When you start to read Transforming Teaching and Learning, do not be put off by first impressions that the reader is being initiated into a rather esoteric cult, the critical skills programme (which is rapidly abbreviated to CSP).
The authors invite us to a virtual staff meeting where we come in contact with the stimulating work of teachers from primary level up to further education, in the USA and in the UK. The book can be read from cover to cover or dipped into using the helpful cross-referencing system in the margin notes to link detailed descriptions of the model in action to the variety of educational situations in which it has been applied.
Section one gives a history of the critical skills programme in the UK, beginning with a highly successful training programme for teachers from Edinburgh and West Lothian in 2000. Initial cynicism about the ecstatic tone in the account of the training is mediated by an intriguing summary of the 10 vignettes which follow in section three, such as an individual teacher's experiences of using CSP in a so-called failing school and at a staff meeting discussing the McCrone proposals.
As contributor Linda Marshall, writes: "It is much easier to set up a collaborative learning community if you also work in one!" Teachers'
learning and teachers' teaching comes seamlessly together.
A mind map that prefaces section two lets readers see how the critical skills programme synthesises good practice and recent educational thinking into a holistic, clear structure with implications that go beyond the classroom.
In the 1980s, the critical skills programme began with American leaders of education and business communities agreeing on the skills - such as problem solving, creative thinking, communication and fundamental dispositions such as a positive attitude, self- direction and integrity - which are important for individual and organisational success. The developments which followed put those broad ideas into a clear pedagogical framework.
Importantly, the critical skills programme takes account of teachers'
concerns about classroom discipline, taking the reader step by step to achieving "full value contracts", ensuring pupils agree to make a full commitment to their learning and delivering content-driven syllabuses or programmes of study.
Team working established, the teacher provides pupils with a challenge. For example, an S1 science class might be asked: "How are whales adapted to their environment?" The challenge provides a structure which promotes collaborative learning, caters for different styles of learning, uses multiple intelligences and gives clear criteria for success within given deadlines. A simple research task is given an immediacy and significance that is highly motivating.
The technique works! I know because I have used it.
It is this teacher-based approach that makes Transforming Teaching and Learning an inspirational read. You may find the jargon off-putting and feel that some of the contributions in sections four and five, headed "Lessons from the USA" and "Lessons for the UK", first strain collegiate sharing of good practice to the point of exhortation, then digress into comments of more immediate concern to those who teach in England and Wales.
Just ignore them, go back to the excellent examples which will help you plan your first challenge and give it a go.
This is a description of a practical, effective and powerful structure for learning across the curriculum and across all age ranges. It's a good buy for any teacher or school leader who is interested in getting away from that uncomfortable sense of dragging others untidily towards new knowledge and who is willing to invest a little time in planning for real understanding.
Jenny Des-Fountain is headteacher of Tobermory High, Mull