Finding a pattern to follow

Schools in England are under pressure to focus more on knowledge than skills, while in Scotland it's the opposite. But it is possible to weave both together, writes Phil Parker

Phil Parker

Like weavers, schools must consider "warp and weft" when they create a curriculum, as John Dunford of Whole Education, the partnership aimed at reversing the narrowing of schooling, puts it. If the weft of the curriculum is the content, the knowledge pupils must acquire, then the warp is the skills by which they acquire it.

If we want truly independent learners, who are not spoon-fed the requisite knowledge to pass an exam, we need to give them the skills to become independent. 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

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 to deepen learning and 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, which 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.

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 the UK.

Under the last Westminster government, David Gardner, a senior curriculum adviser at the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, created Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS). 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, it needs to be understood and used by pupils. That can only happen when young people own it. 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 schools. The approach does not change what is learned; it changes how it is learned. For schools already part-way down the PLTS road, it's easy to switch over because TRICS is almost the same thing.

The great thing about the four skills is they can be applied at different levels. So TRICS is being used in the further education sector, too.

Schools are free to use whatever approach works for them, or create their own; there are others who did something similar to us. The key point is that it helps to have a system in place that everyone in your school can use to refer to the skill set. Then you can embed the skills across an entire organisation, and genuinely make a difference.

TRICS uses simple icons to 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. Pupils rapidly recognise which skill is needed and understand why their teacher has planned for the knowledge to be explored in that particular way.

Each of the four TRICS contains within them four simply-worded competencies. So Team learning consists of leadership, responsibility, communication and respect (see panel), which everyone is able to understand. The crucial factor is that the words themselves must be simple and easily understood by everyone.

Adding literacy and numeracy

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 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 in every subject. For instance, numerate learning requires pupils to make conversions - in science, from Fahrenheit to Celsius, and in geography, perhaps for currency.

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 them. 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.

What it looks like in practice

I watched a Year 10 (S3) English lesson with pupils who had various special needs. The objective was to understand the idea of "justification", providing evidence to support your viewpoint. The class 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 them afterwards and listing them on the whiteboard. Pupils were told to work like the police, analysing the behaviour of other people.

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. Every pupil had to contribute an idea, so they each had to find something different to say. Two pupils who struggled to do this were given help by the others in the group, which incorporated 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 quickly are younger pupils. 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 committed to the process and realises it is a route to improving the quality of teaching, addressing behaviour and achievement and also to sustainable school improvement. One of the schools I work with organised its school improvement plan into these four headings and used Learning for Life to drive it.

A head of a school in quite challenging circumstances told me recently about a particularly troublesome pupil in key stage 4 (S5-6). 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 (P7 and S1) spend several hours a week learning in project-led situations that are underpinned by the TRICS competencies.

Nearly all the schools adopt a system that rewards pupils for accomplishments in the different skills. This lets every pupil identify their own "profile", so they know how effective they are in each skill.

As in the Finland and Singapore models, the goal is to equip young people to be effective, successful citizens. Part of that 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.

Chris Watkins from the Institute of Education, University of London, analysed more than 50 separate research papers 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. Dr 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. Acknowledging success in exams will be a part of that process, but not the goal. Dr 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. Each pupil practises and hones those skills, ready for the next stage of their journey, and they have started to master a language that they can use anywhere along the road.

Phil Parker is a former teacher, now education consultant. He blogs at and his courses can be found at


The TRICS+ skills and their competencies:


- Leadership

- Responsibility

- Communication

- Respect


- Self-awareness

- Thoughtfulness

- Adaptability

- Development


- Determination

- Focus

- Individuality

- Organisation


- Problem-solving

- Imagination

- Curiosity

- Challenge seeking



- Discussion

- Detection

- Writing

- Presenting


- Calculation

- Investigation

- Interpretation

- Conversion.

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