Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Straight four


There are four soft skills - reflective, independent and creative learning, and team-working - that students need to learn to be effective employees and confident adults, argues Phil Parker. He explains how Colmers School gave students a vocabulary for this kind of learning and integrated it across every lesson.

I've always felt that it doesn't make sense that we train adults for at least a year to become teachers, yet we don't invest the same commitment in our learners. Instead we expect them to learn the tricks of the trade by some form of educational osmosis.

Students' experience in a secondary school is likely to involve at least a dozen different teachers for a start, all with their own idiosyncrasies, priorities and approaches to learning. They learn in a dozen or so different environments - subjects - where the emphasis is on absorbing the content of that area. Of course, some of this content may overlap, at best complement.

However individual teachers or subjects will approach this material in a different way, possibly resulting in confusion for the learner.

For instance, in English students might be told to research by reading similar books by the same author, yet in science they need to experiment. Art will ask them to compare the works of different artists. And let's not get started on history where research involves evaluating primary and secondary sources.

However, if we are looking at the learner's experience, we have only scratched the surface. We haven't built in factors such as motivation, self-esteem and confidence.

I wonder if we, as teachers, would cope if we were suddenly plunged into a foreign country where we didn't understand the language and told we had to take important exams in 18 months' time?

Language of learning

With this in mind, we took a different approach to learning at Colmers School. After two years, evidence now proves that we are making a difference. We teach our students the language of learning - in the context of their need to prepare for life and future careers. Unsurprisingly the course is called 'Learning for Life'.

The language needs to be taught and the vocabulary used constantly across the school - both by teachers and students. It's like using 'target language' in teaching French or Spanish. And it needs to be embedded.

Furthermore, students need to see the relevance of this language - it needs a purpose. Activities in school must be based on it, building students' sophistication and confidence. Rewards are driven through this language so they celebrate success and improve their self-esteem.

At Colmers we took QCDA's Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) and deconstructed them into forms which were given studentfriendly labels, easily recognised icons and a 16-word vocabulary which clarifies what is required from them as learners. We call them TRICS - formed from the four main skills: team, reflective, independent and creative. Two years down the road, every single student uses this language, in every single lesson.

These are concepts taught explicitly in our hour-long Learning for Life lessons. It has allowed other subjects to strip these skills out of their subject teaching which frees up time to do other things. It also ensures greater consistency across the curriculum. Students get the same message because, as teachers, we have decided what that message is.

For example, the Team Learner icon is used everywhere - on displays, worksheets, interactive whiteboards and PowerPoint presentations. It is a visual anchor that lets students know which skill will be used in the activity.

Students understand the icon and are familiar with the 'elements' of that skill: leadership, responsibility, respect and communication.


The constant mantra behind these skills is all to do with employability. On the school display boards and corridors are endless posters stating 'TRICS bring you employability'. Looking at the Team Learning skill - what employer isn't going to want these qualities in their workforce?

As a result, our students understand the importance of TRICS. They realise that like any skill - kicking a football, winning on a PlayStation, playing the guitar - they only get better by practice.

Every time they engage in one of these four skills, they aren't just learning history, science or French. At the same time they are practising TRICS. And these skills can help demonstrate the qualities employers and colleges want.

We have been visited by HMI, QCA, and external researchers who have added to our own monitoring and evaluation processes. All evidence demonstrates a new readiness to learn by our students, greater confidence and self-esteem.

Three years ago, in the 'Pupil Attitude to Self and School' (PASS) survey, our students scored below national average against these criteria. Now they consistently score 'well above national average'. Exam results reach above national average standards too.

The 'spoon feeding' culture has gone. With improved self-esteem, confidence and readiness to learn has come a greater willingness to take risks. Motivation is massively improved. Our learners understand the curriculum more because they appreciate how the underlying elements of learning, such as research, problem-solving and presentationgiving help them in each subject.

Teachers' perspective

We have roughly 20 staff who teach Learning for Life lessons - many of them actually request to do so now. It gives them insights into how students learn, challenges them as teachers, and gives them new ideas to try out in their subject.

Staff have worked hard in the last two years to ensure TRICS are embedded in to all schemes of learning. Originally we printed coloured stickers that could be stuck onto paper documentation, to save time and workload. Now electronic icons are used instead.

Getting Learning for Life off the ground required a lot of commitment from staff. They are asked to deliver two tutorial sessions per week (20 minutes per session) using the resources we have created for them.

While there may initially have been some disgruntled responses to this initiative, we found staff accepted the change when they saw the impact on students and realised it didn't require a lot of work from them. Tutorial sessions have become calmer because they have purpose and teachers have been able to see the benefit in their subjects.

However the real key to getting staff to accept and succeed in this initiative was training.

It lies at the core of the work we do with other schools too. Learning for Life is not just a catalogue of resources. It begins with training staff to accept the mindsets that go with it, to look at learning beyond their subject parameters. For some people it means travelling outside of their comfort zone.

Our partners, Student Coaching Ltd, were vital in this aspect. They led the training of our staff initially, inspired everyone and got them to see how straight forward it all is. Now they do the same thing with the schools who adopt the course.

While all schools are different, we have seen that Learning for Life can work in other schools. All the schools in our local consortium in south-west Birmingham now use it. They are beginning to find the same success.

Furthermore we have a common approach to learning since we, as teachers, have a shared language too. The same is true for strategic solutions: we are able to ensure delivery of Aim Higher and a common approach to the 14-19 curriculum.

The secret has been in finding an holistic approach to learning which ensures students understand the reason for these 'dimensions' being in their curriculum, that it will help their development as citizens and learners. Combining this holistic approach with the way we have made learning explicit, through our interpretation of PLTS, has created a coherence all our students understand.

Phil Parker is assistant head at Colmers School in Birmingham, currently seconded to the South-West Birmingham 14-19 working party.

Further information...
Elements of the Team Leader skill

Leadership. Students may be required to take the initiative and lead their team but may be as likely to follow the leadership of others.

Responsibility. There is no sitting back and leaving the work to the boffins in their team. Team learning requires everyone to do their bit, to commit to carrying out the workload of the role they have accepted. In English a student may be chairperson, editor or scribe. History includes these roles and adds others, like investigator or evaluator.

Respect. Team learning needs everyone to be socially sophisticated. This doesn't happen overnight but it begins by recognising the rights of other people and respecting their opinions. Respect also requires students to listen.

Communication. Team learning requires sharing of ideas, persuading others to accept a perspective and explaining the thinking behind ideas. It is a complex skill but it starts with the knowledge that communication is not just about words. We teach in Learning for Life lessons explicitly how communication works - how we signal to others non-verbally, how our choice of words will imply one thing rather than another.

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