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The why and the how

Critical skills answer the fundamental questions about the way we create the right climate for learning, says Ian Smith

HE critical skills programme is one of the most exciting developments in classroom methodology in my 30 years in Scottish education. Why on earth would I say that? Haven't I seen so many developments that I have lost count? My enthusiasm is all about answers provided to fundamental questions which are sometimes raised in national debates and priorities and sometimes not. In one of my favourite books, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer suggests that we in the West have been obsessed with questions about what we teach and much less interested in purpose and methodology - the why and how questions.

But Palmer says even these are not the most important questions, ones almost certainly ignored, even in great debates. "Who am I as a teacher?"

and "how does that affect the way I relate to my pupils?" These are the questions that reach into the heart of teaching and how it affects learning.

Through the critical skills programme, teachers are encouraged first to create a climate for learning. Children collaborate to produce a full value contract where they agree to play fair, safe and hard. There are parallels here with circle time. Part of the existing curriculum (in any subject and at any age level) is delivered through "group challenges" in which children normally process what they have learnt to produce something to put before an audience - the closer to real life the better. There are similarities here with enterprise education.

The skills learnt in group challenges spill out into teacher-led class lessons and affect everything teachers and pupils do in the classroom together. Finally assessment for learning is a key part of the whole process. The tools and techniques for assessing soft skills are the best I have ever seen.

The critical skills programme is based on a firm, clear view of what we should teach - the critical skills and dispositions required by young people to be effective lifelong learners in the new century. Nothing new here and nothing controversial. For several years and throughout the UK, there has been broad agreement on what these skills and dispositions are.

More though, it clearly addresses our five national priorities. Priority five is covered by fostering the skills needed for lifelong learning, priority four by allowing children actually to experience the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, priority three by including youngsters of all abilities and all languages, and priority two by helping teachers reskill themselves and examine again their role in the classroom. Last but not least, the huge body of research worldwide on the benefits of collaborative learning is testimony to its power in meeting priority one, raising attainment.

It also approaches the why question very directly. At the same time as delivering the existing curriculum, it helps children and teachers forge communities of learning in the classroom and prepares them to do the same thing in society, in their homes and in workplaces. This need for community is obvious at all levels. Look at crime statistics at home or events in the Middle East. It is also a key area of government policy.

By far the most exciting thing about the programme for teachers is that it satisfies the how question. It actually works in the classroom. It provides them with practical tools and techniques to engage with the most demanding of pupils who find it hard to relate to their peers, let alone the teacher.

In sum, the programme transcends all the sterile debates over the past 30 years and more about whether education should be teacher-led or child-centred. It puts learning at the centre.

But don't get the idea that creating learning communities is "airy fairy" or "touchy feely". In a new book on critical skills, Transforming Learning and Teaching, John Kerr, a principal teacher of 26 years' experience, used these very words to describe his first reactions to the programme; yet he has become one of its greatest exponents. Critical skills was a "road to Damascus" experience for him. The approach is rigorous and makes great demands on children in the classroom. Most important, the training is very demanding for teachers, precisely because it requires them to pose Parker Palmer's most fundamental question: as a teacher, who am I?

hy have I felt the need to write this about the critical skills programme? Nothing in it is brand new and it has no commercial value for Learning Unlimited and the programme itself is as busy as it can be at present. But is that good enough? Over the two years of its life in Scotland, it has reached only 600 of more than 60,000 teachers.

A shortage of quality trainers is only part of the problem. Mainly it's because you have to pay for quality and putting teachers through it is expensive. Because of this some authorities and schools have backed away.

Others have committed a large part of their budget but know they can't afford to roll it out in the way that they would like. Two authorities have gone for a very similar Canadian programme called co-operative learning, which is less expensive but also, in my view, less well developed.

These programmes are not a panacea, but I believe they have the potential to help us tackle all five national priorities and a few other pressing issues as well. They have been shown actually to deliver real and lasting change in our classrooms. It should be a matter of priority for decision-makers in Scotland to embark on negotiations with those who have developed these programmes to make them accessible to all teachers in Scotland.

Ian Smith leads the consultancy Learning Unlimited. "Transforming Learning and Teaching" by Colin Weatherley and others is published by Network Educational Press, price pound;16.95.

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