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Clever ways to make you really think

If you have been wondering about interesting exercises to develop pupils'

cognitive skills, now is the time for ACTS. Eleanor Caldwell reports

For Primary 5 and some Primary 7 pupils in East Ayrshire, meta-thinking is the order of the day. They are learning to think about thinking.

The Activating Children's Thinking Skills (ACTS) project offers structured approaches to key thinking processes, such as decision making, problem solving, comparing and contrasting and classification, and aims to infuse effective thinking skills into all areas of the curriculum.

The project, which has been devised by a team at Queen's University in Belfast, headed by Professor Carol McGuinness of the school of psychology, was first rolled out to Northern Irish primaries before being taken up by East Ayrshire with funding from the Scottish Executive's Future Learning and Teaching (FLaT) programme. It was introduced in October, with one teacher at each of the 15 participating schools attending a series of training sessions led by Prof McGuinness.

Mauchline Primary teacher Annie McLelland says: "It encourages co-operation in groups and is a leveller as all children can, and have to, contribute."

Her P7 pupils are keen to talk about their new way of learning. For decision making exercises, they explain, they work in groups of three or four, with one pupil acting as scribe, and take a systematic approach based on a framework of questioning their options. They have tackled a variety of issues, from the curricular to the personal (coping with bullying) and the organisational (transforming a school hut into a changing room). They consider: what are the options? What are the pros and cons? What is the collective choice? Why is this the best one?

It is a fundamental principle that all ideas are listened to and noted. One boy says: "Assigning roles is a good thing. It makes you proud of your ideas when you're reporting back to the class."

For a comparing and contrasting exercise, one group says, they looked at two Halloween poems and looked for patterns of differences and similarities, such as genre, types of text and illustrations, and drew conclusions from these. "It made us think more clearly about what we were supposed to be doing," says one girl.

A study of Picasso's work gave an opportunity to use classification thinking skills. The children used a tabulated framework to note the qualities of different paintings, such as multicolour or monochromatic, pale or vibrant. This resulted in a chart on which they could base later work.

"The sheet being laid out as a table really helped," says another girl. "It gave us technical choices and it was easy to follow."

Specific exercises like these are based around the detailed description of an ACTS lesson. The training handbook contains a series of templates for different curricular areas which teachers can adapt for their own lessons.

A prominent wall display reminds the pupils of thinking words, such as "Guess", "What if ...", "We could ...", "Maybe ..." and "Similarities". Ms McLelland says these are now used routinely in general classroom work.

At Hurlford Primary, the P5 class is using E.B. White's novel Charlotte's Web as the basis for a decision making lesson. Working in trios, the children use the ACTS options assessment process - options, pros and cons, choice, justification - to discuss the fate of the runt of the litter in the story.

They work avidly and clearly have a variety of ideas. Teacher Eileen Inglis emphasises the importance of everyone listening to every group's options and she notes 13 on the classroom board. The more off-beat ideas, such as putting the pig into a circus, are neither criticised nor rejected.

Class discussion of the pros and cons of the ideas is politely heated and highly articulate. Children say "I actually quite disagree with what has just been said" and "I'd like to agree with the last point."

Mrs Inglis explains that some of the pupils have read the book and know the ending. However, they still have to consider other options and justify their own choice.

The P5s have also used ACTS in maths and environmental studies. The compare and contrast framework lets them examine different numbers and a structured odd-one-out exercise helped them to take a close look at minibeasts.

East Ayrshire's quality improvement officer Carole McConville is delighted with the project. "ACTS is so effective because it provides such a balanced framework and structure," she says. "Teachers must always be sure of the learning outcomes of their lessons. The children are responding well to the approach."

She hopes to extend the project to involve more teachers and schools. At Mauchline Primary, the P7 class is preparing to video some ACTS lessons to be used for future training.

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