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How to shape thinking skills

A new programme to boost problem solving in early years is being piloted in 15 primaries, reports Miranda Fettes

Ten nursery children are gathered around a table, eagerly sorting a collection of coloured triangles, squares and rectangles. Their next task is to arrange the shapes into groups of red, yellow and blue, then groups of large and small.

Other activities have included arranging sticks from shortest to longest, a clown game and a space board game.

The idea of the cognitive acceleration programme is to develop thinking and problem solving skills in early years children, in particular for science.

"Instead of teaching them a strategy, this is trying to embed the ability to problem-solve into the development of the brain," explains Margaret Thomson, a biology teacher at Perth Academy who is currently seconded as a science tutor for Perth and Kinross Council schools. Longforgan Primary, near Dundee, is one of 15 primaries in which Mrs Thomson is piloting the programme.

"Have you all got your brains on today?" she asks the children.

"Yes!" is the enthusiastic response.

The thinking skills programme is designed for use in P1, but Mrs Thomson and early years practitioner Wendy Ross decided to try it with older nursery children, feeling the four-year-olds would benefit from the series of tasks and activities. P1 children at the school have also been participating in the programme.

The results have been interesting, and unexpected.

In the activity in which children are asked to sort wooden blocks of various lengths, the nursery children looked at all the sticks, then arranged them in order. The P1s found it harder to order them, placing sticks in a row and moving them around by trial and error.

"The surprising thing is that the nursery children are more able to problem solve than P1," says headteacher Franca Reid. "The big question is why?

"Does the structure of P1 prevent them from thinking, whereas in nursery they play more; it encourages free thinking? With the structured timetable and the need to meet the 5-14 curriculum, are we inhibiting creativity?

"A Curriculum for Excellence is very much promoting thinking skills, citizenship, enterprise, but we still have to balance that with academic expectations.

"We are expected to get the average child through level A by the middle of P2. There's a conflict between the pressure to meet the curriculum and the children's development.

"It is possible that, by concentrating on the structure to get them through the 5-14 curriculum and national tests, we're not enabling them to develop thinking skills for themselves."

Mrs Thomson says the programme has been designed to aid P1 children's cognitive development from the pre-operational stage to concrete thinking.

"It's to develop the investigation skills of science."

Games, tasks and activities in the programme, which is designed for use with groups of six children, involve listening, remembering and identifying things, as well as classification, sorting and grouping.

"I try not to give them too much direction," explains Mrs Thomson. "In P1 they learn how to do what the teacher tells them to do. In nursery, they try things out and experiment all the time.

"Their brains are growing very fast at 4 to 5. They're assimilating so many things. You can see them organising and concentrating. There is a lot of research saying the cognitive acceleration programme does raise attainment later on."

At other schools, Mrs Thomson works with older primary children up to S2, following the Improving Science Education 5-14 guidelines, as well as tutoring S3-S6.

"I'm trying to get them to do practical work, not all worksheets," she says. Activities include behaviour experiments with worms, with P2 children.

As a headteacher, Mrs Reid is concerned primary children could be missing out on vital development of thinking skills due to a prescriptive education system.

"Are we challenging them enough?" she asks.

"Hopefully, A Curriculum for Excellence will allow for more flexibility and space in the overcrowded curriculum to do fun things, so they're learning without realising they're learning."

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