Skip to main content

Mind how you know

Reva Klein reports from Wigan, where the arts make fertile ground for sowing thinking skills.

Picture a drama teacher proclaiming, hand on heart: "I'm not too worried about a polished performance; it's how the pupils have come up with their ideas that I'm interested in." Or an art teacher who says: "It's important that the students understand that these sessions are not about the final product but about reflecting on how they make decisions and listening to others' points of view." Or this from a music teacher: "Activities are planned so that you stop and question what the students are doing. You continually focus in on them and ask them what they've found."

These are teachers at Hawkley Hall High School in Wigan, taking part in a ground-breaking project that embeds thinking skills into arts subjects. The Wigan Arts Reasoning and Thinking Skills Project, an initiative run by the LEA and supported by North West Arts, is based on the CASE programme (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education), which stimulates the intellectual development of key stage 3 pupils using psychological models of learning (see box) and is presently in place in 13 schools in the area. Pioneered in the 1980s at King's College London, CASE has been shown to raise attainment across the curriculum.

In the Wigan project, art, music and drama are the vehicles for teaching thinking skills to Year 7 and 8 pupils. Over the two years, they attend 30 "intervention" or thinking skills lessons, 10 for each arts discipline interspersed so that they have one in each subject once a fortnight. While the rest of the time they attend their normal arts classes, the intervention lessons present pupils with challenging arts-related thinking exercises. They involve them in critical thinking, analysis, interaction and collaboration with peers, reflecting on their thought processes ("metacognition") and reasoning.

"By placing them in the arts, we're able to teach developmental thinking skills to mixed ability groups in non-threatening situations," says Nigel Leighton, Wigan's general adviser for the visual arts, "moving pupils along from lower to higher order thinking."

This approach has its challenges for pupils and teachers alike. Children are questioned continually about the way they are thinking about the problems they are given to work out. And halfway through each session, they are presented with a "spanner in the works" designed to turn their thinking on its head. Mental agility, creativity and lateral thinking are crucial.

Teachers also have to adopt some different ways of interacting with their classes. "A lot of it is what we do already as good arts practitioners," says Jane Petrie, head of music and, like the heads of the other art subjects, a participant in the project. "But the shift here is in questioning students and moving them forward. So the way you manage the classroom is slightly different. There is more time spent in discussion, with a lot of peer to peer discussion. At the same time it is highly structured."

An unexpected perk of the project has been the effect on teachers. Nigel Leighton says: "It's made them more reflective in their own teaching and has rejuvenated their approach to their subjects, inside and outside the intervention lessons."

For John Whitehead, head of visual arts at Hawkley Hall, the idea of intervention lessons was "scary. I thought 'how on earth can I deliver everything I have to?' But what happens is that in the process, you begin to question how prescriptively you've been teaching up until now".

Head of drama Stephen Alty was also dubious at first. "I thought 'no way are the students going to be able to do these things. It's asking too much of them'." But 18 months on since the project was first piloted at his school, he is a believer. "I can't wait to see these pupils when they get to Years 10 and 11 discussing their work in sophisticated ways because they've got these skills."

A Year 7 intervention lesson in action shows what has won him over. Following a carefully constructed lesson plan, he sets the agenda by making it clear that this is a "special brain-training lesson. Today I'm not too worried about the drama - it's the thinking we're concentrating on." He explains what a hypothesis is and that they will be constructing one based on a drama scenario in which they all get in role: he as Wigan chief of police and they as detectives, presented with the case of a woman reported missing by her husband. All they have to go on are the contents of her handbag (containing all sorts of things including scissors and glue), which police have found. In teams of five they must come up with a hypothesis of what kind of woman she was and what might have happened to her.

Then, half-way through, comes new evidence that overturns all their television and film-influenced hypotheses of murder: a blackmail note near her handbag made from newspaper cuttings. The aim of this, according to Stephen Alty, is to ensure that "they'll never jump to conclusions again".

The programme's impact on raising attainment in the arts and across the curriculum will be measured using standard assessment techniques and arts-specific tests.

Teachers involved had a day of training by members of Wigan's Arts Advisory and Support Service and will attend another in March, followed by ongoing professional development and support. Members of the original CASE team have been advising the Wigan project.

* The LEA is hosting a national conference on April 19. For information on the conference or the project, contact Lorna Pout, tel: 01942 255227 or Harry McLoughlin, e-mail: For teachers' packs, contact Harry McLoughlin.



THE theory of cognitive acceleration, pioneered at King's College London, draws on the cognitive development psychology theory in Piaget and Vygotsky's work on social psychology. It presents a picture of cognitive development as a highly social process that occurs when children are challenged by demands just beyond the limits of their capabilities. To do this, teachers need to push their pupils into a "discomfort zone" where they challenge each others' thinking. Central to this is the ability to think about your own thinking and to reflect on the abstractions within it.

According to the data on GCSE results analysed by CASE, pupils who were involved in the first cohort attained between 14 and 25 per cent higher grades A to C in science, maths and English than those who were not in the project.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you