Quest to develop 'higher order skills'

Shifts in teaching practice required for excellence in curriculum

Elizabeth Buie

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Teachers will have to become experts in developing pupils' advanced - or higher order - skills, rather than simply conveying knowledge, according to a Government-commissioned report published today.

Seventeen "excellence groups", made up of experts from education and other backgrounds, were set up last year by Education Secretary Michael Russell as part of his blueprint to improve Curriculum for Excellence. They have now presented their findings.

The most demanding come from the "Higher Order Skills" group. Chaired by Keir Bloomer, former education director and chief executive of Clackmannanshire Council, it calls for the greatest shift in teaching practice.

The other 16, on the key subject areas of the curriculum, offer their own challenges at a time of falling budgets. A common theme is the need for tailored continuing professional development; many advocate more effective local and national networks to allow teachers to share best practice.

Nearly all the groups call for better liaison and information-sharing at the key transition stages - particularly primary to secondary.

Recommendations from the technologies and science excellence groups could pose a headache for the Scottish Qualifications Authority, as it develops the new National 4 and 5 qualifications: they want their subjects assessed through continuous assessment.

The history and geography groups want to see a focus on project work, while recognising the need to avoid the pitfalls of the Standard grade investigation - plagiarism, excessive parental support and organisational difficulties.

But the biggest problem, if all the recommendations were to be implemented, could be for the secondary school timetabler as each subject group makes its case for being a core part of the timetable and many call for longer blocks of time.

The higher order skills group argues that teachers will require significant practical guidance and support if they are to make the shift from a "curriculum primarily based on the acquisition of knowledge to one in which knowledge and skills are seen as inseparable and equally important".

It proposes a toolkit on how to develop ambitious cognitive and transferable skills in pupils.

Teachers will have to employ approaches ranging from collaborative, experiential, problem-based and inter-disciplinary learning, as well as high-level discussion, interactive questioning and action-based research.

The report argues: "There are those who clearly envisage it (Curriculum for Excellence) as a short-term programme of change, much like any other. If this view prevails, courses may be slightly adapted to conform to the surface requirements of the experiences and outcomes. Inter-disciplinary learning will feature around the margins of the curriculum. Improved pedagogy will be patchily evident. New examinations will replace old. Boxes will be ticked but Scotland will not have risen to the demands of the new age."



- Pupils' choice of reading, based around "heritage" texts, should include a representation of Scottish literature, especially contemporary work.

All teachers of English in Scotland should be encouraged to study at least one course in Scottish literature in their degree.

At national level there should be a Scots Makar for children, to lead development of a network of writers and teachers, able to deliver high- quality Scots language CPD training and author visits. Scots language should feature in teacher-training programmes for all stages.

Schools must give pupils a solid grounding in basic grammar, spelling and punctuation.

To support pupils' engagement with a wide range of texts, schools should un-filter access to social media sites such as Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and blogging sites.


- Business education delivers the key attribute of "employability" skills and encapsulates the skills for life that are central to Curriculum for Excellence.

For the first time, all young people are entitled to experience business education up to third level in CfE; all schools should offer it from S1- 3.


- There should be more continuous assessment of creativity through project work.

To overcome barriers to inter-disciplinary learning, school managers and local authorities should consider suspending timetables and adopting mixed-age and mixed-ability classes.

The craft skills of many young teachers are "poor" and technologies lack the status of some other subjects. These cultural and outdated perceptions need to be challenged head-on, within the teaching profession and wider society.


- Geography should promote outdoor learning, but needs to overcome barriers such as a lack of time to "plan and do", cover implications and cost to school and parents. Disclosure procedures also need to be simplified so that staff can tap into parental involvement in staffing excursions. But for more fieldwork to take place, class sizes should be cut to 20 instead of their present 30, putting them on a par with other practical subjects.


- Teachers should focus on two key questions to get across what matters in the short amount of time that they have to teach history: is this topic relevant for a young person living in the 21st century to know and understand; and is the emphasis on this topic appropriate?

Schools should start by looking at local history and then move on to wider Scottish, UK, European and world history.

Modern studies

- Every school should have a qualified modern studies teacher to deliver the subject in the broad, general S1-3 phase. Student teachers should be encouraged to gain teaching qualifications in more than one social subject - this would provide more flexibility for school planning.

Expressive arts

- More analysis is required into why many schools do not tap into the wealth of resources throughout the artistic community at national and local level. Arts organisations need to look beyond the "easy hits" of proactive schools and build new contacts.

To improve communication channels, arts organisations should supply information in a joint newsletter, and all schools should appoint a champion for the expressive arts.

Food and health

- Resourcing food and health lessons to encourage healthy eating should be seen as an investment in children's futures.

In terms of timetabling, it must be recognised that food and health activities do not fit within short, standardised units of learning.

Schools should free up teaching staff by involving school technicians and parent helpers in the preparation and clearance of practical activities.

Health and well-being

- Ministers should ensure that health and well-being is afforded the same priority as literacy and numeracy.

School leaders should ensure their school ethos is healthy and nurturing. They should also ensure there is a key practitioner who knows every child well.

A working group should be established to advise on new and emerging issues, including research and its implications for practice, and misreporting in the media.

Modern languages

- Primary schools need to give modern languages the secure place they deserve, while secondaries have to offer supportive timetabling to languages in the broad, general S1-3 curriculum.

Teachers should conduct lessons in the target language as much as possible. Signage in different languages throughout the school should be the norm.


- Science is often taught in a much too abstract way, with too many facts and not enough experiential work.

Some form of continuous assessment should be implemented, possibly through "formative" coursework for a related class exercise under controlled conditions.

The SQA should set more extended and more open-ended questions with a reasonably wide degree of choice, framed in both new and unfamiliar contexts.


- Chaired by assessment guru Dylan Wiliam, this group, not surprisingly, makes a strong case for active learning and formative assessment.


- Development of RME is patchy, and the link between primary and secondary not always clear. Pupils and parents often misunderstand the purpose, value and nature of RME, while time allocation is frequently insufficient and it is delivered in some schools by non-specialist staff.

There is a need for improved recruitment of RME teachers and a raising of standards among new recruits.


- Religious education in Catholic schools should benefit from the same commitment to funding and support from local education authorities as that provided for other curricular areas.


- Delivery of high-quality PE depends upon confident and well-qualified practitioners and scheduled, protected time within the curriculum. The challenge is to demonstrate that transformational change for PE will lead to improved learning outcomes across the curriculum.


A national centre of excellence in Gaelic should be set up, modelled on the Confucius hub at Hillhead High in Glasgow.

A module on GaelicScottish studies should to introduced to the curriculum to give every pupil in Scotland the opportunity to learn about the contribution of Gaelic to the country.

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Elizabeth Buie

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