Educational Fad: Personal, Learning And Thinking Skills (PLTS)

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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What life skills do children really need?

Once upon a time we were told that ‘Personal, learning and thinking skills’ (PLTS) was the answer. It provided teachers and students with a neat framework describing the qualities and skills needed for success in learning and life.

Life skills are context-dependent. What we ‘need’ can be considered essential in one environment but next to useless in another. The only universal life skill we all need is staying alive.

The very ‘Western’ way of looking at the world has meant we have lapped up initiatives like PLTS and then spat them back out again. In this case, we have squirrelled them away and put them in the National Archives for a rainy day. Since then various other ‘models’ for living have mushroomed and fallen into the ‘character education’ trend.

Life skills are partly related to what you want to ‘get’ from life.

Not everyone will function as a team player nor should they aspire to be – lots of successful people work as independent spirits, mavericks and solo agents that vomit at the idea of working in a nest of others. A team isn’t a team just because you call it one.

John Maxwell (2002) said that “teamwork makes the dream work” which has a catchy feel to it but not everyone fits this mould.

Some teams do work well and some are just nightmares. We can value teamwork but we shouldn’t elevate its status above other ways of working – not all students are happy to be ‘in a team’.

Apparently, the PLTS framework had been “developed and refined over a number of years in consultation with employers, parents, schools, students and the wider public.”

Okay, not sure who these folks were but its unlikely that religious leaders, refugees, the Winston Churchill archives or the Rocky films were consulted but the end-result was a framework comprises six groups of skills:

  • independent enquirers
  • creative thinkers
  • reflective learners
  • team workers
  • self-managers
  • effective participants

These then were all we needed to produce amazing people fit for anything, especially the 21st Century. Well, that was until someone noticed that in the US students were full of ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ – “Hey, we need some of that as well!” – so that was thrown into the pot.

On The Bounce

Resilience is word of the moment and has been for a while now.

It’s probably one of the most overrated and over-used(and misspelled) words in our schools and spread over any situation or conversation where failure or mistakes have been made.

It’s a particularly good word to use when your school team have lost a netball match 8-1 because you can say that “everyone showed remarkable resilience” and never gave up.

But being resilient is not good enough – you have to work out whether you display ‘chameleon resilience’ or ‘caterpillar resilience’. Apparently, resilient types don’t “bounce back but spring forward“.

But worry not a new answer to human happiness has been found.

Experts at University College, London think they have found the five life skills which bring health, wealth and success. Here they are everyone:

  1. Emotional stability
  2. Determination
  3. Control
  4. Optimism
  5. Conscientiousness

Their research sounds like we all just need to calm down and focus on these things. They looked at data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing which has followed more than 8,000 middle-aged Britons for the past 11 years. What they found was that just 3% of people who scored highly for all the above attributes had symptoms of severe depression compared with 22% of people who had a low number of life skills.

Not convinced? No, you shouldn’t be. The researchers point out,

“The concept of life skill embraces several aspects of personal capability, and not all were assessed here. We did not have measures of social skills, empathy, or self-efficacy that are commonly regarded as relevant skills.”

Drat, that means the five life skills could actually be 25, 50 or 500.

Forget It

Life skills can’t be dictated or served up as a lesson of ‘must-haves’ and we should not be buying into provisions that promote them. You might as well pluck a motivational comment out of thin air and stick by that. Talking of which, one of my favourites is:  “Avoid spending heavyweight time with lightweight people. An eagle that hangs around with chickens will never fly.”

If only we knew the secret for adulthood, teaching and successful relationships too? Nice idea, but impossible to put a framework in place to determine the skills a child needs to become successful.

What other Fads have you wasted your time on? Read 20 Years of Educational Fads to find out.

2 thoughts on “Educational Fad: Personal, Learning And Thinking Skills (PLTS)

  1. How do we then prepare our students for a life outside of school? I agree with the need to be critically reflecting on ‘fads’ but do we just throw out the idea of life skills because the research isn’t water tight?

  2. How to prepare them for life outside school? Not with life skills as mentioned. Make sure they can read really well and have committed to their very being as much as possible of that knowledge society deems useful and important e.g. Shakespeare, a factual grounding in history of their own country and some history of other places, a wide range of reading of classic texts, knowledge of mythology, legends of their own and other countries (notably ancient Greece), knowledge of the religion that has formed their society and how the politics of their society works. Scientific knowledge (not just how to do an experiment and write it up). Understand maths and be able to do some of it. Sorry if it all sounds a bit ‘dead, white males’ but if you want your students to get anywhere and be able to critique any of that knowledge then they have to have that knowledge.

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