P-p-picking up penguin lessons

Their life cycle in picture cards helps youngsters nurture creative thinking and tackle problems

an exercise which uses the sequences in the life cycle of penguins has proved useful in helping primary children learn about different ways to solve a problem.

Debra McGregor, a former British teacher now assistant professor at Central Connecticut State university, has spent several years examining how primary pupils' learn and how teachers can best encourage their cognitive processes. Just as some lessons will be structured to convey facts, she says, others should be deliberately structured to emphasise thinking .

Pupils should understand that what is expected of them is deliberation, rather than the arrival at a correct answer. Professor McGregor demonstrates this through an exercise in which she divides pupils into groups, and asks them to turn over, one by one, a series of cards, illustrating stages in the life-cycle of a penguin.

"It's good to mix boys and girls, because they have different life experiences, so interpret things differently," she says. "Often, children sit with mates, and friends tend to think the way you do. You want children to work with someone who's got different ideas, who isn't necessarily their friend."

By asking pupils to turn over one card at a time, Prof McGregor ensures that they use their imagination in forming hypotheses. For example, they must decide what a huddle of penguins are doing, without reference to an earlier picture showing that they are keeping eggs warm between their feet.

"If they (the pupils) turn all the cards over in one go, they can only enter into critical thinking: what's the right sequence?" she said.

"If they turn them over one at a time, they're thinking creatively: what could this be?"

But, she says, it is vital that teachers do not immediately tell pupils whether their suppositions are right or wrong. "It's the process of reasoning that matters," she said. "As long as it's logical and shows their thinking, it doesn't matter whether it's correct."

The greater the ambiguity, the more scope there is for discussion. If pupils feel as though they are solving a puzzle, the task will have a purpose. So the role of the teacher is to prepare them for thinking creatively, to structure the lesson, and to facilitate and monitor the thinking process.

Developing Thinking, Developing Learning, by Debra McGregor, published by Open University Press.

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