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Birmingham's thinking gauntlet

WONDERING "why", asking questions and realising that any understanding is provisional, are the characteristics of successful managers. This is especially so in education - as these habits are at the heart of learning.

Outstanding teachers know all about the seven "question words" and how to sequence them in the four categories of fact, inference, surprise and (by deploying the devilish word "if") conditional hypothesis. These, and the rules of "pause" and "distribution", are meat and drink to teachers.

Most significantly, when teachers see their pupils use the questioning techniques for themselves they know they have provided the rod and line rather than the fish.

It is also why teachers in improving schools always observe each other teach, ensure job applicants are seen teaching and eliminate routine business from meetings to focus on their core function. They know that this perpetually refines their shared and deeper understanding of the higher practices of teaching and learning.

Small wonder that last week so many were at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre for the first large international "Thinking Skills" conference since the mid-Eighties. When thinking skills were last in vogue - and widely adopted in Somerset and Oxfordshire - they were promoted as part of the very first and tiny direct funding (then called an Education Support Grant) from Whitehall.

How we protested to the then Education Secretary Sir Keith Joseph about the principle of direct funding. Still, teaching thinking skills seemed safe enough so we swallowed our principles and the money. Thinking skills were not just safe: they helped transform the professional lives of the teachers, who embraced them with energy and imagination. There were impressive outcomes as exam results in the two counties accelerated in an unprecedented way .

Sice the first wave there have been three important developments. First, came the national curriculum. Ironically, at first it halted the teaching of thinking skills in its tracks and occupied every bit of teachers' time. Now it provides a framework within which thinking skills in each subject can be adopted in an integrated cross-curriculum way.

Second, Howard Gardner's theories of "multiple intelligences" have begun to be widely understood and seen to be applicable in the classroom. So it is not simply that schools can now assess a pupil's preferred learning style on entry to secondary school; they can also gauge the learner's relative strengths in the various intelligences. They then adapt the timetable and teaching programmes accordingly.

Third, the literacy and numeracy strategies are crying out for the application of thinking skills to the next stage of their development in primaries.

Last Friday Howard Gardner, simultaneously in Harvard Massachusetts and Birmingham thanks to video technology, engaged in a riveting conversation about the implications of his theories. Another speaker, Michael Barber, of the Department for Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit, spoke of pilot schemes for teaching these skills.

Since many Birmingham schools are already engaged in systematic school-wide use of higher-order thinking skills techniques, we threw down a challenge: Birmingham schools would outperform the improvement rate in his pilots. Why?

Is it because we trust our teachers who embrace thinking skills in their daily work? Do we think we have more thinking teachers who go beyond teaching "how" and "what" to reach the "why"? Or is it because we think teachers thrive on appreciation rather than prescription? Game on.

Professor Tim Brighouse is Birmingham's chief education officer.

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