contribute their own idea, so they each had to find something different to say. Two pupils who struggled to do this were given help from the others in the group, incorporating Team learning.

The atmosphere in the lesson, given its quite advanced subject material, was amazingly positive. Hands were up all the time, including from two boys who had very little command of English - they certainly knew what imagination, individual and detect meant.

The impact on the school

Teaching everyone in a school to speak the language of learning is not a swift process. The ones who pick it up really quickly are younger pupils; they are more open to such initiatives. Innovative teachers enjoy the new ways of working this method affords. With other people it takes time, commitment and a strategic priority in the school. The best practice I see is when the head is completely committed to the process and realises that this method is a route to improving the quality of teaching, addressing behaviour and achievement and how it offers routes to sustainable school improvement - all four Ofsted sections. One of the schools I work with organised its school improvement plan into these four headings and used Learning for Life to drive that improvement.

A head of a school in quite challenging circumstances told me recently about a particularly troublesome and difficult pupil in key stage 4. She arrived at a multi-agency meeting that had been called to discuss her future with her TRICS portfolio (pupils at the school gather evidence of how they are using the four main skills). The pupil showed everyone her portfolio, explained how she had achieved the skills and how her talent as a creative learner had helped her career choices. Her tutor helped her to identify post-16 pathways using this information. Her positive attitude was entirely different from what had been seen in previous meetings.

Another school operates a transition curriculum, where pupils in Years 7 and 8 spend several hours a week learning in project-led situations that are underpinned by the TRICS competencies. They also have portfolios that show their progress and growing sophistication. It allows them to carry those skills across the curriculum. Achievement has risen as a result.

One factor that nearly all of the schools adopt is a system that rewards pupils (of all ages) for accomplishments in the different skills. It lets every pupil identify their own “profile” so they know how effective they are in each skill. The competencies allow them to grow their expertise in each skill; growth that can be rewarded, too. Assemblies celebrate Most Improved Reflective Learner or the Best Creative Learning Class of the Week. Some schools assess the skills and report them to parents. Parents like this; because they are often not native speakers in this land of education either, the language of learning is something they can understand.

If we refer back to the Finland and Singapore models, the goal is to equip young people to be effective, successful citizens. In achieving this goal, part of that success comes in the form of good grades that stand the school in good stead. Everyone’s a winner. The danger is to see only the pupil performance as the goal.

Dr Chris Watkins from the Institute of Education, University of London, analysed more than 50 separate research reports for his 2010 report Learning, Performance and Improvement and found that schools operated one of two types of orientation. The performance-orientated school aims for goals that are about success in accreditation, performance in exams and other public forms of accountability. Watkins defined this as “a concern for proving one’s competence”. The learning-orientated school has the goal of supporting pupils to succeed in the act of learning itself. Choosing to acknowledge success in exams will be a part of that process, but not the goal. Watkins labels this as a concern for improving one’s competence.

The learning-orientated school knows its pupils are on a journey for which they will need a wide variety of skills. In that school each pupil practises and hones those skills, ready for the next stage of their journey. The benefit is that they have started to master a language that they can use in any nation they visit on their journey.

Of course, we must acknowledge this government’s emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge - the weft. But we also need to embed the skills -the warp - into the curriculum, because that is how we are going to help young people to compete in a global economy in the 21st century.


The TRICS+ skills and their competencies:




















Challenge seeking

Plus ...












Phil Parker is a former teacher who now works as an education consultant. He blogs at and details of his courses can be found at



Requires attentive listening to others to lead to agreement and the development of a plan or strategy to achieve a goal set by the teacher or by the team. Leadership becomes a way to drive peer learning in the school. Older students are role models and understand their responsibility to younger members of “the team”.


Requires team members to adopt a role that implements their plan of action, a role where each person is held accountable. For example, chairperson, secretary, editor and audience could be roles in English. Several of our schools have learning leaders in each class. At one school, visitors enter the room to be greeted by a learning leader who explains what the class is learning (needless to say, inspectors seem to love this).


Requires questioning, explaining, listening, persuading and describing so other team members engage with each other constructively. Communication is frequently developed at whole-school level through school councils; it reinforces and empowers student voice. Consultation and feedback are built into points in the school calendar for this reason.


Requires team members to demonstrate sensitivity and tolerance to others’ views, and demonstrate cooperation and compromise. Respect manifests itself in many ways. I’ve seen pastoral staff initiate discussion in conflict situations with a gambit about the importance of respect - who needs to show it to whom? Schools like to use sporting (mainly football) analogies here: good teams don’t disrespect each other.

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