The Learning Continuum


A skills-led approach to teaching allows learners to transcend key stage barriers and shows students how to learn. Phil Parker explains.

Okay, I confess. I’m a fan of Star Trek. I mention my predilection only because it will help explain the concept I’m about to talk about. 

It’s Star Trek that first introduced the term “continuum” to me – the idea of time being linear. Shouldn’t a student’s progress be seen that way, as he or she makes their journey through compulsory education? Well it isn’t. Instead we break it up into arbitrary chunks called key stages.

Last week I worked with a partnership of schools and their local authority advisors to consider this issue. They want to adopt an approach to learning which is common to all their schools, one which encourages cross-phase collaboration.

They’re interested in the idea of a skills-led approach to learning because, with its emphasis on “process”, it can transcend key stage barriers. Teachers remain free to teach what needs to be taught – it’s the methodology which benefits from collaboration. 

I have previously described a skills-led approach to teaching and learning with a weaving metaphor. The content of what students need to learn is the weft. The method through which they learn it the warp. 

A skills-led approach to learning works. Why? Because students understand how to learn. They engage in the process far more and rely on teachers far less.

Now imagine how exciting that would be if they arrived at secondary school already equipped with those skills. They had been trained to think that way, they used the “language of learning” to communicate with teachers. Their perception of learning meant their emphasis was on “how” they learned – and they did this with an understanding of their own personal learning profile clearly understood. 

Most of the schools I work with have to start this process in year 7. However, in a “learning continuum” the process starts much sooner therefore the benefits pile up the older the learner gets. 

I’ve seen this continuum work first-hand and the outcomes are impressive. Transition is no longer a time of major change. Year 7 students don’t have to adjust to a different way of working. Students are greatly reassured that the approaches they used in the summer term in one school are applied in their next school in the autumn term. That reassurance breeds confidence and improves progress from day one.

What I also find exciting about this concept is the opportunity for teachers from different key stages to collaborate. It makes CPD even more meaningful because everyone, students and teachers alike, realises the importance of continuity. Like any good relay team, teachers can pass the baton smoothly because of their collaboration. 

One teacher in my training session summed it up well. She said: “The language of the skills are the words which we all use in our school all of the time, they’re not new. But it’s so powerful to have them headlined in this way so our children see the connection too. It means we all speak the same language. I think our parents will appreciate this too.”

I’ve seen training where primary and secondary teachers work together to explore how any given topic can be taught using skills. The content will differ but the way it’s taught remains the same. Teachers use the same, shared “language of learning” as their students. I love listening in to conversations between colleagues who work this way. It avoids the awful “us” and “them” that you can get in cross-phase developments.

So if your partnership or local authority is thinking about breaking down key stage barriers, I’d strongly recommend thinking about developing a “learning continuum” – you don’t even need to be a Star Trek fan to do it.

  • Phil Parker is an ex-senior leader of a successful school and is now a director of Student Coaching Ltd. Visit


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