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Lingering in the learning: integrating transferable skills into teaching practice and school culture

| September 9, 2019 | 0 Comments


Just by being a teacher, you are making the claim that you know something about the world that a young person also needs to know to survive and thrive in the future.

You’re saying you know something that can help them explore, discover, develop and actualise their potential. How do we arrive at our understanding of what this ‘something’ is? Many schools are beginning to realise that preparing their students for matric exams is not the same as empowering them to create productive, meaningful and satisfying lives. The way we teach and assess tends to value a very narrow set of skills that neglect many of the things our students need to succeed in the knowledge economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Moving beyond the curriculum

At King David Linksfield in Johannesburg, we recognise the need to go beyond the content of the curriculum, beyond what it assumes students need to know, towards grappling with how we know anything. Humankind’s collective knowledge is, in any case, changing faster than we can integrate it into curricula. We are now being challenged to enable students to become producers of knowledge, not just consumers or reproducers of knowledge. This means finding space within all the daily pressures to stop what we are doing, and to make the effort to develop a more critical understanding of the skills that are being valued in a changing world. This requires a shift of focus from predetermined content to the transferable skills that students can use to grapple with any content in any context. These are the skills that will be marketable in a future where machines are better at memorising content and implementing predetermined procedures than we are. These are the skills that will be the most useful when working together to solve the challenges that face our planet. These are the skills that enable students to become agents of their own knowledge production and to participate actively in democratic processes. International best practices are driving a move beyond learning as memorising information towards seeing learning as actively exploring, organising, interpreting and manipulating information through the use of critical thinking, an attitude of experimentation, practical techniques for innovation, clear communication and dynamic collaboration. These are sometimes referred to as 21st century skills. They equip students to become highly adaptive problem-solvers, innovators, entrepreneurs, active citizens and critical consumers. What is important to stress is that this approach also involves a greater diversity of dispositions in students, building on their individual strengths and interests, recognising their learning needs and affirming their agency. As a result, more students get to participate with enthusiasm in, and enjoy greater benefits from, the learning experience. Instead of coaching for examinations, we are empowering students to explore all life’s possibilities with real-world skills and confidence.

A shift in methodology

It is challenging to have one foot in the past – when compliance to narrow, predictable, standardised curricula was emphasised – and one foot in the future – where being able to use a wide diversity of skills to adapt to change will be emphasised. This is especially difficult when the distance between these two perspectives is growing fast. On the one hand, King David Linksfield wants to maintain its reputation for helping students gain entrance into competitive university courses (remaining sceptical of the current process). On the other hand, we are also committed to integrating those international best practices that have been shown to be successful at preparing students both for tertiary education and for creating sustainable, meaningful and satisfying lives. A shift in methodology like this inevitably challenges parents’ expectations. Carrying the parents with you on this journey is vital. Our experience has shown us that a school does not have to abandon its academic excellence to interrogate the assumptions associated with it, and to integrate a focus on a wider range of transferable skills that are not traditionally associated with academic success.

Starting with Grades 8 and 9

We decided that we would begin integrating transferable skills deliberately by making more strategic use of opportunities in Grades 8 and 9. Without the looming pressure of matric, it is in these grades that we can explore new techniques. We worked together with our friends and collaborators, MindBurst Workshop,1 to explore project-based learning techniques that optimise the exploration, discovery and practice of these skills. Our process started with a project-based learning initiative with Grade 9 in 2016. This was expanded to include Grade 8s in 2017. In both instances, students worked together over a number of weeks to conceptualise and curate immersive, threedimensional and multisensorial exhibitions. Students explored skills they don’t often get to experience in the classroom, such as formulating engaging and open-ended questions for which there are no correct answers; digging deep into ethical dilemmas; creating their own methodologies and procedures; and persevering together with a group for a long period of time to complete a complex, multi-layered task. Teachers were asked to make critical observations and to extract the design skills and facilitation skills they felt they could use in their classrooms. The next step in 2018 was to integrate project-based learning techniques into the classroom. Part of meeting this challenge was the decision to cut down on the huge amount of content that has to be covered (and that is inevitably covered speedily and superficially). To create the space and time needed for deeper engagement, we asked, ‘What content can be cut out without sacrificing any knowledge and skills necessary in the further education and training (FET) phase?’2 Teachers were challenged to cut two thirds of their curricula and focus on the third they were most passionate about. In this way, we created space in the timetable for a deeper and more complex engagement that encouraged students to explore and practise transferable skills. This created opportunities for students to go deeper and engage the complexity of the real world. As Howard Gardner put it, ‘Cover less and uncover more’.3 Or as Seth Godin puts it, we need to ‘connect the dots’ rather than ‘collect the dots’.4 Collecting the dots is obviously more predictable and easier to assess. Connecting the dots is not. We didn’t interfere with what we considered as core subjects. The strategy (at least initially) focused on electives that students could choose. Teachers had to make sure that the project-based learning in their elective focused on real-world applications of the skills associated with their subject.

A two-year time frame

In this way, we ensured that for two years students would be able to focus their time, energy and attention on exploring and developing transferable skills. To this end, teachers were challenged to:

• instruct less and allow students to work things out for themselves

• ask more open-ended questions for which the answers are unknown

• focus on assessing transferable skills rather than assessing memory

• be explicit about the skills they are challenging students to explore and develop • give students choices that affirm their sense of agency

• allow students to participate in creating the criteria for assessment

• create more space for students to reflect on the process of learning itself

• go beyond abstract marks and give meaningful feedback that provides students with accurate information about where they are on a potential learning path

• be willing to experiment with a partial solution that will only grow as errors are identified and successes reinforced.

Creating opportunities for learning transferable skills is also about going slower and allowing students to linger in the learning to get more out of it. If students are going to have a meaningful learning experience, they have to be able to participate on their own terms, persevering with something difficult because they are intrinsically motivated to do it, rather than extrinsically motivated by marks, rankings and awards. Students need to:

• be stimulated by a question they experience as relevant

• respond to a challenge by starting with their own existing knowledge, ignorance and imagination

• do authentic research that is meaningful to them

• read deeply in a field of their own interest

• work in rough and then edit and adapt on the basis of feedback

• risk carefully designed experiments and reflect critically on the results

• give and receive feedback in dialogue with each other – according to co-created guidelines for productive dialogue

• make new and unexpected connections between different ideas, media, materials, technology, human resources and performances.

There were three assessment opportunities during the term: a written assessment, a presentation-based assessment and an assessment in which students had to work in teams to solve a challenge by making something. This ensured opportunities for assessing a wide diversity of skills. Each elective then ended with a six-hour assessment in which students had to use everything they had learned over the last six months to participate in responding to a complex challenge. The final assessment was itself a form of meaningful project-based learning on which students had to reflect. Students studying history, for example, had to make a stop frame animation about life in the trenches during World War I. Consumer study students had to create original fusion food by investigating recipes from two cultures, after which they had to create a popup stall and market their meal to students and teachers.

The challenge for teachers

Teachers were given permission to use the curriculum creatively and to create innovative project ideas that would genuinely stimulate students and empower them. This meant interrogating what we consider to be relevant knowledge. In the recent past, the real world happened after young people graduated from school. That is no longer the case. Young people are increasingly in the real world and have to make informed choices about their relationships with digital technology and social media, with consumerism, as well as with more dynamic possibilities with regard to sexuality, substance use, political affiliation and spirituality from a young age. In addition to this, the local and global challenges that face us (for example, human-caused climate change, loss of biodiversity, economic inequality, domestic violence, substance abuse, human trafficking and xenophobia) need to be understood at a younger age than ever before if we are going to prepare students to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The real challenge for teachers was identifying the transferable skills on which their project focused. Here our partnership with MindBurst Workshop was key. It offered ongoing personal support that boosted the confidence of teachers. It worked with individual departments to help them name the skills clearly, describe what would be seen in the classroom when students apply them successfully and how to assess them effectively. It also helped teachers to start creating their own rubrics that represented different stages of skills development to help them assess the students and give meaningful feedback to students about their learning paths. This process can feel overwhelming for some teachers. It is important that they are not afraid to fail and are willing to experiment with partial solutions and then slowly integrate insights into more fully developed strategies. This cannot be a topdown process. All staff members need to be involved in the ongoing conversation. The trick is to prioritise quick gains that can enthuse and inspire teachers, without losing sight of the bigger process of transformation.

Crossing the river

Schools used to be thought of as repositories of knowledge that could provide young people with the stepping stones they needed to make it across the river of uncertainty towards the opposite bank, where they would find an adult world of further learning and work. Today, there is only the river, more uncertain than ever, and the stepping stones need to be replaced with raw materials for building boats and submarines. Young people today need to learn how to make predictions about the future – and how to actively experiment and adapt when they cannot make predictions. The challenge is to go beyond the content of a specific subject and to enable students with the transferable skills they can use to engage any content in any context.

Lorraine Srage is the principal of King David High School, Linksfield. André Croucamp is the coordinator of the nonprofit organisation, MindBurst Workshop.


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Category: Spring 2019

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