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Juggling scarves is not such a silly idea

Teaching has to have transfer value if it is to encourage greater understanding, says Ian Smith.

Thinking is critically important in learning and in life. Gone are the days when psychologists told teachers that we ought not to worry about thinking: that we should focus on behaviour instead, because we can see it and we can't see thinking. We now recognise that the ability to help learners think for themselves when they are stuck, when they don't understand, when they don't know how to do something or when they can't handle their emotions, lies at the heart of what good teaching is about.

A Curriculum for Excellence recognises this. The capacities page includes "openness to new thinking and ideas", "thinking creatively and independently" and "solving problems".

But, in a way, the behaviourists had a point. It's difficult to know what other people are thinking or to know whether or how they have understood.

It's worse than that. Even today, despite advances in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, we don't really know how we think. So how on earth are teachers supposed to help pupils think more effectively? Well, there are shelves and shelves of advice around about how to do it.

Before we look at the advice, let's take a practical example of how difficult it can be to help other people to think. I have been teaching teachers to juggle scarves for many years (class sets now available from Learning Unlimited). I encourage, demonstrate, give a few instructions and then let them have a go, usually with help from a colleague I have fine-tuned the way I teach it over the years and normally achieve a high success rate, although quite a few people still tell me they "can't do it.....yet!"

The last two instructions I give before people have a go (and I emphasise these are most important to follow if they are to be successful) are "don't try" and "don't think about it".

A PE teacher came up to me recently after the activity and said: "See that last instruction about not thinking - you can't not think, you are just asking them to think in a different way." Found out at last! I am asking them to think, but in a particular way - not about the steps involved in juggling, but about the whole picture.

There are a number of reasons for telling this story. The first is that you can help other people to think, but it means thinking carefully about how you teach.

Second, there are different ways to think, some of which are more appropriate in some situations than others. If I was teaching people to juggle balls, I would probably do it differently, for example.

Third, people have different preferred ways of thinking: many teachers find it impossible not to think analytically when trying to juggle scarves.

The most important lessons I want to draw out from this story, however, are about joined-up thinking. Other teachers can learn techniques from PE teachers but, even more importantly, pupils need to apply the thinking techniques that they use in one situation to other situations in school and in life.

Transfer is one of the big challenges that A Curriculum for Excellence faces. The capacities statement talks about the need for pupils to be able to "link and apply different kinds of learning in new situations" and "apply critical thinking in new contexts". The authors recognised that thinking and learning, just like footballers, must have transfer value.

That's what the thinking skills programmes which have proliferated over the past 20 years claim to achieve - transfer value. But do they? I have spent a considerable amount of time over the past year looking at what has been written about these programmes and the claims they make. We have recently published Learning to Think: from teaching skills to developing minds, which seeks to analyse and summarise the advice about the teaching of thinking in 30 pages.

The stark conclusion I have come to is that there is very little robust unbiased evidence that teaching thinking as a separate subject automatically leads to transfer and there probably never will be. This does not mean to say, as Carol McGuinness (1999) puts it, that "the idea of thinking still has theoretical and instructional force". It does mean that we should put less emphasis on teaching techniques out of context and more on developing minds across the curriculum and in the context of the real world.

This requires a growing emphasis on teaching for understanding, both within subjects and curriculum areas. It implies being careful not to encourage students to see thinking simply as a skill that can be learnt out of context or to equate thinking with study skills that help pupils to prepare for examinations. It involves continuing to promote initiatives such as Assessment is For Learning and the Critical Skills Programme, which look at practical ways to give teaching transfer value.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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