Ulster is concept-rich country. Pupils as young as eight are grappling with abstract matters as teachers join forces with researchers to develop children's thinking skills. Wendy Berliner reports
The class, looking smart in their uniform red sweatshirts, is quiet and expectant. All eyes are on Alyson Carson, the teacher. "We are going to think today," she says. The pupils' eyes don't flicker. "We are going to think about something today you are all experts in. We are going to think about schools."
These eight and nine-year-olds at Towerview school in Bangor, County Down, are part of a learning experiment to teach thinking skills to primary pupils in Northern Ireland. They started such lessons last September.
Today, the concept they are considering is how a whole can be split into parts.
The exercise begins with the class splitting into groups of four or five.
Each group appoints a scribe to write down their thoughts, a manager to make sure everyone is getting a say, a reporter who reads out their thoughts to the rest of the class, and a timer to make sure they keep to time limits.
First, the class holds a brainstorming session to choose the important people in a school. The ideas come thick and fast: teachers, friends, the principal, Tappy, a cartoon mouse who helps to encourage good behaviour. No one thinks of mentioning pupils. Next, they break into their groups for a few minutes to decide the four most important components. This time the cleaners and the parent-teacher association appear on the lists. Then each group chooses one component and imagines what school would be like if it was missing. They practise quickly, as a whole class, on what school would be like without cleaners.
"It would smell."
"It would be horrible."
"It would attract animals."
The group considering teachers has five children in it, two of whom struggle with written work. One of these, a boy, is staring into space while the three brightest are in earnest discussion. Suddenly, he bursts out: "We wouldn't do any work if they weren't here. They make sure we do our work." His fellow pupils agree and the group scribe writes down the idea.
That appears to be one of the beauties of this scheme when it is running well. The less able, freed from the constraints of having to write, find their voices and, thus, their self-esteem. Listening in on the tables, you can see that it is often the brightest children who produce the obvious ideas, and the less able the unusual ones.
The range of ideas is impressive and the children seem to like what they are doing. But Alyson Carson (pictured above) has to remind them that they are also integral to the school.
Towerview school is in an affluent district of a seaside town many Belfast commuters call home. Most of its 383 pupils are well above average: some years, 80 per cent of them qualify for grammar school, compared with a Northern Ireland average of less than a third. This is the third year the programme has been running here and it appears to be bearing fruit.
As Alyson Carson says: "I think the children are asking more questions in lessons. And when they are doing their research and using the internet, they are more willing to engage in independent work than in previous years."
The idea of the lessons is to improve test and examination results by infusing primary children with thinking skills through specially scripted lessons. The Sustainable Thinking Classrooms programme has been working with 1,100 children aged eight to 11 in 25 schools over three years. It reaches its conclusion this summer.
The work will then be evaluated by a team led by Professor Carol McGuinness at the school of psychology in Queen's University, Belfast. What she most wants to know is how much exposure children need to the specialised lessons for the skills to stick when they move on to classes or schools that might not share her interest in "thinking" classrooms.
Teachers are central to the project. Those taking part meet for five training days over a school year during which they learn to produce lessons that develop skills such as comparing and contrasting, and decision-making.
They use framework lesson plans but develop their own ideas within them to use in their classrooms. Then they report back to the next training day to analyse lessons with their colleagues.
So, for example, a lesson which looks at the parts that make up a whole might "dissect" a school, as the class at Towerview primary school did, but equally they could have chosen a hospital or an airport. It is the thinking skills the exercise generates that are important. The idea is to develop a pedagogy that gives children more autonomy.
Although the lessons aim to develop thinking skills, curriculum content can also be included. One of the lessons about choices involved the Irish Famine. Pupils were able to debate the pros and cons of the important choices faced by their 19th-century compatriots: whether to leave a starving country and face the unknown or stay and risk death. At the same time as confronting the dilemma, they are learning history.
Durham University's Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (Pips) scheme will be used to calculate the "value" that the project has added. But Professor McGuinness is confident that schools which have adopted the programme wholeheartedly will have improved key stage 2 and secondary-transfer test results.
"This is not going to make the children Einsteins," she says, "but it can help them to better manage their own thinking and to think more explicitly about how to approach a task. It will give them a tool box to work with."
The results at Towerview are impressive, but is the project successful here because of the school's obvious advantages? Not if the experiences of Christ the King primary in Ballynahinch, in a rural swathe south of Belfast, is any guide.
Christ the King is in the second year of the project. Less affluent than Towerview, and set back from a road with only sheep and passing cars to puncture the silence, it has 155 pupils coming by bus from a mixed rural catchment area. Around a quarter go on to grammar school and more than a quarter are on free meals.
Class teacher Rosaleen Kennedy says it took a few weeks to get the children used to working in groups. The time needed for the thinking skills lessons had also created some tension because there was so much curriculum to get through. "But it is good to see how much they are enjoying it," she adds.
"And they are starting to think better. It has surprised me how well some of the less able ones have done."
More information from www.sustainablethinkingclassrooms.qub.ac.uk. The project has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Teaching and Learning Research Programme, the UK's biggest-ever education research project. The DfES and Northern Ireland education and library boards have given further financial backing.