Jury still out on critical skills

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
David Henderson reports on the current issues in educational research

The "critical skills programme" (CSP) approach to teaching has yet to have a significant impact, the Scottish Educational Research Association heard at its annual conference in Perth.

The much-heralded programme of co-operative learning, which promotes inquiry and student-centred, collaborative work, receives a mixed verdict in a study of primary pupils in the Smithycroft Learning Community in Glasgow.

An analysis, led by Professor Eric Wilkinson of Glasgow University, finds only "tentative evidence in support".

Professor Wilkinson's report states: "The evaluation concludes that it would be premature to provide a blanket endorsement of CSP. However, it seems that CSP has the potential to engage younger learners in new learning challenges to a greater extent than more traditional methods.

"Until there are more sustained and intensive methods of training teachers in the practice of CSP, such that their teaching is fundamentally different, the future of CSP in Scottish schools must remain uncertain."

An earlier study in Jersey that involved the late Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University praised the critical skills approach for its effect on teachers and schools, but the Glasgow investigation focused specifically on the impact on pupils.

Professor Wilkinson's team first interviewed staff in the secondary, primary and pre-five sectors who had been through critical skills training and had subsequently used the approach in classrooms.

Their second strand was to set up a trial involving one primary where the critical skills programme was regularly used and another where it was not.

Pupils in primary 3 and primary 7 were then set three new challenges and their responses tested.

The researchers say they take a "reasonably optimistic" view. Teachers "enthusiastically endorsed" the philosophy and applied it to their classrooms.

But the experimental results are less conclusive. As the researchers point out: "The extent to which children engaged with the new learning challenges and their deployment of selected skills and dispositions in the challenge were subsequently rated by the evaluators on a minute by minute basis.

"Although no overwhelming evidence emerged to endorse CSP in terms of its impact on children, tentative indications emerged showing that some children taught by teachers trained in CSP might have benefited in terms of their willingness to engage in a new learning challenge and deploy skills and dispositions to that challenge."

Younger, less academically able and more socially competent children benefited most.

The Glasgow researchers conclude that schools must go for "immersion" in critical skills if they are to make major advances for children across the age ranges.

Leader 22, opinion 23

Smithycroft Learning Community: Critical Skills Project is available on www.flatsproject.org.uk.

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