Learning For Life: An introduction to Power Skills and Applied Learning at Aspirations Academies Trust

Aspirations Academies Trust is embedding Applied Learning and Power Skills across its curriculum, preparing students for real-world challenges through innovative projects and interdisciplinary approaches.

By Prerna Patel and Emma Wilding, Aspirations Academies

We are a Trust of 16 schools, including primary, secondary, two all-through schools and two studio schools, based in three regions: West London, the South Coast and South Central England. We serve the most disadvantaged children in our communities in places of high socio-economic deprivation. Over the last 5 Years, we have been on a journey to embed Applied Learning across the curriculum in our schools to ensure that we give our learners the essential skills and preparation required for the real world.

What is Aspirations Academies Trust approach to Applied Learning?

Applied Learning at Aspirations Academies Trust provides students with opportunities to apply subject learning to real-world problems. The focus is on developing skills which students will need for life, such as character development, collaboration, communication, critical thinking and complex problem solving. These are essential in a world where the ever-increasing pace of technological developments means these ‘Power Skills’ will only continue to bear greater importance.

Applied Learning assignments start with a ‘driving question’, for example ‘How can we understand climate change in order to initiate eco-friendly practices at our academy?’ These questions provide students and teachers with a learning purpose. They are engaging and open-ended and have several possible solutions. They also immerse students in a problem that may affect their current and future lives. In answering them, students are taught to apply and grow their Power Skills, just as they will need to use them in their future workplaces.

The projects that students embark upon contain many different elements and they curate evidence from multiple sources alongside learning. Projects usually last six weeks and are interdisciplinary. Digital elements are always included to develop the digital literacy and fluency that will be needed in the future. This approach to learning encourages curiosity which is so important for engagement.

At the end of the project there is a presentation or performance to an audience. This makes learning more authentic and meaningful.

Each assignment consists of:

  • A driving question
  • A starting point asking what students know, need to know and where they can find information to help them
  • Clear subject learning targets
  • Strands of one or two skills weaved into the assignment, which are formatively assessed throughout the assignment.

What are Power Skills?

At Aspirations Academies Trust, we have used extensive research undertaken by the Hewlett Packard Foundation – and developed further by the Deeper Learning Foundation – as our starting point for determining what robust learning progressions for skill development looks like.

The five Power Skill areas are:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking
  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Character (Learning how to Learn)

Every skill is broken down into several strands; each of which has a long-term transfer goal. Staff at Aspirations Academies collaboratively developed and defined learning progressions, which provide observable performance indicators as to what progressive development toward each long-term transfer goal looks like.

How is the Trust beginning to introduce Power Skills?

At Aspirations, Power Skills are taught explicitly through Applied Learning assignments across our primary curriculums and within Applied Learning sessions at secondary school. Currently, we are experimenting and innovating with how best to teach the skills in ways which replicate workplace situations. These skills are given equal importance as subject discipline goals so that we are developing the whole student.

This year, in order to have wider impact at secondary school, we launched the Power Skills in all our 16 academies so that staff teams could have time to understand what the skill strands are and begin to trial skill development in single subject teaching.

Our learnings & next steps

When we first began developing Applied Learning in our primary schools, we started planning assignments which used careers and employability as a way to give learning a purpose. After some time, it became clear that this was resulting in assignments where pupils were role-playing jobs such as an archaeologist or TV producer to create an attractive product, but without any real development of skills.

This is an easy trap to fall into – we are often so used to having something to ‘show off’ to parents at the end of each term – and made us go back to our assignments and reconsider the outcomes of each one. Stripping them back to ensure that pupils are producing something more in line with the realities of future workplaces eg. presentations, pitches, interviews, problem-solving scenarios etc, and connected to Power Skill development. Teachers now have more time and space to feedback and encourage pupils to reflect on their progress in Power Skills.

Applied Learning has been a learning journey in our secondary schools as well. One of the biggest challenges we face is how we can collaborate with colleagues across different disciplines within the current organisation of the school. In some schools, we timetabled joint planning within the school day, which allowed different subject teachers to plan assignments together. In other schools, this is a challenge that is still being considered. Teacher training in the Applied Learning approach is key to its implementation and further development.

As a next step, we are developing a training programme for Applied Learning, so that new and current staff receive clear and focused CPD on this approach to teaching and assessment. We intend for all staff across the Trust to have a secure understanding of the Power Skills and feel confident in embedding these within their lessons, whether these be assignment focused or single subjects.

We are excited to see what the journey holds as we go on exploring and innovating with skill development, including capturing and showcasing evidence in a learner profile, and look forward to seeing a real difference in our students as they go out into the world.

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