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Act on the thought that counts

PUPILS CAN learn how to think and become better learners, Professor Carol McGuiness, of Queen's University, Belfast, told Scottish teachers last week.

For the greater part of the 20th century, educational theories and practice assumed thinking and reasoning abilities were fixed, but that was not conducive to teaching and learning, Britain's leading researcher on thinking skills told a conference in Dunblane.

"We now view learners as active processors of information. They can invent and reinvent, construct and reconstruct their own learning in dialogue with others. Not only can we learn how to think but by thinking we can improve our learning. It's a cyclical process," Professor McGuiness said.

Research revealed that active learning makes for better learning and that teachers had to be explicit in teaching pupils how to improve their thinking. They needed a framework to focus on high quality work.

But she cautioned: "You cannot expect higher quality thinking from routine tasks. For example, if you want children to learn about problem solving, you must give them problems with more than one right answer. If you want children to engage in decision-making then you must give them decisions or actions which are not obvious. They have to test their solutions against multiple criteria."

Even organising simple information tasks into too-clear structures could leave pupils with little to do. They could not impose meaning or order or show their ability to make patterns if teacher did everything for them. "Thinking is effortful," she suggested.

Professor McGuiness, who advises the Department for Education and Employment south of the border, urged teachers to make thinking more visible in classrooms by talking about it and creating time and opportunities. Pupils could work on paired problem solving or co-operative learning.

"We do this because we're trying to help learners manage their learning and if they can hear what other people have to say about their thinking they're better able to gain some mastery or control over their own learning," she continued.

But whatever form of cognitive acceleration method teachers used, they had to ensure the benefits of learning transferred to other areas of the school curriculum.

"One of the early critiques of some of these programmes was that pupils learned thinking skills but then went back to their maths or English lessons and continued their ordinary sort of learning," Professor McGuiness said.

She called for further studies to highlight how improved thinking skills can lead to higher attainment.

DIFFERENT KINDS OF THINKING

sequencing and ordering information

comparing and contrasting

making predictions and drawing conclusions - what happens if?

determining bias and reliability of evidence

generating new ideas

looking at logical reasoning - causes and effect

solving problems and thinking up different solutions

making decisions and generating options

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